The Mess in U.S.-China Relations

The Mess in U.S.-China Relations
Remarks to the New England Chinese Language Teachers Association

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
Senior Fellow, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University
Medford, Massachusetts, October 6, 2018

It’s an honor to stand before you to speak about Sino-American relations.  You and your colleagues have been and remain major contributors to mutual understanding between Americans and Chinese.  But let’s face it.  The state of our relations at present is not good.

We are about to celebrate forty years of diplomatic relations between Washington and Beijing.  How should we understand our relationship now?  And where is it headed?  What are the implications for the teaching of Chinese in America?

Before I get to these questions, let me mention a personal anniversary.  Fifty years ago, this January second, I had my first exposure to the Chinese language.  On that morning, at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington. a tall, handsome Beijinger introduced himself to me and my fellow students.  He said, “I’m Li Zongmi and I’ll be your chief instructor.  After we start the course, you won’t hear me speak English, but I want to use it to tell you something before we begin.”

He sized us up, then continued, “Probably someone has told you that Chinese is a hard language to learn.  Don’t believe it!  There are about 800 million people who speak it.”  (That was the Han population back then.)

“Most of them are dumb as doorposts,” he declared.  “If they can speak Chinese and read and write it, so can you.  All it takes is for you to keep studying hard.  Lots of foreigners have learned to speak excellent Chinese.”

I don’t think any of us really believed 李老师, but we all took his advice seriously, making fools of ourselves as we messed up tones, mangled vocabulary, and came out with truly imbecilic and horrible things that burned the ears of our teachers and mortified us when we learned from them what we had inadvertently said.  Yet we persisted.  Those of us still alive are still at it.  活到老, 学到老, 还有三分不知道.[1]

What you are doing as language teachers is of vital importance.  To know another man’s language is to know something of his soul.   Language is the mode in which we reason.   It is much more than our means of communication; it is the way we explain what we experience, and it is the vehicle for our culture.  It is how we understand space and time.  As George Steiner remarked,

“Each and every tongue is a distinct window into the world.  Looking through it, the native speaker enters an emotional and spiritual space, a framework of memory, a promontory on tomorrow which no other window in the great house of Babel quite matches.  Thus, every language mirrors and generates a possible world, an alternative reality.”

Language is a reflection of personality and culture and human interaction with events.  A foreign tongue must be savored with all the senses.   It is useful but not enough to be able to read it.  Language is more than words and syntax.  The body often speaks before the mouth and even when the mouth is silent.  Body language, too, differs across cultures and must be learned.

Learning a language is a path to the avoidance of the kinds of misunderstandings and miscalculations that give rise to conflict.  It is essential to understand how the native speakers of the language think.  For diplomats, language proficiency is the sine qua non of transnational cooperation and alliance management.  It is also the best antidote to the classic sin of analysts and military commanders:  the tendency to view one’s partners and competitors as the mirror image of oneself, projecting onto them one’s own values and thought processes, rather than understanding their perspectives and proclivities in their own terms, for what they are.  In peacetime such false expectations are a source of tension; in wartime they can lead to surprise and defeat.

December 15, 2018 will mark the fortieth anniversary of Jimmy Carter’s and Deng Xiaoping’s politically courageous agreement to “normalize” the relationship between Washington and Beijing (while “abnormalizing” relations with the Chinese on Taiwan).  This triggered the replacement of China’s demand for revolutionary overthrow of the world order with pragmatic accommodation of it.  Two days after the announcement of normalized relations with the United States, at the 3rd Plenum of the 11th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Deng launched China on a path of eclectic borrowing of foreign ideas, policies, and practices called “reform and opening” [改革开放].  This liberated the Chinese people – who were then almost a fourth of humanity – from the most suffocating aspects of Soviet Marxist-Leninist dogma and released their formidable entrepreneurial imaginations and energies.

The consequences of Deng’s twin decisions for both China and the world have been immense.  He saw US-China normalization and “reform and opening” as parts of a single bold gamble with his country’s future.   His vision enabled China to risk a search for inspiration in America and other capitalist democracies, to which the Chinese elite promptly entrusted its sons and daughters for education.

“Dengism” reinvigorated China’s political economy by progressively abandoning major elements of its Soviet-derived model of central planning, state monopolization of commerce and industry, and collectivized agriculture.  The results were explosive economic growth amidst rocketing living standards, the rebirth of Chinese science and technology, the emergence of a Sino-centric regional order in East Asia, and the debut of China as a major actor on the global stage.  American policy had aimed only at altering China’s external relationships and behavior.  The tremendous changes inside China were a welcome but entirely unexpected bonus.

Contemporary China is the improbable offspring of neo-Confucian Leninism and the “Pax Americana” – the era of American global hegemony    The defining characteristics of the liberal global order crafted by the United States were a universal commitment to multilateral rule making, quasi-judicial dispute resolution, the progressive removal of tariffs and quotas as barriers to trade, open investment flows, some level of selfless development assistance, humanitarian relief, and the principle of PACTA SUNT SERVANDA (协议是要遵行的).[2]  China has prospered in this international environment and remains comfortable in it.

Despite oft-repeated accusations that Beijing wants to do away with the rule-bound international order, China now seems far more committed to preserving it than that order’s American progenitor.  Under the Trump administration, the United States has come to stand explicitly for mercantilist bilateralism and protectionism, economic coercion, an end to support for foreign economic development or refugees, and the unilateral abrogation of international agreements.  By contrast, Chinese dissatisfaction with the international status quo has not been about its rules.  China, like many other emerging market economies, has complained instead about the inability of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank (IBRD), World Trade Organization (WTO), and regional banks like the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to expand their reach, funding, and inclusiveness.

Though some now seek to disparage it, Americans and Chinese have benefitted greatly from our relationship.  Sino-American political, military, and intelligence cooperation was much more extensive than most people realize.  It helped precipitate the end of the Cold War.  In 1978, China barely registered as a destination for U.S. exports.  Last year it was America’s third largest export market.  Over the forty years since “normalization,” far from contracting, U.S. manufacturing output has more than doubled.  Automation and structural change in the U.S. economy – not China – account for the reduction of jobs in the U.S. manufacturing sector.  Meanwhile, imports from China have kept U.S. consumer prices low, saving an average American family an estimated $850 each year.  About 2.6 million American jobs are now linked to exports, imports, and investment flows between the U.S. and China.

But, for reasons unrelated to China, the past forty years have been kinder to some Americans than to others.  Over this period, income inequality in the United States has greatly increased; social mobility has declined; civil liberties have eroded; public and private debt has grown to dangerous levels; the nation’s human and physical infrastructure has decayed; and hyper-partisanship and political gridlock have paralyzed government.  The native optimism of Americans has yielded to a widening sense that our country has lost its way.  It is easier for us to blame foreigners for these trends than to consider our own contributions to them.  China is rising as the United States declines.  China is ever less deferential to the United States.  China’s politics are increasingly unattractive to Americans, making it a natural scapegoat.

The Taiwan crises of the late 1990s set off a striking disconnect between the increasingly contentious Sino-American military relationship and the growing interdependence of the two countries’ economies. Although it certainly has a military dimension, China’s challenge to U.S. global primacy is mainly economic, not military or political.  (China’s international appeal, such as it is, does not derive from admiration for Leninism with Chinese characteristics.)  The perceived eclipse of American economic primacy by China played a role – though it was not the only factor – in the election of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States in 2016.

President Trump is a mercantilist, with a view of economics that harks back to the era before David Ricardo (whose proof of “comparative advantage” was published in 1817).  Trump’s economic nationalism has led him to an obsession with bilateral rather than global trade balances, a preference for “managed” rather than free trade, an effort to protect the U.S. industrial base through reviews of both inbound and outbound investments based on their presumed implications for U.S. technological leadership, unilateral withdrawal from both plurilateral and multilateral institutions of international economic governance, and reduced immigration.  To realize this vision, he has launched a war on trade and investment with China (as well as all other significant U.S. trading partners).

Links between American and Chinese businesses have long provided the ballast keeping Sino-American relations on an even keel.  Trump’s trade war aims to alter the terms of trade and investment so that economic cooperation through supply chains is succeeded by antagonistic self-reliance of the sort favored by the late Mao Zedong.  That didn’t work out too well for China, but some of our president’s advisors see it as fostering national economic self-sufficiency in the United States – 自力更生.   (Of course, it will also promote self-reliance and sufficiency in China and could transform what had been “ballast” for the relationship into a deadweight that sinks some of the prosperity of both countries.)  There is no clear path to a negotiated retreat from economic conflict on either side.

The American position is an incoherent blend of unrelated and mutually incompatible demands – the foreign policy equivalent of a haggis.  You are likely unfamiliar with haggis and justifiably happy in your ignorance.  A “haggis” can be one of two things: a wild animal said to inhabit the Scottish Highlands[3] – the equivalent of a 四不像.[4]  Or a haggis is a hodgepodge of animal innards: a sort of 苏格兰式的内脏做的大杂烩.  To cook a haggis, if you can’t find a 四不像, you take a sheep, chop up its heart, lungs, liver, tongue, and some of its fat, boil that for a couple of hours, then mix it with oats, onions, and herbs, stuff this mess into the sheep’s stomach, and boil the whole thing for another three hours or so.  This kind of cooking is a major reason Scotland is not the target of many culinary tours.

China is home to the most adventurous eaters on the planet, but haggis has not found a market there.  I very much doubt that it now will.  Nor will the disgustingly incoherent American negotiating position on future trade with China.

Some on the Trump team want to crush China’s economic model.  Others want to punish it for alleged transgressions against the intellectual property of American companies.  Still others want the two governments to manage trade to ensure that U.S. imports do not exceed U.S. exports to China.  There are those who seek the full opening of China’s financial sector.  Some want to smash China before it overtakes the United States in comprehensive national power.  Many associated with the military-industrial complex see a halt in Chinese investment in the United States and to American investment in high-tech enterprises in China as essential to preserve American leadership in science and technology, especially as it relates to weaponry.

China has been unable to make sense of this fantastic blend of baneful American demands.  And Chinese negotiators are concerned that, were they to accommodate one or more of them, the proponents of competing theses would sabotage the deal because it had not addressed their particular agendas.  Chinese officials are left to hope that, as Mr. Trump has done on other issues, he will seize on minor concessions to declare a preposterous personal victory.  But, were he to do so with China, the president would risk embarrassing revolts by disgruntled members of his notoriously fractious entourage, some of whom have long favored all-out confrontation with Beijing.

There are those on the Chinese side who, similarly, see political advantage in confrontation with the United States.  It is a handy excuse to drag their feet on economic reform, undercut American ideological influence in China, favor Chinese over foreign companies, indigenize science and technology, and diversify China’s international relationships to reduce reliance on the United States in favor of cooperation with Russia and other less politically erratic and demanding foreign partners.

The prospects for a fruitful end to Trump’s economic warfare against China do not look good.  It is more likely to prove counterproductive in terms of its objectives than to succeed – stimulating Chinese innovation, self-sufficiency, defense spending, and global economic influence while accelerating the decline of science and technology in the United States, impoverishing it, and reducing its role in global governance.

For all these reasons, despite the self-proclaimed invincibility of our solipsistic president [自称战无不胜的, 相信唯我论的总统], it is very unlikely that a deal will be struck between the United States and China on trade and investment.  The trade war Mr. Trump began will not soon end.  Even if there is some sort of deal struck, economic truculence has now joined military antagonism as an engine of Sino-American hostility.

As China takes advantage of America’s continuing alienation of its foreign allies, partners, and friends, we can expect political antipathy to intensify.  It’s hard to think of any country anywhere that will not wish to avoid entanglement in long-term Sino-American confrontation.  Even regional rivals of China, like India and Japan, see a need to work with Beijing to advance common interests.  They do not want the United States to impose its own problems with China on theirs (or China to impose an anti-American agenda on them).  No nation is now willing to be forced, Cold War-style, into allegiance to one hyperpower against another.

In short, Sino-American relations are not just a mess but on track to worsen.  What is happening between China and America ranks with the Sino-Soviet split in its potential to transform geopolitics on the global level as well as to affect the wellbeing of both parties and those linked to them.  The break-up between China and the USSR sprang more from affronts to the pride, presumptions of political primacy or subordination, and egocentrism of politicians in both countries than from specific conflicts of interest.  The same is true of the Sino-American divorce now in progress.

Chinese and Americans like each other but Americans now see the People’s Republic of China as uppity and exploitative.  Chinese view the United States of America as insensitive and overbearing.  Neither has shown empathy or responded to the frustrations of the other.  The roots of this rift are psychological and have more to do with shifts in the balances of prestige and power than with the specific points of mutual complaint.  That makes the split almost impossible to repair.

Like China and the USSR sixty years ago, China and the United States are replacing cooperation and competition with estrangement and enmity.  This shift menaces the national security and prosperity of both countries and much of the rest of the world.  It is destabilizing the established world order.  It will clearly catalyze new and more complex relationships between the major world powers as well as lesser powers and result in the replacement of some existing institutions with new ones.  But both the contours and components of the world order to come remain to be determined.

What shape the world now takes depends in no small measure on how China reacts to the attacks on its prosperity, position in Indo-Pacific affairs, and international relationships that Washington has launched.  It is said that Chinese plan in years, decades, and centuries, while Americans calculate what must be done in terms of weeks and months.  We are about to have a test of that thesis.

If China takes the long view, it will close no doors to the United States.  At present, America may have the DTs.  (Since many of you are not native English speakers, let me explain that “DT” does not necessarily stand for “Donald Trump” but for “delirium tremens” [震颤性谵妄] or, possibly, “delusional triumphalism [妄想的胜利主义].)  But the United States remains a formidably endowed force in the world and a highly competitive society.  It cannot be ignored, and it is not going away.  As was the case between China and Russia, there will again come a time for rapprochement between China and America.

China now faces unavoidable strategic choices.  The United States is in the process of isolating itself internationally.  China can align itself with others who value the open and rule-bound order of the past and wish to preserve it and its institutions, like the EU and Japan.  To do this China would have to address their concerns about the way it trades and invests abroad.  A coalition of which China was part could then preserve, reform, or duplicate institutions like the WTO, the IMF, and the World Bank, as well as the global monetary system, to bypass American unilateralism and obstructionism.  Such an effort to make American bullying of other countries through dollar-based sanctions that negate the Iran nuclear deal appears to be underway with the EU and Russia.  China has already built institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the BRICS bank, and the funds that underwrite the Belt and Road Initiative to complement the Bretton Woods arrangements.  It typically reserves a seat at the table for the United States to take up when it is ready to do so.

Or China could revert to its pre-Dengist strategy of reliance on Asia, Africa, and Latin America [亚非拉] – the so-called “Third World” – to build a worldwide order distinct from that dominated by the United States and the West.  It could change the Belt and Road Initiative from a set of proposals that are internationally inclusive into an effort to build an exclusive Chinese sphere of influence in Eurasia and adjacent areas.  This would again divide the world into competing blocs, as the Cold War did.  But it would be even harder to bring off than the option of coalition-building with others committed to globalization.  And it would make it very hard ever to resume a cooperative relationship with the United States.

In any event, China cannot expect to carry on as before.  Nor can it afford to knuckle under to the present U.S. squeeze play.  We Americans, like forward-looking Chinese, must hope that China will not abandon the cause of opening and reform in response to the apparent repudiation of both as well as globalization by the United States government.  That would risk much of the progress China has made over the past forty years.

But China and the United States need to think harder about how to avoid war.  Armed combat between us would be disastrous for both countries, but such conflict is all-too possible, given differences over Taiwan, the South China Sea, and the Diaoyv or Senkaku Islands.  Reactions in both countries to the deaths of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines would be fierce.  It should not be acceptable to either Americans or Chinese that there are no mechanisms in place to prevent escalation to the nuclear level.

The Soviet Union and China isolated themselves from each other when they divorced.  It is not possible for China and the United States to do so.  Our interdependence may lessen, but it will not disappear.  We inhabit a globally connected world in which we must continue to interact and communicate.  And that’s where you, as Chinese language teachers, come in.

In a world of fake news and stupefyingly misleading narratives, the ability to speak, read, and write Chinese and other foreign languages supplies the key to direct personal observation of what is actually happening.  You cannot make your students turn that key or guarantee that they understand China and the Chinese people, but you can enable them to enter the world of the fifth of humanity that is Chinese and to experience it directly, if they choose to do so.  That, as I said when I began my remarks, is an invaluable gift.

The demand for Chinese language training is likely to grow.  Regrettably, some of the growth will be generated by the U.S. government’s need to understand China as an enemy.  知己知彼百战百胜.[5]  But some of it will reflect the emergence of Chinese as a leading language of science, engineering, and commerce.  Assuming the United States remains open to Chinese tourism and China continues to permit travel here, some of it will come from increased demand for hospitality services for Chinese visitors to American hotels, restaurants, national parks, and monuments.  Machines may ease the work of human translators or even replace them, but they are unlikely to replace human interpreters and service personnel, given the importance of body language, facial expressions, and other non-verbal forms of communication.

Finally, the current ascendancy in the United States of climate-change denial and the desire to withdraw from cooperative relationships with foreign governments and societies do not alter the reality that global problems and interests demand planetwide efforts to address them.  It is said that, with the demise of the Soviet Union, we no longer have a common enemy to energize our cooperation.  But that is not true.

No effort to tackle planetwide problems or those in the global commons can succeed without at least parallel, if not joint efforts by China and the United States – from each according to our ability.  In time, the two countries will rediscover ways to coexist and cooperate despite the differences now dividing us.  If we each speak the other’s language, this will happen earlier than otherwise.  再接再厉![6]

[1] Live to senility and keep studying as you go.  There’ll still be lots you just don’t yet know.

[2] Agreements must be kept.

[3] The haggis’s left and right legs are of different lengths, allowing it to run quickly around the steep mountains and hillsides which make up its natural habitat, but only in one direction.  There are two varieties of haggis, one with longer left legs and the other with longer right legs. The former variety can run clockwise around a mountain while the latter can run anticlockwise.  The two varieties coexist peacefully but are unable to breed in the wild because for the male of one variety to mate with a female of the other, he must turn to face in the same direction as his intended mate. This lustful maneuver causes him to lose his balance before he can mount her.  Haggises that lose their balance tumble down hillsides.  Once they reach an even playing field, they cannot right themselves.

[4] A四不像 (“sibuxiang”) is a fictional jumbled up creature with improbable characteristics, the Chinese equivalent of the American “jackalope.”

[5] Know yourself and your opponent and you will win every battle.

[6] Keep up the good work!