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China-US relations: ‘let’s fix our own national messes before competing with Beijing’, says former diplomat

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Former US diplomat Chas Freeman: “Without serious repairs to restore a sound American political economy, our future is in jeopardy.” Photo: AP

Former US diplomat Chas Freeman urged Washington to focus on making “serious repairs” at home to effectively compete with China, as US President Joe Biden’s administration reviews US policy towards China amid increasingly strained relations.

Freeman is a well-known China hand who was the principal interpreter for Richard Nixon during the 1972 China trip that paved the way for normalised diplomatic relations.

In an online address to the Washington Institute of Foreign Affairs this month he argued that the US needed to avoid defining its China policy as a fight against authoritarianism and to focus instead on renewing its competitive capacity given its “unprecedented state of domestic disarray and demoralisation”.

“The US focus has been on tripping up China rather than improving our own international competitiveness,” he said. “Without serious repairs to restore a sound American political economy, our future is in jeopardy, and we will be in no condition to compete with the world’s rising and resurgent great powers, especially China.”

Freeman, who also served as a former US assistant secretary of defence and a diplomat in Beijing, said the US would alienate partner nations if it continued to define its relationship with China in confrontational terms and did not first “fix our domestic embarrassments”, noting the US response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“If we are to compete effectively with China and other rising and resurgent powers, we must upgrade many aspects of our performance,” he said.

“This will require a serious effort at domestic reform and self-strengthening. And it will take time. Trying to bring down foreign countries to prevent them from surpassing us is more likely to backfire than to succeed. We need to take a hard look at where we are falling behind and make the changes necessary to power ahead.”

His remarks came as Biden’s administration signalled it would continue former US president Donald Trump’s tough policy on China.

But the new administration indicated it would take a more multilateral approach allowing for some cooperation on issues such as climate change, while competing and confronting China on issues such as Beijing’s trade and human rights practices.

Biden has said he expects “extreme competition” with China, and has created a military task force to review US policy to meet the “growing challenges posed by China” in the Indo-Pacific region and globally.

While Freeman’s softer tone contrasts with the bipartisan consensus in Washington favouring a hardline stance towards China, Biden’s team has also highlighted US domestic renewal as key to its competition with Beijing.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan told a US Institute of Peace event in January that one of the best ways to push back on China was to address America’s own shortcomings, saying that “the most profound national security challenge facing the United States is getting our own house in order”.

“They’re pointing to dysfunction and division in the United States and saying, ‘Take a look at that, their system doesn’t work. Our system does,’” he said.

“Step one is … to refurbish the fundamental foundations of our democracy. That goes for everything from our democratic system itself, to issues of racial inequity, to issues of economic inequality, all of the things that have contributed to the shine coming off the American model.”

During his address, Freeman was also critical of the Trump administration’s foreign policy, claiming the US had “consistently been the initiator” of conflict with Beijing without a long-term strategy to compete.

He cited the domestic costs of the US trade war with China, and said the US was only prepared to deal with the military threat of China rather than the economic and technological challenge it presented.

“If this were a game of chess, we’d be easy to spot,” he said. “We’re the player with no plan beyond an aggressive opening move. That is not just not a winning strategy. It’s no strategy at all.”