Chinese President Xi Jinping and then-US vice-president Joe Biden raise their glasses in a toast during a luncheon at the State Department in Washington on September 25, 2015. Image: Agencies / Pool

Sixteen months ago I wrote that China’s DF-21 missiles, J-20 stealth fighters, hypersonic weapons and aircraft carriers had America’s attention, but Beijing might add another awesome weapon to its arsenal: the R-2020.

 R-2020? The Restoration 2020. If Beijing waited 16 months and Trump lost the next election, we would see a restoration of the China hands whose policies had created the current difficulties with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). 

A letter was about to come out – placed in a major newspaper and signed by dozens of American Asia specialists, civilian and military – lambasting the Donald Trump administration for its allegedly counterproductive China policy.

Competing foreign policy approaches are nothing new in Washington. Nor are ill-tempered full-page ads in major newspapers. But in the case of that particular letter, one of the approaches to dealing with China could be vetted against 45 years of empirical evidence.

That made for grim findings. 

South China Sea

First, the South China Sea was – and still is now – under de facto Chinese control. And the People’s Republic of China had become a military power to be reckoned with – growing stronger as it continues the fastest, largest military build-up in history – despite facing no enemies.

Its military prowess had come to encompass outer space, cyber and sub-surface domains, and technologies that the US had once dominated. Chinese President Xi Jinping had declared the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) must be the world’s most powerful military by 2049. Nobody was laughing at him.

Chinese President Xi Jinping reviews a military display of Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy in the South China Sea on April 12, 2018. Photo: Xinhua

Second, China had become an economic powerhouse and predator with worldwide reach – playing by its own rules. It had been aided by US-enabled World Trade Organization entry and by American companies stampeding into the PRC market, regardless of cost or risk. 

Besides hollowing out America’s manufacturing base, that had led the US economy to become dangerously dependent on China. 

Third, rather than liberalizing, the PRC was a totalitarian state – backed up with advanced technology, some of it American – beyond Orwellian in its totalitarianism. And all this had happened before Donald Trump’s election.

This was not inevitable. Rather it was the result of lovingly-crafted policies by a couple of generations of so-called China hands who were convinced they knew China and how to “manage” its rise.

Signatures on the letter 

And they were itching to get back into government positions or positions of influence that abruptly – and, of course, unfairly – had been denied them upon Trump’s victory in the 2016 election. There were hints the restoration movement was gathering speed even before the letter appeared.

A month before its release, retired US diplomat Susan Thornton had delivered a speech in Shanghai telling the audience they would have to wait for the next election before things could be righted between the US and PRC.

Recall that Thornton had nearly become the State Department’s top Asia official in 2018 before tripping over charges of being too soft on China. 

Yet, within a year after retiring, she had gone to China and instructed the PRC government in how to foil American policy: Just wait a while and those nasty people who are upsetting you will be gone and replaced by more flexible, nuanced people to whom you were accustomed.

Retired US State Department official Susan Thornton. Image: Twitter

And not long before the letter came out a former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs had referred to Trump as an authoritarian leader akin to Xi.  Perhaps. But only on the day an American is tossed into a “black” prison for not having studied his mandatory daily dose of Donald Trump Thought.

This is the same gentleman the Chinese had suckered over Scarborough Shoal in 2012 – causing immense harm to US interests in Asia and especially in the South China Sea. He was reportedly in line for secretary of state under President Clinton, and now advises companies on dealing with China. Go figure.

And there is no shortage of companies, hedge funds and Wall Street firms eager for a restoration. They whine nonstop about trade war tariffs, but not about Uighurs in prison camps or a Nobel Prize winner being murdered via denial of medical care. 

And while Capitol Hill talks a good game on China, one sometimes wonders. More than a few prominent politicians and ex-politicians have financial ties to the PRC. The names John Boehner, Diane Feinstein, Mitch McConnell and even Joe Lieberman come to mind.

Joe Biden’s son Hunter certainly had such ties, even though the father has denied ever taking a dime from a foreign government.

What one never hears from the “restorationists” is: “I was wrong. No excuses. I’m sorry.”

The excuses

Instead it’s:

“China policy was never intended to transform the PRC.”

“Nobody could have foreseen what would happen.”

“We were all wrong” (and, therefore, nobody is to blame).

“There at least hasn’t been a war.”

“Couldn’t have been done any better.”

“Hindsight is 20/20” (although we castigated everyone who was telling us differently).

“This was all in fact a great success.”

And the old failsafe: “If we had treated China like an enemy, it would have become one.”

If the China we face today is the result of treating it like a “friend” and accommodating it at every turn one can scarcely imagine the PRC if America treated it like an “enemy.”

One wishes some administration had done so.

Terms of surrender

However, an American conceit was on display with the PRC: that if you extend the open hand of friendship and get the other guy to the table, any problem can be worked out. Maybe so, if dealing with Canadians, British and sometimes Frenchmen. 

But with the PRC, if one isn’t in a position of strength, willing to walk away and to fight if necessary, the only thing to “work out” is the terms of surrender. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump in a file photo. Image: YouTube

And that’s also what the much-discussed “Thucydides Trap” is all about. Give in to the PRC – there being no other alternative to thermonuclear war.

So when the restorationist letter appeared, the pedigrees, resumes and titles were impressive. 

But I thought it best to look at the results of their “productive” approach of the previous near-half century. In my view, a restoration would be cause for celebration only in Beijing.

In the 16 months since I wrote that article, I’ve watched for something – anything – to give me confidence that a different administration would continue defending American and free world interests against the PRC the way the Trump administration has done.

Although one hears that “getting tough with China” is now a bipartisan theme, I’ve not seen a shred of evidence to suggest that the term means the same thing in Biden circles as it does in Trump circles.

We may know soon enough.

Grant Newsham, a retired US Marine Corps officer and former US diplomat, currently is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies and the Center for Security Policy.