On Forgiving China

The covid-19 virus is raging, creating havoc on the health and economic well-being of nearly every person living on the planet. Sadly, we are only in the first inning of this pandemic with the likely prospect that it will get much worse. It is not surprising, therefore, that the vitriol between the United States and China is in full swing. The Chinese, deeply embarrassed and humiliated because of the pandemic arising in their country, are looking for a scapegoat. One of their favorites is the one which accuses the United States army of bringing the virus to China. President Trump has countered by referring to it in tweets as the China virus. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other administration officials call it the “Wuhan virus.” These mean spirited slurs will most likely get worse as the crisis deepens.

We must end this counterproductive blame game by publicly telling the Chinese we do not hold them responsible for the pandemic. We need to forgive them. Why? Because it is in our own best interest to do so.

I learned this lesson the hard way. Forty years ago I was wounded deeply by someone I had trusted. My wounded ego sought revenge. I had trouble sleeping at night. For six months I wallowed in self-pity and seriously considered seeking psychological help. From some mysterious place, the wisdom came to forgive this man—unconditionally. I did so and felt better almost immediately. Over time our relations became quite civil. I learned that you forgive not for the good of the person who injured you. You forgive so you can heal yourself.

The same truth can be applied to nations. It is in our national interest to forgive China for two reasons. The first is to avoid a cold war developing between the two countries. There are several hawkish advisors in the Trump administration who want to move in that direction. The danger of such a policy is deep misunderstanding between the two nations and the real threat of war.

The history of the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union illustrates this point. Presidential candidates ran on the “missile gap” myth, and hawkish experts both within and outside of government exaggerated Soviet military strength in Eastern Europe. The Soviets did have a powerful land based missile system, but their air and submarine based forces were greatly inferior to U.S. forces making up the second and third legs of our strategic triad. Soviet and East European conventional forces had inferior equipment and a weak industrial base from which to wage a conventional war.

What was the result? An extremely dangerous nuclear arms race ensued. The Vietnam war was fought to stem the mythical tide of global communist expansion. The Soviet Union pursued a reckless policy of placing nuclear weapons in Cuba in 1962. They also sent troops into Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 to protect their empire. However, with the exception of these three incidents, Soviet foreign policy was quite conservative over the forty-year period of the Cold War. In exaggerating the Soviet threat, we fought unnecessary wars in several places unrelated to our security as a nation that cost thousands of lives and squandered billions of dollars in their prosecution. We also squandered billions of dollars on a dangerous and unnecessary nuclear arms race. We further established military bases all over the world, the total count today is close to 800, which we cannot seem to dismantle despite the fact that today Russia qualifies more as a third world nation than a global power.

There are voices in and out of government that are greatly exaggerating China’s military strength and intentions in the same way. As I have pointed out in previous essays, the United States outspends China militarily by almost three to one. China has one ally in Asia, North Korea, and few friends. Her neighbors are afraid of her. The United States has allies and friends that surround China as well as European allies that can be counted on to provide help in any crisis that develops.

In a recent article in Foreign Affairs (Vol. 99:1), Fareed Zakaria argues that over the last forty years China has pursued a moderate and largely constructive foreign policy. She last went to war in 1979. She funds no proxies with the exception of North Korea. She is the second largest funder of the United Nations and has deployed 2,500 peacekeepers in support of the organization’s peacekeeping efforts. That is more troops than the other four veto holding states in the Security Council combined. In addition, China has voted for 182 of 190 Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on states that have violated international law.

We hear a lot of noise about intellectual property theft. The truth of the matter is that complaints from foreign companies have declined quite dramatically. The Chinese established special courts to deal with this problem. In 2015 there were 63 cases brought to these courts. Foreign companies won all of them.

Here’s the main point. A cold war mentality will make it impossible to present an honest picture of the China challenge. Yes, government repression has increased under President Xi, and he is pursuing a more aggressive foreign policy in places like the South China Sea and Hong Kong. This aggressive stance is focused exclusively on her neighborhood. It is only fair to remember that we have a Monroe Doctrine that has guided policy toward our neighbors for over 150 years. The danger of exaggerating the China threat is that we will again waste hundreds of billions of dollars on military spending to counter a threat that is largely invented. In addition, we will lose an important opportunity to work with China to solve some pressing international problems.

This is the second reason we need to forgive China. We need to work together to combat climate change, to rebuild a world economy after the pandemic recedes, to solve the problem of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, to avoid a nuclear and conventional arms race, and to fight terrorism. A cold war will make China more nationalistic and aggressive, making cooperation to deal with common problems far less possible.

We began a policy to engage China in the early seventies toward the end of the Mao era. Some are now arguing that engagement has not worked. It hasn’t worked if engagement is defined as making China more like us, but such a policy is based on rather arrogant assumptions. An engagement policy should be based on helping to make China a responsible actor in the international system. Much progress has been made along these lines as the Zakaria article points out.

The next hurdle for this policy poses a very difficult challenge. Over the last forty years China has emerged as a major actor in the international system, but many of the institutions organizing that system are Western centered. The World Bank is dominated by the United States. The International Monetary Fund is dominated by the European Union. The World Trade Organization is also dominated by Western interests. For China to continue to act as a responsible member of the international system will depend upon whether she is granted a larger seat at the table. The peace and stability of the international system will depend on whether the West has the wisdom to allow that to happen.

Dr. Rick Herrick (PhD, Tulane University), a former tenured university professor and magazine editor, is the author of four published novels and two works of nonfiction. His most recent book, A Christian Foreign Policy, presents a new way of looking at the relationship between religion and politics. His musical play, “Lighthouse Point,” was performed as a fundraiser for the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. Dr. Herrick is recently retired, living in Bluffton South Carolina. He is married with three children and seven grandchildren.

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