RARELY IN THE history of China’s contacts with the West have so many powerful people, in so many capitals, agreed that relations must be guided by the principle of fairness. When President Xi Jinping and his American counterpart, Donald Trump, give speeches that touch on Sino-American ties, the calls for mutual respect, shared benefits and avoiding double standards come thick and fast. The Europeans sound just as keen on fair play. In recent years the leaders of France, Germany and European Union institutions have led smaller powers in a sustained chorus, telling China that Europe is open for business, as long as it is on a basis of reciprocity. To quote France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, speaking in 2018 in the old caravan stop of Xi’an, the “new silk roads” proposed by China cannot run in only one direction.
A striking number of the ideas that fill officials’ speeches and the communiqués of summits come from the world of trade law. There is much talk of level playing-fields and non-discrimination. Yet a puzzle lurks. This focus on fairness is not making either side any happier. In the grim assessment of a veteran diplomat in Beijing, the last time that relations between China and the West were this bad was 1990, just a year after the crushing of democracy protests in Tiananmen Square.
In the face of this puzzle, Chaguan has two solutions to suggest. The first is that trade law is a flawed template for designing China policies. Trade lawyers are good at disputes between countries about mismatched import tariffs or airline landing rights. They are of less use in solving questions of high politics.
Earlier this month Mr Xi called on the Communist Party to strengthen its oversight over private companies. New party guidelines call for the creation of a vanguard of “private businesspeople who are reliable and useful at critical moments”. In such a China it is no longer a question of dry trade law whether Western businesses should seek “national treatment”, meaning the same market access conditions as Chinese ones. Should foreign firms want to be treated like Chinese ones, if that means giving party committees a management role and sharing sensitive data with the state?
These are not easy questions. At least rhetorically, Trump aides increasingly sound as if they have made up their minds. The attorney-general, William Barr, recently declared: “The ultimate ambition of China’s rulers isn’t to trade with the United States. It is to raid the United States.” Contemplating reported espionage against American universities and businesses, the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, accused the Communist Party of exploiting America’s “free and open society”. Follow that logic, and decoupling would make America safer than remaining open to Mr Xi’s China.
European governments disagree strongly. If America’s next president is Joe Biden, he will reject decoupling, too. Still, something durable has shifted in Western views of China. For most of the past 40 years, rich-world democratic governments believed that openness to China benefited them disproportionately. It is extraordinary to read a report from 2004 about reciprocity in military-to-military ties, produced by the RAND Corporation for the United States Air Force. This noted that American officers visiting China were always taken to the same showcase bases (often near the Great Wall or other tourist sites), while Chinese military delegations to America were allowed access to lots of sensitive units. Do not worry, several defence officials told RAND’s researchers: America enjoys such a “surplus of strength” that showing off to Chinese visitors is a form of deterrence.
Breezy arguments of this kind are not heard today. China is too well-armed for that. It is also far more assertive. “Wolf warrior” Chinese diplomats have threatened Western governments that they will suffer if they refuse to buy 5G kit from Chinese firms like Huawei. Rather than attack the United States head-on, China has mounted trade and diplomatic boycotts against American allies that it sees as doing America’s bidding. Targets have ranged from South Korea to Canada and Australia.
Alas, reciprocity is no cure-all, as the Trump administration is proving. All year, China and America have expelled each other’s journalists by the score. Mr Trump’s officials picked this fight after seeing an analogy with unfair trade practices, says an insider. There were many more Chinese journalists in America than vice versa, and it was easier for them to get visas. Since polite appeals to balance out visa numbers had not worked, those officials decided there was little to lose from getting tough. Team Trump was wrong, and major American news bureaus in China have been gutted by expulsions of their reporters. Demanding reciprocity can be a good way to highlight gross asymmetries. It loses its leverage when others have different priorities and interests. China has many ways to learn about America without sending its own state-controlled media there. Its rulers also have lots to gain by expelling reporters from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and other outlets with unrivalled records of investigative journalism in China.
How dare you say I’m threatening?
That American misjudgment points to the second way in which a quest for reciprocity, by itself, cannot fix relations with China. America could never win a race to the bottom on press freedoms with China, without betraying liberal values that presidents before Mr Trump, at least, have held dear. Without liberal values behind it, reciprocity means not much more than getting even. After all, “an eye for an eye” is a fair, if bleak, code of conduct. China struggles to see this distinction. Alarmed and enraged to realise how it is distrusted by Western countries, its diplomats and state media are lashing out and threatening retaliation on multiple fronts—or “legitimate countermeasures”, as China likes to put it. That version of reciprocity amounts to telling the world: “Stay open to China, or China will hurt you.” As long as that is China’s tone with the West, warm words about fairness will not solve much. ■
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “Tit for futile tat”