Hands up, hands off: China blames U.S. for troubled relationship

The United States is struggling “to get China right.” Every week, there is a new study, analysis or set of recommendations to make the U.S.-China relationship better fit current realities. The pages of every major journal and the opinion and analysis sections of most newspapers daily assess and critique a relationship that is critical to how the world works.

While the emphasis these days is on what the U.S. will do — which is natural with a new occupant of the White House — any relationship will reflect an equilibrium set by the governments in Washington and Beijing.

Unfortunately, recent conversations with Chinese counterparts reveal a troubling mindset: They insist that problems in the relationship with the U.S. stem solely from Washington’s misbehavior, misperceptions or unhappiness. Rarely is China acknowledged to be at fault. Yes, U.S. policy has been less consistent than that of China, but maintaining that Beijing has no role or responsibility for troubles in U.S.-China relations will guarantee that those problems get worse.

U.S. policy of recent years is not beyond criticism; this column has offered many. Wang Jisi, one of China’s foremost America watchers, is right to charge that “It has become harder and harder for foreign policy makers in China to discern what rules the Americans want themselves and others to abide by, what kind of world order they hope to maintain.”

But this is but one brick in a wall of argumentation, all of which put blame firmly on the U.S. side. Foreign Minister Wang Yi made the point repeatedly last year, at one point telling the National People’s Congress that the U.S. had “abducted” Sino-U.S. relations and then later, speaking to the China-U.S. Think Tanks Media Forum, insisting that “China’s U.S. policy remains unchanged. We are still willing to grow China-US relations with goodwill and sincerity.”

U.S. policy toward China, in contrast, he charged, “is based on ill-informed strategic miscalculation, and is fraught with emotions and whims and McCarthyist bigotry. Its suspicion about China, totally uncalled-for, has reached a point of paranoia.” A few weeks later, Yang Jiechi, his predecessor as foreign minister, said that the U.S. has “chosen unilaterally to be provocative,” and its “erroneous words and moves… [put] the relationship in a most complex and grave situation since the establishment of diplomatic ties.”

It is only a small step from there to argue, as did former Ambassador Ma Zhengang, that the aggravated competition between the U.S. and China reflects Washington’s “Cold War mentality” and “hegemon mindset.” By “hegemon mindset,” Ma means the U.S. goal of blocking the rise of any other major country. Sun Ru, a researcher at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), a think tank affiliated with China’s State Council, points to the Obama administration’s “rebalance” to Asia, deployment of a theater missile defense system in South Korea and high-profile military intervention in the South China Sea as proof that the U.S. intends to stifle and contain China.

Sometimes, the arguments are more subtle. Harvard professor Graham Allison’s warning that the U.S. and China risk falling into “The Thucydides Trap” — a tendency toward conflict created by an emerging power that threatens to displace a great power as the international hegemon — provides a historical veneer for China’s shrugging off of responsibility. The insistence of Chinese experts and officials that they have learned those lessons implies that any deterioration in relations must therefore be Washington’s fault.

Venture capitalist Eric Li offered a version of that case when he asserted, “If U.S. elites continue to believe that their country is entitled to global hegemony, the United States will accelerate its own decline.” He urged it to abandon “post–Cold War triumphalism” and focus on domestic affairs so that “it can excel in a more competitive world without making an enemy of China or anyone else.”

Yet another argument faults Washington for not understanding China. It overstates Chinese capabilities and misconstrues Chinese aspirations. As Wang Jisi explained, “To U.S. eyes, Chinese confidence in the ‘China model’ and its political system has soared since the global financial crisis of 2008, and the Chinese government, at both the regional and global level, has undertaken bold and assertive foreign policies.”

Combined with a sense of growing weakness within the U.S., Wang concluded, “a kind of strategic competition between the two sides is inevitable.” (For all the above, I’m indebted to Minghao Zhao, senior fellow at Fudan University’s Institute of International Studies, whose 2019 analysis, “Is a New Cold War Inevitable? Chinese Perspectives on U.S.–China Strategic Competition,” provided many of the comments.)

Uniformity of views among Chinese is not unusual, at least not in discussions of foreign policy. There has long been an effort to send a single message in conversations, to shape the framing of the problem and to influence U.S. domestic debates. A sense of national humiliation, a cornerstone of the educational curriculum, and an authoritarian political system help create and reinforce a convergence in thinking more broadly.

But there now seems to be a narrowing of the consensus, which many experts attribute to President Xi Jinping’s determination to centralize power and put his stamp on policy. Deviation risks being seen as criticism, especially when the issue is U.S-China relations in which Xi plays a prominent role.

Despite blaming the U.S. for the problems in the relationship, a few brave voices recommend that Beijing make tactical accommodations with Washington. Several analysts endorse strategic restraint by China.

Yuan Peng, president of CICIR, for example, calls on China to act with humbleness and prudence and display both confidence and patience. Wang Jisi argues Beijing can improve Washington’s perceptions of China by pushing for economic reform and cooperating on climate change. Shi Yinhong, an adviser to the State Council, acknowledged, “The trajectory of Sino-U.S. relations after the U.S. election, to a considerable extent, can be influenced or shaped by China… So it is of utmost importance that China adjusts its strategies and policies.”

Those are encouraging voices, but they are drowned out by the conventional response, articulated by Ambassador Ma, that calls on — or more accurately, demands that — Washington treat China in a more rational manner and not regard it as a “potential enemy.”

Other governments are well acquainted with Chinese maximalism. The talk of good neighborliness, noninterference in internal affairs and mutual respect is hard to hear as the wolf warriors warn, “Wine for our friends, for our enemies — shotguns.”

Bill Bishop, an astute U.S. China watcher, worries that Chinese decision makers “relish” intensified struggle with the U.S. because they believe that Beijing has more power and is better able to push back against Washington.

To be clear: The point is not that China is to blame. Rather, the problem is the insistence that the U.S. is only to blame. China’s refusal to take responsibility for some contribution to the deterioration in relations ensures that the downward spiral will continue. If only the U.S. is responsible, then only Washington must change policy.

Demanding a U.S. retreat not only ignores Asian nostrums about letting adversaries save face, but it also elevates the stakes in a standoff that Chinese rhetoric suggests is premature. (Remember those critics who insist that China isn’t as strong nor as ambitious as Americans believe.) China should heed its own advice and search for compromise and win-win solutions.

Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior advisor (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).

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