US President Donald Trump’s guiding principle in US-China relations is expressed by one of his favorite words: “reciprocity.” He says there was “far too little” of it before he occupied the White House.
Trump has most prominently and effectively applied his operating philosophy in the area of trade. Sometimes, reciprocity means “they do it, so we do it.” Other times, it is necessarily asymmetrical, rather than pure tit for tat.
We do not respond to intellectual property theft, for example, by stealing China’s trade secrets and technological know-how. Instead, tariffs serve nicely to punish China’s malignant behavior and potentially deter future offenses.
The Trump economic retaliation also includes banning important Chinese companies such as Huawei and ZTE from continuing their subversive technological advances into the US’ commerce and national security.
This week, the Trump administration extended its reciprocity doctrine to the realm of diplomacy. The US Department of State announced that, henceforth, the US would not be as generous and open-handed as it has been in allowing the free movement of Chinese officials within its borders.
Now, Chinese diplomats must notify the State Department before they contact a government official at any level, as well as before visits to public and private educational and research institutions, including national laboratories in US territories.
State Department officials say the change was made to reciprocate for similar rules that US diplomats face in China. However, Washington’s new rules are still less onerous than China’s, which require not only notification but prior approval.
This is akin to the exchange between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) following Trump’s 2016 conversation with President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文). Xi wanted veto power over any such future call, but Trump agreed only to notify him before talking with Tsai again.
So for now, Washington is applying partial reciprocity on the matter of Chinese diplomats’ movements in the US, with the hope that China would relax its rules to allow greater access for Americans in China.
However, unless the US imposes total reciprocity and tightens its own rules further, it cannot solve the problem the FBI has warned about: massive intellectual property theft by Chinese researchers in the US, particularly at universities. Nevertheless, it is a modest step in the right direction.
A related State Department decision a few days earlier reflected an asymmetrical use of sanctions to achieve a human rights objective. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the department would deny visas to Chinese officials implicated in the repression and criminal treatment of the Uighur population in Xinjiang.
A critical area where the US is far from reciprocity with China is in strategic communications and the information side of the bilateral competition. Beijing conducts extensive influence operations against Taiwan, the US and other Western democracies, taking full advantage of these open societies that support for the free flow of ideas. It also uses that vast access to present a distorted picture of the US and the West to its own population and to the rest of the world.
China systematically operates radio and television stations in the US, purchases space in US media, distributes English-language newspapers and pays to runs its own supplements in leading US newspapers.
Government-controlled China Central Television (CCTV) operates a state-of-the-art broadcast bureau in Washington as part of a recent major overseas expansion aimed at boosting China’s international influence. CCTV America produces news programs in English for an American audience. At the same time, it transmits back to the Chinese people Beijing’s official version of news and information from and about the US.
Xinhua news agency has expanded its overseas television operations. Known as CNC, the station broadcasts Chinese and English-language channels to more than 60 countries in the West and Asia. The Associated Press in Beijing reports that “the expansion aims to counter negative images of China, especially over issues such as human rights, one-party communist rule and China’s policies in the restive western regions of Xinjiang and Tibet.”
In contrast, the US has significantly cut back on its dissemination of news and information to Asia.
The US Agency for Global Media (formerly the Broadcasting Board of Governors), charged with managing and overseeing all US civilian international broadcasting, reduced its radio transmissions to China and Tibet, as well as Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam.
This is a far cry from the Cold War period, when the US Information Agency ensured that the country demonstrated its values by promulgating factual information and varied viewpoints to people trapped in repressive authoritarian societies with messages of truth and hope.
Today, Voice of America and Radio Free Asia are severely constrained by resources and timid US policies from challenging China with the truth, the West’s greatest weapon against tyranny.
With 100,000 local protests a year, China spends more on internal security than on its military, because it fears its own people more than any imagined external invader.
It does not want the Chinese people to know what is happening in Hong Kong or Xinjiang. A revived and vigorous Western information campaign would achieve a measure of informational reciprocity, exploit this Chinese communist vulnerability and avoid a disastrous shooting war.
In so doing, the West would turn the strategic tables and achieve the ultimate success advocated by the ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu (孫子) and today’s Chinese communists: winning without fighting. It was the way then-US president Ronald Reagan and the US won the first Cold War.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director in the office of the US secretary of defense. He is a fellow at the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies and a member of the advisory committee of the Global Taiwan Institute.
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