There is a tradition that American President Theodore Roosevelt said to speak softly but carry a big stick behind your back. There’s something to that. With some partners it’s necessary to negotiate politely, but also to have something to convince them if the discussion breaks down into a duel. Members of President Donald Trump’s coterie in charge of relations with China are apparently having similar thoughts now. But there’s a risk that they’re betting on a stick that will have fatal consequences.
The present American administration is considering a total ban on the entry of members of China’s ruling Communist Party onto U.S. soil – including their relatives. Not only would Chinese tourists be affected, but also hundreds of thousands of Chinese students whose parents are in the party. High-ranking Chinese officials and diplomats, who are required to be party members, would also have a problem, as would Chinese businesspeople and contractors. Many Chinese millionaires and billionaires (as measured in dollars) have also joined the party to advance their careers and business prospects. Altogether it would amount to over 200 million people.
From the American standpoint, Beijing deserves a proper whacking with a stick: It has continually failed to show appropriate flexibility in negotiations over new trade relations with the U.S. and under current conditions derives more benefit from mutual trade; Chinese Communists have virtually eliminated Hong Kong’s autonomy, despite an obligation to maintain it; it is using force to gain control over disputed territories in the South China Sea, which also works to the detriment of American allies there; and it is suppressing human rights at home. Trade sanctions are not working, and a travel ban might begin to have some effect.
But this level of ban would mean the interruption or brutal weakening of diplomatic and commercial ties. For the basic reason that important Chinese politicians, diplomats and businesspeople would not be allowed into the U.S. The result would not be a smoothing of talks, but an end of discussion. Things never came to such a disruption of relations with “the enemy,” even in the case of the Soviet Union in the toughest times of the Cold War, when two sides threatened each other with mutual nuclear destruction.