An Urban's Rural View

The Great China Debate

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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We've reached a moment in history when hardly a day passes without China being front-page news.

"Weak Chinese economic data sends world markets into a tizzy."

"Hong Kong protesters stir China intervention fears."

"Trump threatens new tariffs on Chinese goods."

"Trump suspends some new tariffs on Chinese goods."

Judging from the headlines, the Middle Kingdom, as the Chinese call their country, seems to be in the middle of just about everything these days. It's also in the middle of a U.S. foreign-policy debate that doesn't always make the headlines but is nonetheless important. The outcome of this debate will have big implications for U.S. ag exports.

On one thing both sides in the debate agree: China's behavior has taken a serious turn for the worse in recent years, becoming more repressive at home and more belligerent abroad. Where they differ is on the conclusions to draw from this change. They have diametrically opposed views about how Americans should think about China and how the U.S. should deal with it.

The debate has raged for some time now but it emerged in high relief in July when two groups of foreign-policy experts, each 100-plus strong, published open letters to President Donald Trump. The first, which appeared July 3 in the Washington Post, argues that "China is not an enemy" and to treat it as one will prove counterproductive. (…)

The second, in the Journal of Political Risk on July 18, refers to China as an existential threat and urges the president to "stay the course" and "defeat the PRC's global ambitions to suppress freedom and liberty." (…)

Both of these letters make important points. Neither is entirely persuasive.

The first does a better job, in my view, of describing China: a serious challenge, not an enemy or "existential threat." The letter disappoints in its prescription for how to deal with the Chinese challenge, which tries to straddle a line that may not be straddle-able. For example, it complains on the one hand that Washington's current "adversarial stance" weakens China's moderates while also urging the U.S. to "work with allies to maintain deterrence." Deterrence is something you do to adversaries.

The second letter overstates its case and comes across at times as a rant. For example, while it's true that China suppresses freedom of speech and religion and has threatened Taiwan, it's not true that under Communist Party rule China "is not and never has been a peaceful regime." And to say that the Chinese Communist Party "corrupts everything it touches" borders on hysteria.

Worse, the second letter is even more incoherent than the first on the "what to do about China" question. Stay the course, it urges the president, but beyond Trump's beloved tariffs you have to wonder what course the letter is talking about. The administration has been wildly inconsistent in its approach to China, tough one day, backing off the next. As former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd told a group of Americans recently, "At present you don't have a strategy. That's just a reality." (…)

On the other hand, the second letter is right in suggesting that "engagement" -- shorthand for U.S. China policy under the previous several administrations -- hasn't succeeded. The first letter fails to come to grips with that failure and explain how the kind of engagement it's proposing would differ.

The debate isn't finished but supporters of the second letter have what sportswriters call "momentum." They're gaining ground in Washington, both in the Trump administration and among many Democrats. U.S. public opinion has swung their way, with 60% of Americans now having an unfavorable view of China, up from 47% two years ago. (…)

The Committee on the Present Danger, which pushed for a hard line during the cold war, has been resurrected, this time to push for the overthrow of the Chinese Communist Party. (…)

Americans will ultimately decide for themselves which approach they prefer. Some farmers and ranchers will no doubt decide that a very hard line on China is best for the country. The dilemma they'll face is that it may not be best for their business. For the more the U.S. treats China as a full-blown enemy, the harder it will be to rebuild a market in China for American agricultural products. To echo Kevin Rudd, that's just a reality.

Urban Lehner can be reached at



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