Among the wave of unpetitioned advice offered to U.S. President-elect Joe Biden on crafting his policy toward Asia, some has come from China. In a November 17 piece in The Diplomat, Chinese think-tankers Junyang Hu and Dingding Chen offer Biden “suggestions” for improving U.S.-China relations.
Alas, their ideas would have little relevance to Biden’s advisors beyond providing insight into Chinese thinking. But what is really interesting is the mirror-imaging effect; to an American observer, Hu and Chen’s implicit critique of U.S. policy seems strikingly applicable to China.
Although they hold positions at an institution that describes itself as an “independent” think tank, Hu and Chen continue the fine Chinese government tradition of placing blame for the deterioration of U.S.-China relations, and therefore the onus for fixing the problem, on the U.S. government.
They attribute the recent “drastic fall since 2018” in U.S.-China relations to “the prevalent zero-sum perception within Washington.” Specifically, they say the Biden government must “soften the rhetoric with regard to China” so as to “prevent a continued downward spiral in the relationship.” They add that in pursuit of its objectives in the Asia-Pacific region, the United States should rely on diplomacy more and military activities less.
This outlook, of course, omits the actions and policies of the Chinese government that pushed U.S. thinking from “If we treated China as an enemy, we were guaranteeing an enemy in the future” to the conclusion that China “wants to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests … [and] seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region.” An accounting of relevant developments on the Chinese side would include the resurgence of Communist Party and state power relative to Chinese society, Xi Jinping’s personality cult and domestic war against liberal political values, China’s systematic violation of its World Trade Organization pledges, China’s claim to ownership of most of the South China Sea in defiance of international law, Beijing’s frequent use of economic coercion against trade partners over political grievances, continued Chinese threats against democratic Taiwan, government-sponsored industrial espionage, mass incarceration of Muslims in Xinjiang, and China’s imposition of dictatorship on Hong Kong contrary to prior commitment.
In failing to acknowledge Chinese responsibility for the downturn in U.S.-China relations, Hu and Chen fail utterly to connect with the world of Biden and his advisors, in which the starting point for policymaking is recent negative Chinese behavior.
Biden and his team, the authors say, “must reflect on their perceptions about China.” That language — foreigners “must reflect on x” — may sound familiar. It’s the same way Chinese officials and media have scolded other world leaders in connection with a variety of issues over the years, including the 2001 U.S.-China military aircraft collision in international airspace near Hainan Island, Norway’s awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to a Chinese dissident in 2010, Japan being insufficiently penitent about its “history of aggression,” Australia forbidding investment from certain Chinese companies because of national security concerns, and the Dalai Lama’s alleged “separatism.”
Hu and Chen advise Biden that “all tit-for-tat reckless remarks should now stop and be replaced with more rational and influential voices.” This likely reflects the sting Chinese feel from harsh statements such as Trump’s use of the derogatory term “Kung Flu” to refer to the coronavirus and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s wild assertion that the pandemic originated in a Chinese government laboratory. Nevertheless, China’s own rhetoric makes this suggestion problematic. A couple of examples will suffice to illustrate why. In May 2020, U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Matthew Pottinger gave a speech in Chinese about what he sees as the legacy of liberal values from China’s May Fourth Movement in 1919. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) said of the speech, “We advise US officials to learn more about Chinese history and mind their own business.”
In October 2020, the U.S. government announced it had arrested five people, including three PRC nationals, on charges of carrying out Chinese government orders to harass Chinese dissidents in the United States. The MFA response was that Chinese government law-enforcement operations “are beyond reproach,” that this was a “smear” against China, and that the United States was “degenerating into a safe haven for criminals.”
The larger point here is that the Chinese government is incapable of not issuing tit-for-tat remarks that worsen bilateral relations — even in cases of routine activity by U.S. officials, leaving aside the Trump administration and the Republican Party’s strong anti-China rhetoric during the election season of late 2020. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership is too insecure to allow a perceived insult by a foreigner to go unanswered. Furthermore, it’s safe to say that in Beijing’s view, a “reckless” remark is one that does not support the CCP’s agenda, while a “rational” remark is the opposite. In short, this suggestion by Hu and Chen is impractical.
The authors say the Biden administration should “normalize the crisis management mechanism.” They particularly praise two agreements China and the United States reached in 2014 to ensure safe conduct and non-escalation in cases where U.S. and Chinese military units meet at sea or in the air. Here, however, the authors are clearly talking to the wrong government.
Since 2014, the U.S. military has reported many incidents of dangerous and unprofessional conduct by Chinese military personal, including pointing lasers into the cockpits of U.S. military aircraft and intentionally maneuvering ships to create the danger of collision with U.S. vessels. The Chinese government has also threatened to fire on U.S. ships conducting their occasional “freedom of navigation” patrols in the South China Sea, which symbolically challenge but do nothing to roll back China’s territorial claims. And of course, far from “managing” them, China has purposefully stoked crises with India, Japan, and Taiwan during 2020 with frequent military incursions. Beijing clearly sees the cultivation of tensions as an instrument of statecraft, a tactic for intimidating the adversary into acceding to China’s wishes.
Just as Americans hope the Chinese government realizes its current path is counterproductive and Beijing will decide to cooperate with the liberal world order, Hu and Chen call for “a nonpartisan re-assessment of the regional influence of the United States, regional threat perception from China, and [the] future strategic balance.” No doubt they hope that after a “reassessment,” Americans will conclude that the United States should be happy with less regional influence and a “balance” that welcomes a stronger China, and that China is not a threat to the region. They are wrong, however, to think that the relatively adversarial U.S. posture toward China that emerged during the Trump administration is not bipartisan.
They are also wrong to hope that more “cultural and societal” contact will “reverse the negative dynamic propelled by adverse structural” factors. Americans and Chinese can and do have a vast network of personal and civil society connections, but these will not overcome the friction generated by each government concluding that the other threatens its vital interests.
Denny Roy is a senior fellow at the East-West Center.