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The Increasingly Toxic Political Climate For American Analysts Of US-China Relations – Analysis


Well known economist Jeffrey Sachs has criticized the U.S. for having Canada detain executive Meng Wanzhou of China’s telecommunications giant Huawei.   He argued in international media that this was hypocritical because it did not take similar action against executives of American companies for the same alleged violation of US sanctions on Iran.  He also opined that the U.S. was “the greatest threat to the international rule of law.” While controversial, he is certainly not alone in this view.  But for expressing it, he was swarmed with personal insults on social media including the suggestion that his opinion was “bought”.  Most attacked him personally or criticized China’s behavior in this and other spheres rather than rationally rebut his view. This phenomenon is becoming far more common than is generally acknowledged and bodes ill for a healthy ‘democratic’ system and its salient policy making.  Indeed anti-China American researchers and pundits are becoming increasingly emboldened and shrill as they subtly attempt to intimidate those with contrarian views.

The suppression or exclusion of contrarian views in the decision-making process undermines ‘good government’ and is downright dangerous in a country that aspires to be a model for the rest of the world.  Government policy makers need the best advice they can get to make decisions that affect the security of a country and its citizens, as well as the world. To provide that best advice, advisers to policy makers need to consider a wide range of policy options and their implications regarding forefront topics before narrowing the decision choices. To suppress contrarian views pre-determines the range of research and possible responses to such issues and is not in a country’s best national security interest. However that may be just what is happening in the US community of policy analysts that focuses on US-China relations.

Indeed, with US President Donald J. Trump’s ‘America First’ policy permeating some sections of society and the government, and US-China relations rapidly deteriorating, US-China relations analysts are coming under increasing pressure to toe the increasingly strident US line.  Put bluntly, policy makers may not be getting ‘the straight dope’ and feasible alternatives may be buried in a summary slanted toward the perceived preferences of the advisers and policy makers.  This is a road the U.S. has been down before and should not want to go down again.   Indeed, some think this is one reason why the U.S. has recently wound up in so many disastrous foreign misadventures.

Most objective analysts welcome and enjoy the give and take of substantive academic debate.  It improves the analysis and thus provides better advice to decision makers.  But that’s not what this is about.  This is about personal attacks, intimidation, censorship and ‘blacklisting’. This stems in good part from the growing influence of China hawks in the government and the analytical community and their public attacks on viewpoints and their progenitors with whom they disagree.  As Tom Plate puts it “there is a posse of American pundits who have no positive word for Beijing and seem to be gunning for war.”

Now officials at the highest level of government are creating a climate that can only encourage such attacks.  In a cold-war – like speech, US Vice President Mike Pence has warned that the “Chinese Communist Party is rewarding or coercing American _ _ _ think tanks, scholars, journalists _ _ _”

The US Central Intelligence Agency has detailed “China’s far-reaching foreign influence operations in the U.S.” particularly those targeting academics.

US FBI Director Christopher Wray says “naiveté in the “academic sector has aggravated the risks and “__I think [China’s public relations effort] is going to take a whole of society response by us.”

 Hopefully Wray is not hinting at a government encouraged, society-wide wave of intimidation of views that differ from that of the current government policy.  But whether intended or not, such statements embolden those who would cast aspersions on– and even censor and black list– those whose analysis and conclusions they do not like. 

As former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd recently observed “We need to be wary of the emergence of any form of new McCarthyism, whereby anyone seeking to explain the complexity __” of US-China relations is simply accused of “Un American activities__. ” “There are already tremors of this emerging around the edges of the foreign and strategic policy community including think tanks and the academy.”

It makes one wonder if anything critical of the U.S. position vis a vis China on particular issues is considered by these ‘China-haters’ in and outside of government as Chinese “propaganda”, “sympathizing” with the ‘enemy’ or –worse for an analyst’s reputation – the slanting of views for money. For America’s sake I certainly hope that is not so.

This piece first appeared in the Diplomat 

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Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia, is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles. He is currently an Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

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