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When it comes to China-related issues in particular, supposed American experts who have long completely missed the mark have developed a head-exploding habit of assuming that they have anything useful to say on the matter going forward. Here’s a recent example.

Now these failed economic and foreign policy establishmentarians have hit new heights (or is is “depths”?) of chutzpah. As laid out in this article last week on FOREIGN POLICY magazine’s website, two typical figures are now attacking President Biden’s approach to the People’s Republic for taking too Trump-ian a turn, and blaming his alleged mistakes on learning the wrong lessons from the records of pre-Trump Presidents.

Whereas both the Biden and Trump teams, they write, have accused their predecessors of naively assuming that “engagement would lead to a democratic and cooperative China,” in fact, since the initial Nixon Era opening to Beijing, American leaders have fully understood that China’s democratization could never be a foregone conclusion, and have always “combined engagement with strategies to counterbalance China through alliances, trade agreements, and military power.” In other words, far from being disastrously pathetic failures, America’s pre-Trump China policies were actually as successful as was humanly possible,  And current leaders should emulate some of their principal choices. 

Even the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, they continue, which faced a China whose wealth and power had begun growing stunningly, had foreseen the possibility of Beijing turning more aggressive, and responded to warning signs exactly as events prescribed. Further, their decisions to stay on an engagement track as well were entirely shrewd and responsible. After all, major potential benefits could still plausibly be expected – because during those years, “the question of how China would use its growing power was open to shaping.”

Indeed, say authors Michael Green (a former Bush-ie) and Paul Haenle (previously both a Bush-ie and Obama-naut), a harder line at that time would have amounted to a policy of “strangling China” that also would have been opposed by major allies and the American people, “both of whom mainly saw China as a partner [and] would not have supported containment and decoupling.“

All that went wrong was that that darned current Chinese dictator Xi Jinping assumed power and, well, just ruined everything with his belligerently expansionist aims and actions, and his reversal of much Chinese economic liberalization. The 2008-09 financial crisis didn’t help, either, according to Geen and Haenle, because it convinced Beijing that “the West was declining and the East is rising.”

All the same, say Green and Haenle, the Biden administration should

>recognize that the two immediate pre-Trump presidents had the security side of China policy fundamentally right with their strategy of maintaining and strengthening U.S. alliances with major Asian countries (an odd recommendation since that’s what Mr. Biden is already trying to do); and

>on the economic side, “reconstruct some of the economic statecraft that underpinned U.S. strategies toward China in the past” – principally reviving the World Trade Organization (WTO) as “an important tool to hold China to account” for its predatory practices and joining the current version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which can “bring the weight of almost two-thirds of the world economy to the table in demanding reciprocal agreements from China” and “force Beijing to play by the rules or lose hundreds of billions of dollars in trade as tariffs and market barriers among the rule-abiding economies went down.”

But these arguments only strengthen the case that Green, Haenle and their ilk should be kept as far away as possible from U.S. policymaking toward China.

Regarding security issues, their contention that Bush-Obama hedging was responsible and understandable ignores all the ways in which China had been undercutting U.S. national security interests long before the Age of Xi began in 2012. For example, it played a key role in creating Iran’s nuclear weapons program starting in the mid-1980s. It’s been a major supporter of North Korea’s economy – and therefore an enabler of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons development for decades. And it’s beefed up its military presence in the South China Sea – including island grabs that violate international law – for nearly as long.

And Green and Haenle seem to need some improved calendar-reading skills, as financial crisis-borne hubris to which they attribute much of Beijing’s recent bellicosity dates from 2008-09 – three to four years before Xi became China’s top leader. Against this backdrop, it’s glaringly obvious that, judged by actual results, the various hedging statements and even counter-measures mentioned by Green and Haenle counted for exactly squadoosh.

In addition, there’s compelling evidence that the Chinese thought so, too. As I reported in 2018, a former U.S. Chief of Naval Operations (the Navy’s senior-most officer) has stated that his Chinese counterpart told him that “he thought the United States would have a more forceful reaction when China began” one of its key island-building phases during the former’s tenure – during the Obama years.

P.S. – this behavior doesn’t exactly jibe with the notion that Beijing was blown away by Bush-Obama alliance-rallying, either.    

If anything, the Bush and Obama China economic policies were worse, at least in terms of long-run security impact. Both presided virtually passively as

>China’s economic predation helped produce trade surpluses that put literally trillions of dollars at Beijing’s disposal to devote to its military buildup and prevent any guns versus butter tensions from emerging;

>China stole intellectual property seemingly at will, which supercharged weapons development, too; and

>U.S. multinational companies felt perfectly free to transfer cutting-edge defense-relevant technology to Chinese partners that were first and foremost agents of the Chinese state, and to teach perhaps hundreds of thousands of Chinese employees and students how to use this knowhow – and ultimately how to develop more on their own.

As for the authors’ economic recommendations, they’re simply laughable. The TPP, after all, contained a wide-open back door through which goods with lots of Chinese content could enter the proposed free trade – largely because none of the other TPP signatories wanted to disrupt production chains in which China plays a key role.

Meanwhile, that robust China-Asia/Pacific trade and investment, plus the difficulty that Mr. Biden has run into in mobilizing support outside Europe against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is telling all but the willfully deaf that the United States will suddenly become able to increase the WTO’s effectiveness against China’s mercantilism. 

As Green and Haenle suggest, being able to learn from both mistakes and successes is one of life’s most valuable skills.  Sadly, all that their article demontrates is either that they can’t tell the difference, or that they stubbornly refuse to.