Prominent Republicans and numerous analysts are calling for a complete overhaul of China-US relations. This is understandable, especially given the fact that China has not provided accurate and timely information about COVID-19. It’s difficult to tell if this pandemic could have been avoided entirely. Still, the world could have avoided much of the human and economic costs if China has been forthright about its experience with the coronavirus early on. However, the ongoing crisis points to problems that have existed for years. Readers of this blog should be very familiar with them.
China started opening its economy almost a half-century ago. Its leaders have embraced a form of quasi-capitalism ever since, but the state remains firmly in charge. Beijing owns part or all of many Chinese companies, limits foreign access to many of its industries, and frequently manipulates the value of its currency. But China hasn’t grown because it has found a magical middle ground between socialism and free enterprise. China has grown rapidly because it’s better to incorporate some principles of free enterprise than reject all of them.
President Trump deserves credit for addressing important trade issues with China. Previous presidents talked a good game, but he wasn’t afraid to act. His efforts have been hampered by Democrats who oppose anything he favors and some Republicans who interpreted the tough stance with China as a retreat from free trade. COVID-19 has changed the landscape, however. Some Democrats seem to accept the need for a unified response. At the same time, most Republican free-traders have come to accept the notion that (1) free trade requires shared goodwill on all sides, and (2) there are some instances where national security interests outweigh the economic benefits of free trade.
I welcome the enthusiasm from those calling for an overhaul of US-China relations. Going forward, we should never depend on a foreign country for supplies critical to the health or defense of our nation. However, it’s not fair to blame another country because they don’t sell us everything we need during a crisis. Some of the problems we need to fix are of our own making.
We shouldn’t overreact, however. For the most part, the US has a problem with the Chinese government and its ideology, not with the Chinese people. We can address our issues with China without severing cultural and economic ties. China’s “partial opening” has also introduced many of its citizens to western ideas of economic and political freedom. The process is slow, but we can pursue bold change while continuing to have a positive influence on Chinese culture.