President Donald Trump’s push to toughen U.S. policy toward China has won over much of the Washington establishment, touching off a seismic shift in how many Americans view Beijing.
But one group is resisting — those who have spent decades pursuing diplomacy with China and who fear their approach may go extinct.
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These former officials, diplomats and scholars are wary about the rise of a younger foreign policy generation that is almost uniformly more skeptical of China, never having experienced the impoverished, isolated country it once was. And they’re warning that the increasingly hardline stance emanating from Washington — from both Republicans and Democrats — could unravel decades of relationship-building, raise the risk of a U.S.-China military confrontation and even lead to a new era of McCarthyism in America.
“I’m a globalist — I want the U.S. to be engaged in the world, including with other major countries like China,” said Susan Thornton, who oversaw East Asian and Pacific affairs in 2017 and 2018 at the State Department and was viewed by some Trump aides as too soft on Beijing. “The reality is China is not going anywhere. It’s one-fifth of humanity.”
Thornton went public with her concerns earlier this month, when she joined with around 100 others to publish an open letter to Trump and members of Congress headlined “China is not an enemy.”
“Although we are very troubled by Beijing’s recent behavior, which requires a strong response, we also believe that many U.S. actions are contributing directly to the downward spiral in relations,” the letter states.
Douglas Paal, who held top Asia-related roles in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, said he signed the letter because “I just felt that we were getting one voice out of Washington only, which was conflict and confrontation. People on other side, they tend to focus to on the last 10 years but forget the last 40.”
In a sign of how hotly contested such a stance has become, however, a rebuttal letter came within weeks. More than 100 people, many of them with military backgrounds, signed on to the missive, which urged Trump to “stay the course” in confronting China and declared that past U.S. engagement with China “contributed materially to the incremental erosion of U.S. national security.”
The letter was led by retired Navy Capt. James Fanell, and included many who came up through the military ranks. Some are part of Red Star Rising, a Fanell-led email group focused on China.
“For too long the names on the first letter have dominated the narrative on US-China relations,” Fanell said by email. “U.S. administrations from both political parties have followed their advice for more than three decades over which the People’s Republic of China has not become the ‘responsible stakeholder’ they asserted it would be. It’s become a much graver threat, with our help!”
The spat, which continues in op-eds, speeches and other forums, is intense and at times personal — the more hawkish side sometimes derides the other as “panda huggers.” But for the most part, it has remained professional, people interviewed said. No one said they had been knowingly barred from Beltway jobs or cocktail parties as a result of joining the debate.
Thornton’s case, though, offers caution. She left the Foreign Service last year after her nomination to serve as assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs stalled on Capitol Hill — she’d been tagged as too nice to China.
There’s little question that more American leaders, on both the left and right, now believe the U.S. must be tougher on China. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, has urged Trump to “hang tough” on trade talks with China. Former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democratic candidate for president, drew criticism earlier this year for seeming to downplay the China challenge.
The shift toward a more hardline U.S. stance on China began under Barack Obama’s Democratic administration and has accelerated under Trump. It has also coincided with the ascent of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Xi has expanded China’s military and economic presence by investing heavily in developing countries that U.S. experts fear are designed to trap those nations in perpetual servitude. The ruling Chinese Communist Party has intensified its crackdown on political dissent at home, while also targeting religious minorities. It has placed more than 1 million Uighur Muslims in internment camps, according to the United Nations.
Critics also say China’s rulers view private businesses as appendages of the state, leading to concerns that Beijing could use firms — such as the tech company Huawei — as a tool to infiltrate other countries. Fears are also growing that Chinese students studying at American universities are spies in waiting for Beijing.
Trump’s top aides routinely warn about the dangers that China poses, with some even suggesting a civilizational clash is unfolding. Vice President Mike Pence gave a speech in October that some in China viewed as signaling the dawn of a new Cold War. FBI Director Chris Wray, whose agency has urged universities to more closely monitor Chinese students, has advocated a “whole of society” approach to counter Beijing.
Trump himself is most fixated on trade. He has imposed increasingly steep tariffs on China to pressure it into signing on to a new trade deal that he hopes will favor the United States. But Trump also has tried to keep a warm relationship with Xi — flummoxing China hawks this week when he praised Xi’s response to protests in Hong Kong. Still, even Trump concedes his relationship with Xi has soured.
“I used to say he was a good friend of mine,” Trump said earlier this month. “We’re probably not quite as close now. But I have to be for our country. He’s for China and I’m for USA, and that’s the way it’s got to be.”
A State Department official said the Trump administration welcomes the debate in the U.S. foreign policy community, but pushed back on the notion that the Trump administration is “hostile” to China.
“The United States is not hostile to China. In fact, we continue to seek a constructive, results-oriented relationship with China,” the official said in an email. “China has chosen a confrontational approach that extends well beyond its relationship with the United States.”
Still, some veteran China hands worry that Trump’s approach to China presages a new “red scare” in Washington, reminiscent of Joseph McCarthy’s wild accusations in the 1950s that hundreds of government officials were Soviet Union sympathizers. Some worry that people of Chinese descent, including U.S. citizens, could unfairly face discrimination as a result.
“I lack confidence in the ability of the American body politic, not just the Trump administration, at this point in our political history — especially when there’s so much racism, so much anti-immigration sentiment, it’s kind of bringing out some of the worst impulses,” said Susan Shirk, who chairs the 21st Century China Center at the University of California-San Diego.
At times, such pushback has been met with hostility in the evolving Beltway. Anti-China groups, both new and old, have targeted what they derisively call the China “engagers.”
At a mid-July briefing of the Committee on the Present Danger: China, Frank Gaffney, a longtime Washington figure better known for anti-Islam views, accused these “engagers” of pining for a past approach that “has proven to be an exercise in submission, accommodation and futility as the Chinese Communists have proven to be more monolithic and increasingly hostile than their apologists in this country acknowledge.”
The committee — which relaunched earlier this year after previously existing in iterations that focused the Soviet Union and Islamist terrorists — includes Steve Bannon, a former Trump aide and hero of the nationalist movement. Bannon, who has predicted that the U.S. and China will eventually go to war, was one of the Trump aides who fiercely criticized Thornton before her retirement.
“The political mood means there’s no upside to arguing for engaging China. There’s just a downside,” said Philip Gordon, who held Europe and Middle East-related roles in the Obama administration and who signed the first letter. “But if you’re in this business, and you care about policy and want to be involved in the policy debate, you can’t let that entirely shut you down.”
Others say these “engagers” are exaggerating Trump’s policy as being overly hostile to China, and that what’s really driving them is anti-Trump sentiment. In many ways, this group argues, there’s mostly continuity in the U.S.-Chinese relationship. The U.S. maintains robust diplomatic relations with China, for one thing. And aside from Trump’s trade push, the relationship has not changed too dramatically, they argue.
“In the president’s mind, China is not an enemy. He’s the head of a commercial republic. He wants to do what he says, which is make very tough trade deals,” said Brian Kennedy, chairman of the Committee on the President Danger: China.
Some observers wonder if the spat might cause China to view the U.S. through an even more antagonistic lens, given that Beijing closely monitors such Washington debates. In an opinion column in the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party organ, one writer blasted the rebuttal letter’s characterizations of China.
“The implication is that the U.S. is the regime that brings most peace to humanity, which is astonishing,” the author states. “The U.S. did bring development and security to mankind, but that was long ago. After reading the letter, one doubts whether the writers are criticizing China or the U.S. itself?”
There also is a generational divide in the U.S. debate: younger China hands tend to be more hawkish than their predecessors. Notably, many in the younger crowd declined to sign on to the first letter warning against the drift in China policy, worried it was too nostalgic for a China that no longer exists.
“This is what happens when paradigms die,” one younger China analyst said.
But many of these same people also dismissed the rebuttal letter as one written by hardliners who lack a serious understanding of multidimensional U.S.-China relationship.
Thornton said that people with more experience in international relations recognize that there are limits to what the U.S. can do in shaping the destiny of other countries. Ultimately, she insisted, there needs to be a robust debate about the nature of U.S. policy toward China, not blind submission to the idea that the U.S. has to be ever-tougher toward Beijing.
“I’m not romantic about China. I’m not romantic about anything,” Thornton said. “I am practical, and I’m not trying to change China. I’m trying to get things for the United States.”