(Originally published here in South China Morning Post on October 29, 2019.)
The bluster around US Vice-President Mike Pence’s China speech last week drowned out another China speech in Washington, which was more subtle but no less important.
In a keynote address honouring the 75th anniversary of the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), dean Eliot Cohen cited China’s arrival in international politics as one of the three most important geopolitical transformations since the school’s inception – the other two being the cold war and its dramatic conclusion.
Pence’s speech bounced between two opposite poles – hostility and outreach – more disorientingly than a schizophrenic on meth and, of course, got all the press.
Echoing the rhetoric of the anti-Beijing figures in President Donald Trump’s orbit – like Peter “Death by China” Navarro and former White House adviser Steve Bannon – Pence assailed the “political establishment” that remained “silent in the face of China’s economic aggression and human rights abuses”.
This is why it is worth contrasting Pence’s remarks with Cohen’s. Johns Hopkins SAIS is as establishment as it gets when it comes to American foreign policy.
For example, A. Doak Barnett headed Chinese studies at SAIS throughout most of the 1980s. A lifelong China hand who encouraged President Richard Nixon to open direct talks with Beijing, Barnett advocated taking a “containment without isolation” approach to China.
This strategy became and remained Washington’s default policy towards Beijing, surviving the turbulence of Tiananmen Square in 1989 and many other tests of the bilateral relationship.
That is, until China-bashing became the US Congress’ most popular bipartisan sport.
Trump started a fire of anger towards China as a winning campaign strategy, but he was unaware that, like a California hillside, the political environment had enough dry kindling to turn the flames into an unstoppable blaze.
With the president now trying to get ahead of Congress’ determination to pass laws that will antagonise Beijing, Pence said the US would stand with Hong Kong protesters and also hit all the points US lawmakers had been screaming about for months: intellectual property theft, fentanyl, and militarisation of the South China Sea.
Yet Pence also called for cooperation and engagement with Beijing because Trump is no doubt aware that the trade war he started with China last year will not help his 2020 election chances if it drags on indefinitely.
So Pence gave us two speeches laced together. One for those not smart enough to realise that Americans have been paying the punitive tariffs on goods from America’s largest supplier.
Another for Wall Street and the rest of the realists, who understand that iPhones can’t be manufactured in America without a reordering of the global supply chain so challenging and economically disruptive that few Americans would be able to afford the devices.
Trump has no foreign policy doctrine other than whatever position will help his image in the moment, and which is always packaged as “America first”. Because of this, he can’t figure out whether to satisfy the likes of Navarro, who are in an ideological war with the likes of Cohen, or find common ground with Beijing and forge a trade agreement that protects American intellectual property and national security.
Giving in to the former would be the fastest path to a war with China. A real one, with bullets and blood instead of tariffs and taunts. Satisfying the latter requires phenomenally deft statesmanship, a skill Trump couldn’t summon even if he wanted to.
That’s why Pence’s speech produced compelling headlines but cancelled itself out, while Cohen delivered a more sober assessment. The speech by the dean of SAIS represented a quiet determination to continue a foreign policy that connects back to the post-war effort to build a rules-based, liberal and democratic world order.
Without mentioning Trump or US lawmakers who have made China-bashing a priority, Cohen ended his speech lauding the US as “what is, and will remain, the most important and powerful liberal democracy in the world”.
During an interview with The New York Times in 1998, when President Bill Clinton was preparing for his first trip to China, “Barnett lamented the fact that the administration had lurched about on China policy so much that ‘there is still no political framework on which anyone can articulate a policy’”.
Mike Pence’s China speech is just a symptom of Donald Trump’s incoherent foreign policy, drowning out more rational voicesIf Barnett were alive today, his criticism of the current administration might be less diplomatic.