Reciprocity in U.S. Relations with China Should Be a Tool, Not the Whole Strategy

Since the outset of the U.S.-China trade war, critics have castigated the Trump administration for its capricious approach to relations with Beijing. They have found fault in particular with Donald Trump’s flip-flopping on sanctioning ZTE, banning U.S. companies from selling to Huawei and then reversing course, and refusing to censure China for its abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong in order to preserve trade negotiations.

Recently, however, Trump’s China doctrine has attracted praise for its “realism.” In a recent Foreign Policy article, the Hoover Institution’s Michael Auslin argues the Trump administration’s disorganized and seemingly contradictory approach to China is actually “a fairly measured realist policy” that is “based on reciprocity.” While Auslin acknowledges that for the most part, reciprocity—loosely defined as “balancing” relations to create a “level playing field”—has yet to be fully road-tested, he nevertheless hails it as “a prudent attempt to make policy fit real conditions.”

In giving the administration credit for its policy, however, Auslin glosses over a central contradiction plaguing what he terms Trump’s strategy: that in prioritizing reciprocity, the U.S. is ironically coming to resemble China in several important ways. Indeed, he brushes aside concerns about America’s insular, illiberal drift under Trump, describing the issue in just one sentence: “[Reciprocity] will call into question liberal values deeper than just free trade, such as the open society that Westerners take for granted.” This claim overlooks a fundamental question that is essential to any solid assessment of U.S. policy, namely, whether Trump’s means of competing with China justify the ends and minimize the practical damage caused to U.S. interests.

As an indicator of the policy’s possible future success in balancing bilateral ties, Auslin points to the administration’s victory in convincing Beijing to allow U.S. airlines to fly to China, accomplished by threatening to ban Chinese passenger flights to the United States after China did the same to many U.S. airlines. In this case, the administration’s willingness to mirror Chinese policies appears to have led Beijing to relent. Auslin mentions this preliminary success twice as the model example. A close examination of other U.S. acts of reciprocity, however, reveals few triumphs and many damaging races to the bottom, where the cycle of continuous retaliations hurts both countries.

The administration has long been motivated by the idea of achieving reciprocity, a goal that seems well suited to President Trump’s love of getting even. The 2017 National Security Strategy and 2019 vision for the Indo-Pacific both articulate the United States’ desire to create reciprocal trade relationships, and reciprocity features prominently in two recent and noteworthy statements of policy: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, and the “United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China.” In both, reciprocity is usually accompanied by the word “fairness.” The idea seems to be that an even scorecard of actions and counteractions between the U.S. and China would serve U.S. interests. Reciprocal actions that aim to establish such fairness, however, do not always advantage the United States.

With regard to the trade war, reciprocal policies have failed to achieve the key goals the administration originally set: fairer trade relations and a transformation of China’s mercantilist economic model. On July 6, 2018, Trump slapped tariffs on $34 billion of Chinese goods. The Trump administration argued that the action was in response to Beijing’s “unfair trade practices.” That same day, Beijing retaliated, imposing equivalent tariffs on American exports. Over the course of the following year, Beijing continued to proportionally respond to Washington’s successive rounds of tariffs. The outcome of this is a tit-for-tat bonanza and an extremely limited Phase One trade deal based on massive purchases that does very little to bring about structural economic change.

During the signing ceremony, Trump lauded the deal as “a momentous step . . . toward a future of fair and reciprocal trade.” In reality, however, the agreement did little to achieve “reciprocal trade.” As of May 2020, the trade deficit, which so bothers Trump, was the largest it’s been since December 2018. More significantly, the deal compelled Beijing to order its state-owned enterprises to increase their purchase of U.S. exports, abandoning market forces and reinforcing the Chinese Communist Party’s hand in economic decision making. Furthermore, Beijing has begun diversifying imports away from the United States, damaging U.S. industry.

Both countries have also expelled each other’s journalists in the name of reciprocity. In February three Wall Street Journal reporters were kicked out of China, ostensibly for an op-ed the paper ran entitled “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia.” In response, Assistant Secretary of State David Stilwell, supported by Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger, proposed listing five Chinese media organizations as foreign missions and limiting the number of Chinese journalists working at those companies in the United States. Beijing responded in kind, expelling more Wall Street Journal journalists, as well as many at The New York Times and The Washington Post, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said those affected would not be permitted to work in Hong Kong. Washington then imposed further restrictions, limiting each Chinese journalist’s visa to 90 days and designating four more Chinese media agencies as foreign missions. Beijing responded again, demanding that the Associate Press, Columbia Broadcasting System, National Public Radio, and United Press International provide details on their China-based employees and finances, as well as real estate and operations.

Reciprocity, in this instance, may have created a more “balanced” relationship, but mostly to the detriment of the United States. The policy has not increased open exchanges of information and has only further impaired the world’s ability to learn about what’s going on inside China. The value of having journalists in China, a country that ranks 177 out of 180 on the World Press Freedom Index, far outweighs the negatives of having Chinese media companies operating in the United States. Beijing can learn about U.S. developments through countless media organizations, but the same cannot be said for the United States with regard to China. The fewer foreign reporters in China, the more opaque the country becomes to the outside world. That is not the case for the United States, no matter how few China Daily or Global Times reporters work in the country.

Last October, Washington implemented a policy requiring Chinese diplomats operating in the United States to notify the State Department before meeting with U.S. officials or traveling to educational and research institutes. The policy was meant to coax Beijing to loosen restrictions preventing U.S. diplomats from freely traveling through China and interacting with Chinese citizens. Nearly a year later, the U.S. policy has done nothing to ease restrictions on American diplomats in China. Furthermore, the recently passed bill restricting visas for Chinese officials involved in limiting U.S. citizens’ travel to Tibet will do nothing to open the autonomous region to travel. Though these policies seek to equalize freedom of travel and access, thus far they have fallen short of achieving the U.S.’s actual goals—namely, increased travel and access—and, like the restrictions on journalists, they risk an escalatory spiral that could well result in even less access for Americans.

Alternatively, bills such as the recently introduced “True Reciprocity Act of 2020,” which would require the administration to compile a report detailing “the obstacles put in place by China to obstruct the free work of U.S. diplomats, officials, journalists, businesses and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the country,” is a more productive approach. It does not require the United States to mirror China’s policies in this regard, but it outlines the scope of the issue and allows space for alternative solutions that might ultimately be more effective.

Critiquing the Trump administration’s China strategy doesn’t excuse Beijing’s bad behavior. Nor is it to say that reciprocity cannot be an effective tool in certain situations, such as those where it can rectify bilateral inequities without causing a downward spiral. Rather, the shortcomings of an American strategy based primarily on reciprocity lie with its failure to redress structural issues in the bilateral relationship and to the ways it undermines U.S. interests as much as, if not more than, Chinese ones.

Reciprocity should be one of many tools—including diplomacy, multilateralism, and alliance coordination—in America’s foreign policy toolkit, part of a broader strategy that allows space for U.S.-China cooperation on issues of mutual concern. While past U.S. policy under the rubric of “engagement” may have failed to lead China to adopt liberal policies, basing U.S. policy on reciprocity threatens to make the United States a more closed society without convincing Beijing to open up. For this reason, even if reciprocity works as intended, it does not necessarily help the United States either in its competition with China or in its broader engagement with the world. It may “balance” relations with China, but it does so in a manner that deprives the United States of key sources of strength to deal with some of China’s most problematic policies. There is a difference between creating a reciprocal relationship on U.S. terms versus Chinese terms. So far, we’ve only managed to achieve the latter.

Alarmingly, Trump’s reciprocity further degrades the United States’ already seriously battered reputation as a bastion of liberalism. Who is Washington to scold countries engaging in economic protectionism or limiting access to foreign journalists? Such behavior also negatively affects the U.S.’s alliances with other democracies and its ability to work with them to counteract malign Chinese actions. Moreover, the abandonment of liberal principles will further encourage autocrats around the world to behave with impunity, a horrible, avoidable consequence of achieving a more reciprocal relationship with China. As Jessica Chen Weiss recently argued, policymakers “must be very careful about the risks of a ‘Pyrrhic victory’—an overreaction that imperils openness, inclusiveness, and vitality at home and practical cooperation abroad.”

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, reciprocity can be loosely defined and applied to nearly any situation. This is intentional, as it allows the administration substantial wiggle room to deem any action reciprocal. Indeed, Pompeo, who uses the term most frequently, has pushed for a wide range of hawkish policies. While some actions genuinely respond reciprocally to Chinese activities, others go further. Pompeo, without providing evidence, claimed it was necessary to shut down China’s Houston consulate because it was “a hub of spying and intellectual property theft.” The United States has taken what could be considered reciprocal action against Chinese espionage and IP theft before, sanctioning companies and introducing legislation that would further punish malign actors. It has never, however, taken the drastic step of shuttering a Chinese consulate, as this is clearly not an act that “levels the playing field.” It seems as though Pompeo, in repeatedly stressing the need for reciprocity, is setting up a situation where all retaliations fall under the reciprocity umbrella. Such an outcome would be dangerous, as it would unleash the administration to respond asymmetrically to Chinese actions, further imperiling bilateral relations.

The administration has repeatedly demonstrated that reciprocity is not a means to resolving issues, but one of fostering an environment where hostility and distrust are the norm. More often than not, Washington contributes to the original problems rather than providing a solution, likely part of the administration’s strategy to force U.S.-China decoupling. Time and again, actions taken under the guise of reciprocity have only led Beijing to dig in its heels and double down on its own problematic policies rather than find common ground, airline travel notwithstanding.