Simone Gao: Talking about Vice President Pence’s speech, people say that it seems like a declaration of a new cold war with China. What do you think?
Stephen Yates: Well, I served in the White House when 9/11 happened and the so-called “war on terror” began. And one way that was talked about that resonated with me was that we didn’t declare war on the terrorists, the terrorists had declared war on us. And it took until 9/11 for us to decide that we were going to systematically respond. And that’s how I think about the China challenge. We are not declaring a cold war on China; China has engaged in a cold war against us for a very long time.
Simone Gao: Since when?
Stephen Yates: Well, maybe since the founding of the Communist Party. And maybe that never stopped. And at the very least, going through even the reform and opening period of Deng Xiaoping, there were many things that are, to put it in President Trump parlance, China-first policies that were nationalist, aggressively seeking advantage, and there isn’t necessarily something inherently wrong with that. There’s something inherently wrong with failing to recognize that that’s what they’re doing and meeting the challenge. And so when you look from the 1990s, especially forward, when we started to have campaign finance scandals of Chinese business people and others trying to buy influence in our political system, all the way through recent decades, where you have Chinese business people going into companies and conspicuously being able to walk away with financial or technological intellectual property to the point where there’s competition or crippling of those companies, we’re just at a fundamentally different place now than we were. And it’s my estimation that it’s been a part of a very systematic and cognizant policy of the Communist Party to engage America in this way and basically benefit from our strengths with the hope of bringing some of those strengths to China, which seems fair enough, but at the same time to find ways to cripple us from within. And that’s the part which I think people are just beginning to talk about and have more of an awareness of. In my experience, there have been many Democrats who have had these kind of concerns. I remember in the 1990s engaging in China policy debates with committees in Congress and members of Congress, and there were Democrats that were very vocal about their concerns on these ideas. And so we’re at the beginning of a conversation of—not just what an American response would be—in the Trump administration, in the new Congress, but also in Europe and in broader parts of Asia about how do we organize and strengthen relatively free societies against this kind of aggression. And it’s not an easy question to answer. So I think that cold war was declared by China in engaging in these policies, and we’re just now beginning to talk about how to respond, which is not the same thing as actually responding.
Simone Gao: So you are essentially saying the United States did not start a new cold war with China. The Chinese communist regime has been in a cold war with the U.S. ever since they took power. And only now the U.S. starts to realize it and respond to it.
Stephen Yates: Right. The fundamental assumption of the Nixon-Kissinger compromise with the People’s Republic of China was that the United States could look past the absolute brutality of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and look past the very obvious self-inflicted poverty that the Great Leap Forward and other terrible policies of the Communist Party had imposed upon China. We could ignore these weaknesses and flaws because the value of having China balance against the Soviet Union in some fashion in the Cold War competition exceeded what benefit we thought we could get by confronting these truths about where China was. So we allowed ourselves to suspend disbelief about the nature and health of the Chinese system in order to have geopolitical advantage in the world against the Soviet Union. By the time the competition with the Soviet Union fundamentally changed, we were so accustomed to this suspension of disbelief that we just continue with these assumptions. And then the assumption becomes, well, if we just allow China to become more well off and more integrated with the world, that that improvement in standards of living, in integration into the international system, will change the nature of the policy of the Communist Party of China. And it will be communist only in name only, and the nature of the government and the party will be one where our differences will become fewer, and areas of cooperation will expand. And we can normalize what China is like and what the relationship between the U.S. and China is. That’s been the theory. And it’s been the dominant theory in our universities and in our government and in Republican and Democrat administrations. We’re just at the first time that someone’s been willing, in a leadership level, to say I don’t believe that anymore and to start taking a different approach to how to negotiate with a country that doesn’t resemble this image that has been accepted for far too long. So I think it’s actually a very historic and important moment for us. It’s unclear whether we will stick to this different approach or whether we have pressures in Congress and in the reelection campaign and, if some other leader is elected, will they continue some elements of the Trump approach towards China? Or they go back to the mainstream, more accommodating view. And that is something that only two or three more election cycles can answer.