Tokyo’s reaction to the July 23 speech by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on “Communist China” seems to be ambivalent at best. The editorials of Japan’s major newspapers were divided, reflecting a lack of consensus among pundits and people at large in Japan on how to deal with the inevitable rise of China.
The liberal newspapers neither endorsed what Pompeo said nor criticized what Beijing has done, pretending to be as neutral as possible between the two great powers. Most conservative dailies, while agreeing with what Pompeo had proposed, only urged both China and the United States to stop further retaliation.
People in Tokyo seem to be puzzled. After the tit-for-tat closures of the consulate-generals in Houston and Chengdu, my phone kept ringing with questions such as: “Is the United States really serious?”; “How long will this last?”; “What would happen to the global economy?”; and “What should Japan do?”
I was also puzzled, if not disappointed, by the speech. Yes, it was good for Pompeo to state that “it’s time for a new grouping of like-minded nations, a new alliance of democracies” and “We, the freedom-loving nations of the world, must induce China to change.” I have no objection to such ideas.
The more important question is how we realize them. Despite Pompeo’s welcome call for a new international alliance to induce Beijing to change its behavior, his speech had several shortcomings from the perspective of a basic understanding of history and methodology in international politics. The following is my take.
The U.S. is crossing the Rubicon: That was my answer when asked on TV whether the U.S. was serious. Washington is crossing the Rubicon slowly but steadily. A Chinese scholar living in Japan told me that U.S.-China relations are moving from enmity to confrontation now. I agree.
That said, I didn’t anticipate the U.S. government’s decision to close the Chinese Consulate in Houston. To halt espionage by Chinese diplomats, they should be identified and deported as persona non grata, period. This means that the closure also has certain domestic political implications.
Calling China “Communist China”: This, of course, is for the U.S. presidential election. The Trump reelection team’s campaign narrative is obvious. Democrats are liberals and anarchists, socialists and communists, and therefore Democrat presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden, who has deep ties with China, should not be the next president.
Pompeo started criticizing the Chinese Communist Party in his “The China Challenge” speech of Oct. 30, 2019, a few months after Trump’s 2020 campaign was officially announced. Now he is using “Communist China,” a term from the Cold War era, for the same reasons.
U.S. President Richard Nixon did not start “engagement policy”: Pompeo’s speech has a major factual error. Although he stated that with the “historic trip to Beijing, President Nixon kicked off our engagement strategy,” it was not an engagement policy. What Nixon and national security adviser Henry Kissinger wanted was a rapprochement with Beijing to counterbalance Moscow.
What Washington tried then was to remind China’s leaders of the strategic threat posed by the Soviet Union and convince Beijing to normalize relations with the U.S. to jointly confront Moscow. This is called a diplomatic revolution. The ongoing U.S. engagement policies toward China started in the 1990s.
Why did the engagement policies fail?: After the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989 and the subsequent demise of the Soviet Union, the West had a dream — or an illusion — that capitalism and investment in China would create a civil society that would eventually create a democratic China. This, however, was a mistaken proposition.
Modernizing China: In his speech, Pompeo recognized “brave Chinese dissidents” Wang Dan, who “was a key student who has never stopped fighting for freedom for the Chinese people” and Wei Jingsheng, who “is the father of the Chinese democracy movement.” Both men were present in the audience.
The United States, however, is not the only country that helped to modernize China by assisting hundreds of young Chinese intellectuals. European nations and Japan welcomed and educated young Chinese people in the early 20th century. Had Pompeo referred to this history, his speech might have been better welcomed internationally.
Caring more about allies: In the speech, Pompeo called on other nations “to simply insist on reciprocity, to insist on transparency and accountability from the Chinese Communist Party.” This sounds noble but to form such a global coalition against China, Washington should pay more attention to its allies and friends.
Valuing alliance and fostering mutual trust have been and will continue to be key to establishing and maintaining a successful network of alliances. The Trump administration simply fails to do so. As Pompeo wisely stated in his speech, what matters most is not “plenty of words, but a change of “behaviors.”
How to change China: The biggest shortcoming of Pompeo’s speech is that it did not specify concrete measures to induce China to change. To change China, we must understand why China refuses to change itself. If we fail to identify these reasons, we will never be able to convince China’s leaders.
The reasons are probably multifold. While China is growing economically and militarily more powerful, ending the CCP’s leadership would only terminate the nation’s autocratic rule. The party’s legitimacy is declining and excessive dependency on nationalism will backfire and prevent China from making proper concessions.
If Chinese President Xi Jinping’s aggressive personality is not the main reason, the international community must convince the political leaders in Beijing that: a) China is not as powerful as they hope; b) political reforms will not kill the CCP; and c) nationalism is counterproductive and even suicidal in the long run.
This requires strategic consistency and enduring patience but the Trump administration seems to have neither.
Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.