China’s US policies are uniting a broad range of American interests against the world’s second largest economy, and a veteran US diplomat believes it is time for a new approach.
Christopher Hill, former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said China needed to start peeling back its assertive stance across the board to avoid different American interest groups coming together to back a tough policy response to Beijing.
“It is as if China has lined up every important US constituency and decided to simultaneously upset each and every one,” Hill told the South China Morning Post in an interview at Sanya in the southern Chinese province of Hainan.
“It is just striking that you have labour unions, big businesses, everybody, kind of upset with China. And I think China could manage that a little bit better.”
Instead, the two sides could enhance ties by engaging more in areas of shared common interest – such as the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, said Hill, who led the US negotiating team during the six-party talks between 2005 and 2007 aimed at pressing North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons programme.
While the widespread sentiment towards China was a domestic political issue for the US, it could become China’s problem, too, Hill said, adding that he did not support President Donald Trump’s China policies, but both sides needed to better understand each other’s politics.
“They [China] have to start peeling some of this back, because they are creating a situation where a lot of major constituencies have nothing good to say about China. And it is just not in China’s interests,” Hill said.
“I’d take some of the easy ones – I’ll leave it up to the government on which ones, but going after our media … you don’t take on organisations who buy ink by the bucket.”
The career diplomat said Beijing’s hard measures against US media organisations carried significant weight in adding to negative perceptions of China.
In August, Beijing denied an application to renew press credentials for a reporter from The Wall Street Journal, effectively expelling the journalist, who was based in Beijing. Access has also been blocked in China to international media organisations, including Bloomberg, Washington Post, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, with visas no longer issued to certain journalists.
For the past year and a half, trade tensions between the two countries have spilled over to geopolitical and technology fronts, souring people-to-people exchanges. More US tariffs are due to be imposed on Chinese goods from December 15 unless an agreement can be reached.
Hill said he agreed with the logic that a preliminary trade deal between the US and China would be a positive step, but reiterated that both sides were not doing enough on areas of common interest.
He urged Beijing and Washington to adopt a united position on the denuclearisation of North Korea, and the terms to achieve it, as a start to improving cooperation which would, hopefully, reduce mistrust in other areas.
“They [North Korea] spent a lot of analytical capability looking at the differences in the US position, China position and South Korea position … they shop for different positions that are more conducive,” he said.
“That argued for a much more robust US diplomacy with China – and not diplomacy based on telling the Chinese what we are doing and giving them an after-action report – but rather a process that results in progress whose credit can be shared between the US and China.”
Despite calling for more consistent diplomacy, Hill gave credit to Trump’s efforts on the issue, including the February meeting with Pyongyang’s leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi.
But he added that the meeting could have been improved with more consistency and more discussion on specific actions to be taken by North Korea.
“The Trump administration has tried harder than anybody to show respect with a non-hostile policy to North Korea,” Hill said. “The North Koreans should understand they have a good opportunity to make real progress and they are not making much use of it.”