Beijing is seeking to pull US-China relations out of their current downturn, perhaps the most serious since the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1979. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke about this subject on July 9 to the China-US Think Tanks and Media Online Forum.
Wang’s speech is important as an authoritative statement of the pitch Beijing is making to the US policy-making community, much of which has become disillusioned with China during Xi Jinping’s rule. Following are Wang’s main points and my responses.
Wang blamed poor bilateral relations on “some in the US with ideological biases” who “seek relentlessly to frustrate and contain China’s development” and “to portray China as an adversary.”
Indeed, Americans in general have an “ideological bias” against authoritarianism. What is really remarkable is how little effort Americans made, despite this bias, either to “contain” China or to treat it as an enemy during the post-Cold War era.
The driving assumption of US policy for about three decades was that if America was engaging and inclusive toward China, a wealthier and internationally integrated China would be more supportive of liberal global norms. But Xi’s crackdown on civil society at home and bullying abroad dispelled that American hope. Hence the emergence of a tougher US policy.
The US “should not seek to remodel” China, said Wang. China’s system of government “suits its own national conditions,” has helped China out of poverty, and is “the choice of the Chinese people,” who rave about their government in “international public opinion surveys.”
The US government actually does less to try to subvert Chinese Communist Party rule than Beijing claims. The allegations that tensions in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, for example, are due to US instigation are patently absurd.
Yes, Americans are subject to the charge of hypocrisy when it comes to governance, but crusading is baked into Americans’ self-identity. It’s not reasonable to expect them to cease criticizing human rights abuses or the lack of democracy in China.
Speaking of lack of democracy in China, the Party is not really the “choice” of the Chinese people in a one-party dictatorship – and it’s relatively easy for a government that forbids criticism of the ruling Party to score well on public opinion surveys.
It’s true that the CCP was in power while much of China climbed out of poverty and backwardness. But with a political system more accountable to the public and less oriented toward protecting and serving the top Party leaders, China might have made the same progress while avoiding disastrous missteps such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
China is a permanently peaceful country, Wang assures us. “Aggression and expansion are never in the genes of the Chinese nation throughout its 5,000 years of history,” he says.
First, Wang’s interpretation of Chinese history is wrong. China’s majority Han ethnic group makes up 20% of the world’s population. A civilization reaches that size only by gobbling up smaller nearby states – in this case, a lot of them. Historians outside China point out that Chinese aggression has been commonplace.
But, more importantly, the tendencies of pre-modern China do not determine the policies of a modern great-power China that still seethes with “century of shame” resentment and indulges hyper-nationalism as a basis for party legitimacy.
The “genes” of his forebears have not restrained Xi from expansionism in the South China Sea or the China-India border or from threatening to annex Taiwan through force.
Wang says “China does not replicate any model of other countries, nor does it export its own to others,” and it “never intends to challenge or replace the US.”
Last time we checked, the Chinese political system was based on the Leninist model, which comes from another country. China in turn attempted to export this model to other countries during much of the Cold War.
The issue for Americans today is that China clearly works to undermine US global leadership and key aspects of the US-sponsored liberal world order. The Party particularly opposes the promotion of liberal democracy worldwide, preferring a world safe for the fellow authoritarian states that are easier for the CCP to partner with.
The US view is the opposite: that liberal norms and the spread of democracy serve both US and global interests.
Despite the recent acrimony, China wants to return to a stable and cooperative relationship, Wang says, noting that “China’s development has provided the US with sustained growth impetus and a huge market.”
China would of course love to go back to making a net of US$300 billion per year off the US while enjoying access to US technology. So much for the alleged US “containment” of China. And it’s true that Americans have benefited from the economic relationship with China. But there are two problems with going back to business as usual.
First, China is gaining more strength from the economic relationship than America is. The US gains in absolute terms, but China gains in relative terms. Economists tend to focus on absolute gains, but falling behind in relative gains is a national security issue that America can no longer ignore with China now approaching the US in overall strength.
Second, Americans are tired of the lack of reciprocity in the bilateral trade relationship, including China’s systematic violation of World Trade Organization rules, predatory treatment of foreign direct investment and massive industrial espionage campaign.
What Chinese “hope for most is to maintain peace,” says Wang, but China also “has every right to uphold its sovereignty, security and development interests.”
In practice, China’s “sovereignty interests” include a large collection of disputed territorial claims covering a vast area. The pursuit of its claims clearly overrides Beijing’s hope for peace, bringing China into conflict with India, Vietnam, Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia.
Wang says both China and the US must “respect international law and international rules.” But he makes no offer to accept the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling against Chinese claims in the South China Sea; no commitment to reverse policy in Hong Kong and abide by the treaty Beijing signed with Britain; and no acknowledgment of the charge of engaging in genocide against Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang.
Wang finishes with a ranting crescendo, saying the US is guilty of “bigotry,” “paranoia” and “McCarthyism,” and that it “unscrupulously encircles and smears China around the world, and meddles in China’s domestic affairs.”
Most of this seems to refer to the pandemic. The Chinese correctly point out that the Trump administration has chosen to play up China’s responsibility for the origin and early spread of Covid-19, and are probably correct in saying this is an intentional strategy to divert attention from the US federal government’s poor management of the crisis at home.
Wang no doubt knows his own government has itself frequently employed the strategy of blaming foreigners for problems inside China, including the virus as a recent example.
Few Americans, however, will believe the deterioration in US-China relations stems from paranoia or a new age of McCarthyism in the US. Wang and other senior officials will not get their wish without addressing the root causes of bilateral tensions, beginning with the perception of a new audacity and aggressiveness in China’s foreign policy.
Denny Roy is a senior fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu.
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