Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon gather at the White House. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Countries often mark landmark anniversaries of their normalized relations. But instead of commemorating the 40th anniversary of their normalization of ties with fanfare, the United States and the People’s Republic of China are engaging in a multi-front conflict.

On January 1, 1979, the US officially switched diplomatic recognition from the Republic of China (ROC), or Taiwan, to the PRC. In announcing that decision two weeks earlier, president Jimmy Carter said the historic change he was announcing “will be of great long‐term benefit to the peoples of both our country and China.”

America’s 39th president also believed that the “normalization and expanded commercial and cultural relations that will bring will contribute to the well-being of our nation [and] to our own national interest.”

Such a belief led his successors to make other far-reaching decisions to deepen and widen relations with the PRC. One such decision, perhaps the most consequential one, was Bill Clinton’s strong support for China to join the World Trade Organization in 2001.

In a speech on the China Trade Bill in March 2000, America’s 42nd president highlighted a wide range of reasons to demonstrate why Washington’s support for China’s entry into the WTO “is about more than our economic interests; it is clearly in our larger national interest.”

For example, he firmly believed that its WTO admission “requires China to open its markets … to both our products and services in unprecedented new ways,” adding: “Of course, we’re going to continue our efforts not just to expand trade, but to expand it in a way that reinforces our fundamental values.”

Clinton, who talked tough on China on the campaign trail but acted softly after his election in 1992, admitted that the communist country’s membership in the WTO, “of course, will not create a free society in China overnight. But over time, I believe, it will move China faster and further in the right direction.”

This was because, he argued, by joining the global trade body, “China is not simply agreeing to import more of our products; it is agreeing to import one of democracy’s most cherished values: economic freedom. The more China liberalizes its economy, the more fully it will liberate the potential of its people – their initiative, their imagination, their remarkable spirit of enterprise. And when individuals have the power, not just to dream but to realize their dreams, they will demand a greater say.”

In that speech, Clinton also dismissed China’s attempts “to crack down on the Internet,” sarcastically wishing Chinese leaders “good luck” with their draconian effort to “nail jello to the wall.”

Overall, for Clinton and others who supported it, WTO access would help promote reform, accountability and openness in China.

For years after China’s WTO admission, US politicians remained optimistic, but they gradually became concerned about Beijing’s actions and ambitions

For years after China’s WTO admission, US politicians remained optimistic, but they gradually became concerned about Beijing’s actions and ambitions.

In a speech titled “Whither China: From Membership to Responsibility?” in 2005, Robert Zoellick, then US deputy secretary of state in the George W Bush administration, raised a number of Washington’s concerns, such as Beijing’s rapid military buildup and its lack of transparency in this area.

He also mentioned China’s mercantilism and “rampant theft of intellectual property” as well as the United States’ $162 billion bilateral trade deficit with China, warning that such a balance was unacceptable and that China “cannot take its access to the US market for granted” as “protectionist pressures are growing.”

In a rebuke to China’s lack of political reform, Zoellick likewise said: “Being born ethnically Chinese does not predispose people against democracy – just look at Taiwan’s vibrant politics.” He then stated: “Closed politics cannot be a permanent feature of Chinese society. It is simply not sustainable – as economic growth continues, better-off Chinese will want a greater say in their future, and pressure builds for political reform.”

American hopes that the PRC could liberalize not only economically, but also politically, and become a responsible global citizen have now been dashed.

America’s 2017 National Security Strategy, which labeled China as a revisionist authoritarian power, said: “For decades, US policy was rooted in the belief that support for China’s rise and for its integration into the postwar international order would liberalize China.” However, China now wants “to shape a world antithetical to US values and interests,” the Trump administration’s first NSS despondently acknowledged.

Among other actions and ambitions, according to the document, China “seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.” The Asian behemoth has also “expanded its power at the expense of the sovereignty of others … gathers and exploits data on an unrivaled scale and spreads features of its authoritarian system, including corruption and the use of surveillance” and “is building the most capable and well-funded military in the world, after our own.”

In remarks in Singapore last November, Henry Paulson, former US secretary of the Treasury, said a number of China’s behaviors, such as “its cyber practices and island building in the South China Sea, have fueled a new consensus in Washington that China is not just a strategic competitor but very possibly our major long-term adversary.”

In his view, the US played the decisive role in facilitating China’s entry into the WTO. “Yet 17 years after China entered the WTO, China still has not opened its economy to foreign competition in so many areas.”

China still “retains joint-venture requirements and ownership limits … uses technical standards, subsidies, licensing procedures, and regulation as non-tariff barriers to trade and investment. Nearly 20 years after entering the WTO, this is simply unacceptable,” the former official in the Bush Jr administration stressed.

“And this negative view of China unites politicians from both left and right who agree on nothing else,” Paulson added.

In his 2000 speech, Clinton said most of the critics of America’s – or more precisely, his administration’s – China WTO agreement “do not seriously question its economic benefits. They’re more likely to say things like this: China is a growing threat to Taiwan and its neighbors; we shouldn’t strengthen it. Or, China violates labor rights and human rights; we shouldn’t reward it. Or, China is a dangerous proliferator; we shouldn’t empower it.”

Those concerns about China’s actions in the political and security fields, such as its human-rights violations and aggression toward Taiwan, remain valid. But it is now deemed that the most serious damage that the China WTO agreement has caused to the US is economic as, since its WTO accession in 2001, China’s economy has grown rapidly at the expense of America’s.

Concerns about China’s actions in the political and security fields, such as its human-rights violations and aggression toward Taiwan, remain valid. But it is now deemed that the most serious damage that the China WTO agreement has caused to the US is economic

Thanks to the special treatment it has been granted as a “developing” nation at the Geneva-based organization and many other factors, such as Beijing’s unfair trade practices and policies, China’s exports – and, consequently, its gross domestic product – have rocketed after its admission. In 2001, China’s GDP stood at just US$1.34 trillion, while in 2018, it reached $13.61 trillion, increasing by 10 times.

The US goods trade deficit with China rose from $83.1 billion in 2001 to $419.2 billion in 2018, an increase of $336.1 billion.

While trade features prominently in the United States’ current tension with the Asian behemoth, it is only one of the many key issues where Washington is at odds with Beijing.

It’s worth noting that, while the US has still not held any events to mark the 40th anniversary of its normalized ties with the PRC, it sent a high-ranking delegation to Taipei last month to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) and the partnership between the US and Taiwan.

As highlighted by Paul Ryan, who led that delegation, “perplexed by president Carter’s announcement,” which “came as a complete surprise to almost everyone within the US government, including the entire Congress,” US lawmakers overwhelmingly passed the TRA.

Thanks to that landmark bill, the United States’ cooperation with the democratically governed island, including in defense and security areas, has strengthened on many levels, even though, officially, Washington has only maintained commercial, cultural and other non-official relations with its former ally since Carter’s decision to switch America’s allegiance from Taipei to Beijing.

As Washington’s relationship with the mainland has radically deteriorated, its cooperation with Taiwan has further thrived and become a cause for celebration. Early this year, the AIT, America’s de facto embassy in Taiwan, “launched a year-long campaign called AIT@40, which celebrates 40 years of friendship and partnership between the [US] and Taiwan since the signing of the TRA.”

America’s posture toward Taiwan and, consequently, vis-à-vis China, is shifting remarkably. This is one of many other signs that, under Donald Trump, its 45th president, America is not happy with the current state of its relations with the PRC and, accordingly, is seeking to revise or re-normalize it.

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