Restoring Reciprocity to U.S.-China Relations
After returning home last year, former Senator and Ambassador to China Max Baucus said the United States needed to take firm action to stop China from pushing the U.S. around. He also stated Washington needed to develop a long-term strategy to manage China’s rise. One year later, the U.S. government has yet to heed these warnings.
China is tough on other countries’ governments, companies, and its citizens at home, but expects and is frequently given far better treatment abroad. Consequently, inequality is a defining feature of U.S.-China relations. The U.S. needs to restore reciprocity to this relationship.
Reciprocity is the basis of strong, stable, and sustainable relations between countries. Yet, in diplomacy, economics, and cultural exchange, U.S.-China relations can hardly be described as equal. In the past, the United States chose to overlook problems in the name of deepening engagement and cooperation. As China grows wealthier, stronger, and more demanding, the U.S. can no longer afford the status quo. Restoring reciprocity has several distinct advantages.
Reciprocity will put both countries on equal diplomatic footing. The U.S. ambassador to China previously only had consistent access to deputy ministers. Meanwhile, the Chinese ambassador to the U.S. regularly could access higher level officials. If China tries to limit the access given to the U.S. ambassador this way again, the United States must impose the same limitations on the Chinese ambassador. Lifting them will be contingent on China doing the same. This will help U.S. ambassadors receive respect commensurate with their position as well as the access necessary to carry out their mission.
Reciprocity will level the economic playing field for American companies and workers. China’s policies privilege domestic firms at the expense of foreign ones. Examples include forced technology transfer, indigenous innovation requirements, and restrictions on investment in important sectors, such as biotechnology, robotics, and media. Chinese companies currently do not face similar barriers in the U.S. Washington should make full use of Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States reviews and trade law to rectify this discrepancy. This will provide Beijing with an incentive to change its policies and make true win-win cooperation easier to achieve.
Reciprocity will ensure cultural exchange occurs on equal terms. At present, Beijing operates more than 100 Confucius Institutes and over 500 Confucius Classrooms in the U.S. while Washington only has three American Centers in China. Beijing also often refuses to grant visas to American journalists, scholars, and civil society representatives who dare to challenge, contradict, or criticize the government and the Communist Party.
Needless to say, Washington does not treat Chinese counterparts the same way. From now on, the United States should slow the opening of further Confucius Institutes until Beijing agrees to abandon its current restrictions and initiate high-level talks on visa denial. These measures are tough but ultimately necessary to encourage equal exchange.
Doesn’t this amount to the United States unilaterally disrupting its relationship with China? No. China, not the U.S., decided long ago to reject reciprocity and its policies are the root cause of any disruption. American efforts are simply meant to correct these long-standing problems. Isn’t the U.S. undermining one of its most cherished characteristics, its openness? Again, no. The restrictions needed to restore reciprocity are only temporary, limited, and conditional. As soon as China agrees to treat Americans like the U.S. treats Chinese, openness will return in full force.
The United States needs to devote itself to restoring reciprocity. Not only do we need to take firm action to prevent China from pushing us around; such action is also part of a long-term strategy to manage China’s rise. Indeed, reciprocity will determine whether U.S.-China relations are defined by obstacles or openness, suspicion or stability, competition or cooperation.