When Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Washington last week, former US Representative from Indiana’s 9th Congressional District and current Distinguished Scholar at the Indiana University School of Global and International Studies Lee H. Hamilton offered advice to skeptics of the current US-China trade policy: the US should support a strong China, and China should support a strong US. China is America’s largest trading partner and the most dominant military power in East Asia. Furthermore, it accounts for 12 percent of the global economy and nearly a quarter of overall global economic growth. Whether we like it or not, the two nations will have to cooperate for the foreseeable future.
Hamilton went on record to point out that America’s relationship with the most populous nation in the world is the most important bilateral relationship in the world today. Hamilton’s assessment may be accurate, but it comes on the heels of several controversial moves by the future Asian superpower. Recently, Chinese computer hackers, most likely supported by the government, have been accused of hacking into federal government computers. Cyber espionage has long been a modus operandii for the Chinese regime. These latest tactics put the sophistication of China’s hacker program on display, just in time for Xi Jinping’s visit. However, China has similarly accused the Pentagon and other American security agencies of engaging in similar behavior against China, and there is evidence to suggest that the US also has a computer and hacker-oriented espionage program. This presents room for cooperation, as the two nations can agree to mutually scale back hacker attempts.
In addition, China continues to be a serious human rights violator. Dissent is suppressed, journalists are censored, and civil liberties are unheard of. However, the US also engages in behaviors that can be classified as serious human rights violations. The US has a staggeringly high incarceration rate exceeding the worst human rights abusers out there, including China. Furthermore, America’s criminal rates of conviction, coupled with prosecutorial discretion, vagueness of criminal statutes, and nearly absolute immunity offered to police and prosecutors, has created a system with almost non-existent defendant rights. Due process protections, like the right to a trial, are almost always waived by defendants, since exercise such rights often leads to heightened charges and longer prison sentences. In addition, the US remains the only developed country in the world with the death penalty. If the US wants China to improve its human rights records, it can take the lead by reforming its criminal justice system.
Finally, Lee Hamilton notes that we need to “convince the Chinese to properly adjudicate its territorial disputes in the South China Sea and to be more assertive in helping to ensure North Korea reduces its nuclear efforts.” It is unlikely that the Chinese will heed this advice without corresponding action by the US. The US, after all, is notorious around the world for military and police action outside its borders, including such tactics as meddling in foreign elections and even targeting foreign leaders for local insurrection. By working together, the two nations can reduce such costly foreign escapades, without the fear of the other power stepping it to fill the power vacuum.