US diplomat David Stilwell says Washington must shed its myths about China to check Beijing's growing influence

Mark Magnier in Washington

US policy has been undercut by fundamental American misconceptions toward China that must be corrected to counter the communist state's starkly different intentions and ideology, a senior State Department official said on Thursday.

Rising competition between Beijing and Washington has largely focused on economics and defence, but the US must step up the battle of ideas and recognise past flaws in its own logic to help put relations with China on a more even footing, said David Stilwell, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

In particular, he cited the "myth" that engagement will lead to a more open, liberal China; that the Communist Party does not have expansionary ambitions; and that communist ideology no longer matters.

"There's broken glass on the floor from years and years of hope," he told the Nixon Forum on US-China Relations sponsored by the Wilson Centre. "We're not trying to cut off contact. We're looking to increase contact."

Stilwell said the growing US attention to reciprocity was intended to find a better balance between competition and cooperation and otherwise check China's creeping global influence.

Beijing's growing control over Hong Kong in defiance of its commitments under the Sino-British Joint Declaration " a 1984 framework guaranteeing that the territory would retain a high degree of autonomy for 50 years after the 1997 handover " is a case in point, he added.

Stilwell said China's interpretation of "one country, two systems" was making Hong Kong look increasingly like the mainland.

The State Department's announcement on Wednesday that China's US-based diplomats should voluntarily report their contacts, discussions and visits matches the restrictions that American diplomats face trying to meet officials and academics in China, he said.

Beijing condemned the new guidelines on Thursday, urging Washington to "correct its mistakes".

"What the US has said about China restricting the activities of US diplomats is simply groundless," Geng Shuang, spokesman for China's foreign ministry, said in Beijing, adding that Washington was "artificially setting up barriers".

The squabble over diplomatic movements is the latest salvo in a relationship that has soured since the start of a trade war in July 2018, spreading to investment, education, visa, security and espionage policies.

Beijing's argument that US diplomats are not heavily restricted does not reflect reality, Stilwell said. The US would be happy to tour China with China's own officials to help them better understand the restrictions foreigners face in their own country, he added, quoting a slogan frequently cited by Chinese leader Mao Zedong: "Seek truth through facts."

Stilwell's address appeared to be an attempt by the administration to provide an ideological framework and stake out a position in the global battle for ideas. US messaging has at times been muddled in part by President Donald Trump's erratic statements.

At various times, Trump has slammed allies, been studiously silent on human rights in Hong Kong, offered strong support for the Hong Kong protesters, lauded Chinese President Xi Jinping's authoritarian governing style, strongly criticised the Asian giant's approach and touted a trade breakthrough only to see it fizzle.

Past efforts at framing the administration's broader outlook on China include a speech last year by US Vice-President Mike Pence denouncing Beijing's "path of authoritarianism, mercantilism and aggression", and comments by then-State Department policy planning head Kiron Skinner in April that the US was in a "fight" with a "different civilisation". Skinner was forced out of the post a few months later.

Addressing the importance of reciprocity and access in China, Stilwell cited his own experience working as a defence attache at the US embassy there from 2011 to 2013.

He said he took up the posting hoping to expose the People's Liberation Army to the "wonderfulness of what we do", only to become disillusioned at how difficult it was to improve relations given the many restrictions placed on meeting PLA officials.

"That to me is something that has to be addressed," he said. "We have to have an open conversation, and you don't get that by limiting access."

Chinese premier Zhou Enlai and Richard Nixon, then the US president, at a banquet in Shanghai in February 1972. Photo: AP alt=Chinese premier Zhou Enlai and Richard Nixon, then the US president, at a banquet in Shanghai in February 1972. Photo: AP

Stilwell said the US was an open, liberal democracy, which is ultimately a great strength. But its very openness and diversity is also a challenge in countering propaganda and singular messaging from China. This face-off is being played out in the Indo-Pacific region as Beijing steps up influence operations in Southeast Asia, he said.

"We don't have a propaganda arm," he said.

The US has fallen short in communicating "who we are and how we got here", he added.

Speakers at the conference named after president Richard Nixon " who opened relations with China in the early 1970s but who also resigned in the face of impeachment over domestic abuse of power " said his China policy was a lasting legacy.

"Nixon's framework with China needs to endure no matter how it evolved," said Jane Harman, the Wilson Centre's director, president and chief executive and a former Democratic congresswoman from California. "It is a competitor, but it is also home to one-third of humanity."

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2019 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.