Michael Swaine on the ‘China is not an enemy’ open letter


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The Washington Post recently published an open letter signed by five scholars and former government officials: M. Taylor Fravel, Stapleton Roy, Michael Swaine, Susan Thornton, and Ezra Vogel. The letter laid out seven main arguments for why the U.S. should not treat China as an enemy, and not surprisingly, the letter got a lot of pushback from more hawkish China-watchers. This week on Sinica, Kaiser and Jeremy talk to Michael Swaine, the primary author of the open letter, about the origins and intentions of the letter and the reactions to it. Michael is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

What to listen for on this week’s Sinica Podcast:

17:40: Michael expands on a point highlighted in the letter that was met with criticism from the wider community — “We do not believe Beijing is an economic enemy or an existential national security threat that must be confronted in every sphere” — which he says was “in part intended to try to get at [the] point that [China] is not a predatory economic entity, as the White House tends to describe it.” He acknowledges economic malfeasance by China, but pushes back on prevailing opinions on Pennsylvania Avenue regarding China’s approach to trade with the United States, noting that “of course, it’s based upon this one-dimensional, categorical, hair-on-fire notion that the Chinese are this predatory economic entity that’s out to screw everybody except themselves. It’s a fundamentally cartoonish depiction of what China is.”

27:27: What do Chinese leaders think of the United States leadership and its change of posture in the past few years? Michael speculates on where he thinks the Chinese bureaucracy’s mind is regarding foreign policy, arguing that, while there may be two highly polarized parties on either end of the spectrum, Xi Jinping lies somewhere between the two: “Xi Jinping may actually be in that middle ground, not in terms of domestic policy, but in terms of foreign policy. That is to say, he recognizes, or he thinks that, China can’t get out of the world, it can’t un-integrate from the world, it’s got to keep on trying to work with the world. And there are very concrete reasons why the United States and China, even though they may not like each other in terms of values and such, they have to cooperate.”

He goes on to explain the shock that the leadership felt from the policy shifts after the 2016 election: “The Chinese leadership were taken aback by the rapidity and the extremity of the shift in the Trump administration against China. They didn’t quite expect it. They didn’t see it coming.”

36:52: What of the U.S.-China relationship beyond the current era of Trump? What should U.S. policymakers and interlocutors be articulating to their counterparts in Beijing? Michael provides his view: “We from China, a country with whom we can engage on issues that are vital to both countries and the world, we want a China whose interests are going to be supportive of continued global economic growth and development, and we want a China who is not bellicose or intimidating, through military arms, its neighbors…and that it needs to work with other parts of the international order in order to establish a more common approach to these security issues, economic issues, et cetera,”

46:05: What is the most effective approach in the U.S.-China relationship? Has the West “created a monster,” as described by Janos Kornai in a recent Financial Times article, or is there a case for reciprocity? Michael says that we “need to implement policies that are more based upon the idea of mutual accommodation,” and emphasizes the “problematic” view that “there is no such thing as mutual accommodation with the Chinese, because the Chinese will take what you give and they will pocket it and give you absolutely nothing in return.” He adds, “I think the historical record does not support that.”


Jeremy: Read the letter ‘China is not an enemy’ in the Washington Post.

Michael: Check out the exhibit on the pre-Raphaelites in the United States, located in the National Gallery in Washington, or just check out some art in general.

Kaiser: The music of Anais Mitchell, a folk singer/songwriter, and the musical author behind the musical Hadestown.

This podcast was edited and produced by Kaiser Kuo and Jason MacRonald.