Also, if yelling at and threatening a Chinese government were a shrewd way of changing its behavior, presumably it would have worked at some previous time in history. I’m not aware of such examples.
Q. So what does work?
A. Ah, you would ask.
There’s a reason certain problems are considered “hard” problems. Holding down health-care costs. Reducing gun violence, in a country that already has hundreds of millions of firearms and where people have radically different views about gun “rights.” Reducing the influence of misleading information and phony news.
Establishing the right long-term relationship with China is a genuinely hard problem. That was the point of the article I wrote late in 2016: Whoever led the U.S. government, with whatever set of policies on other issues, would have to deal with a China that was too big to ignore, too strong to insult, too valuable a potential partner (on issues ranging from climate change to North Korea) and too threatening a potential adversary to approach with anything other than a well thought-out plan.
The core of such a plan, I said, was trying to shape reality in ways that encouraged and discouraged various forms of Chinese behavior. The much-loathed Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, was one of those possible shaping tools. The TPP was the rare policy that Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders all opposed, but its idea was to ally the United States with enough other Pacific Rim trading nations to create a rule-based economic reality too great and influential for China to ignore. Long-term industrial strategies, like the one the Clinton administration applied (successfully) in the early 1990s to revive the U.S. info-tech industry relative to Japan, also can have effect—and can include precisely thought-through tariffs as part of their power. Different times and different details require ever-shifting strategies, but they have nothing in common with tweeted-out demands and threats.
It’s been 18 months since I wrote this passage, but I’d say more or less the same thing now:
Lectures and public scolding of China have no record of ever changing its government’s behavior; if anything, they make it worse.
What may work, however, is a strategy one former Western-country ambassador to China described as “shaping reality in a way that makes it unattractive for China to maintain its present course.” The clearest recent example involves the Chinese military’s hacking of U.S. corporate secrets.
A year ago [in 2015], when Xi Jinping visited Washington (just after Pope Francis, who drew more press and crowds), President Obama is widely believed to have informed him that the United States had had enough on this front. Government-on-government spying and hacking? Sure, that’s normal. But governmental spying on foreign companies, to help their domestic rivals, was different.
And if it didn’t stop, the U. S. government would find ways to make life more difficult for Chinese companies. Through use of America’s own formidable tools for cybermeddling? Through impediments to investments? Through shifts in visa policies for influential Chinese families and officials? Obama could leave the means to Xi’s imagination. It wasn’t specific, it wasn’t directly threatening, and it wasn’t public, but Obama’s talk was apparently effective. By most accounts, Chinese military hacking of U.S. corporations has decreased.
The hacking decreased then. (Last fall Wired ran a fascinating account of what changed, and what didn’t.) Public shouting and desk-pounding played absolutely no role in a quiet, coordinated, decisive plan to shape the reality within which the Chinese government made its choices.
If Chinese writers were putting this principle into a traditional chengyu, the four-character phrases that are popular vehicles for homilies and wisdom, they’d presumably work with the four characters meaning voice small, force great. Or, in turn-of-the-20th century American parlance, “speak softly, and carry a big stick.”
The tariff policy so far has been voice big, power small. Yell loudly, armed with a twig.