The State of Sino-American Relations and their Global Context

The State of Sino-American Relations and their Global Context
Remarks to the Brown China Summit

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
Senior Fellow, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University
Providence, Rhode Island, 5 April 2019

I’m pleased to see so many Chinese and American students at this gathering.  Your presence together reflects the very long way the United States and China have come since Deng Xiaoping visited Washington forty years ago.  Americans and Chinese didn’t know much about each other back then.

I’m sure you’ve heard that when Mr. Deng went to the then U.S. Liaison Office in Beijing to get his visa, the regular consular officer was not well.  His substitute did not speak Chinese, so he used English to ask Mr. Deng what city he planned to visit.  Not understanding the question, Deng replied “我姓邓.” [1]  “Ah, Washington.  Check,” said the American officer.  “And, why are you going there?”  Deng thought he was being asked to state his given name and replied “小平.” [2]  “Shopping?” said the officer.  “Oh!  Sounds like a plan,” and issued the visa. The rest is history.

Since Deng Xiaoping opened China to America and the rest of the world, it has made huge progress, but has been a mostly stable place.  That is a marked contrast to the China I first encountered fifty years ago during the Cultural Revolution.  At that time, I heard a story about the uncertainties of Chinese politics.  Is there anyone here who doesn’t speak Chinese?  If not, here’s the story as I was originally told it:  话说有三个人被送去劳改。有一个高的,一个中等的,还有一个矮的。 六个月以后他们才敢问他们为什么都在那儿。高的说 “我在这儿因为我支持邓小平 “。身材中等的说” 我在这儿由于我反对邓小平。 “矮地说:” 我就是邓小平! “ [3]

Since then, China has progressed toward the rule of law.  No more “reform through labor.”  The United States and China squabbled and cooperated and became friends.  不打不成交.[4]  We gradually became interdependent.  But our relations are again troubled.

To listen and understand is not to agree, but respectful understanding of others’ feelings – or “empathy” – is the basis for sound international as well as individual relationships.  It is possible only when you have come to know and appreciate those with whom you are dealing.  I think the most beautiful expression of this truth may be in the Holy Qur’an.  It quotes God as saying: “O humankind! We have created you male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may get to know one another.”[5]  The same admonition to respect others is a basic precept of all ethical and national security traditions.  Confucius counseled: 己所不欲,勿施于人.  “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.”

But, suddenly – in the United States, at least – it’s official.  China and the United States are rivals – perhaps even adversaries – at the global level.  Recent Sino-American antipathies derive from militarism and demagoguery, not economics.  The trade war is just part of a larger hostility that will not soon be resolved.  If you doubt this, consider Washington’s worldwide efforts to sabotage Huawei’s business, to dissuade countries from participating in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, to bar Chinese investment everywhere, to focus Christians and Muslims on China’s suppression of religion, and to pin responsibility for the new world disorder on Beijing, among other anti-China initiatives.  The global nature of the Sino-American contention reflects overwrought American apprehensions about the implications for the global standing of the United States of China’s arrival as a world power.  A bit of realism is in order.

21st century Americans see the world through militarized eyes.  The U.S. response to China’s rise is almost exclusively military.  But China is not a world military power.  It may never be.   It does not join other countries as a co belligerent in their wars, conduct military interventions abroad, or seek to conquer territory beyond its historic borders.  It espouses no manifest destiny.   It is not in the regime-change business.  It is not in competition with the United States as a provider of security to other countries.  It does not seek foreign entanglements and shows no sign of wishing to establish a world-spanning military presence to rival that of the United States.

China is not an active threat to the American homeland.  It is at most a threat to continued U.S. primacy in the Asia-Pacific.  If Americans try to attack China, Chinese now have the means to fend them off and counterattack.  True, but the Chinese challenge to the international standing of the United States is primarily economic, scientific, and technological, not military.

China objects to the U.S. attempt to refocus American alliances in Asia on curbing its expanding influence in the region.  Chinese see this as challenging their security as well as their prospects for a peaceful return to assured international prestige and respectability or 面子 – “face.”  The militarization of Sino-American rivalry is leading to arms races in all strategic domains – the sea, air, land, space, and cyberspace.  To the detriment of economic and social development in both China and the United States, each country is diverting ever greater resources to its armed forces in preparation for combat with the other.

Lastly, China is not a world power politically in the sense the United States has been.  It may never be.  If the U.S. system has lost global appeal, this is because of U.S. decadence, not the rise of China.  Not only is the Chinese political system unattractive to foreigners, China does not seek to export it.  Despite echoes of the Chinese system in both Vietnam and north Korea, others do not aspire to emulate it.  Chinese have not articulated a vision of their future that offers anyone other than themselves specific benefits.  The “Chinese dream” of Xi Jinping is a vision about, by, and for Chinese, not foreigners.  It does not offer inspiration to those who are not Chinese.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, China was mugged by foreign imperialists.  It is not new that Chinese nationalists are determined as best they can to defend their country’s security, economic, and political interests as they see them.  Since 1949, China has used whatever power it has had to preclude others from positioning themselves on its periphery to threaten it.  This was the case in Korea in 1950 and later along the Sino-Indian, Sino-Soviet, and Sino-Vietnamese frontiers.  It is the case now with both the South China Sea and Taiwan, where rising Chinese military capabilities promise to keep American forces at bay.

And, as China has gained economic strength, it has begun to use the dependence of others on trade with it to pressure them to defer to it on both political and politico-military issues.  The list of countries subjected to Chinese-style bilateral sanctions (which are informal and seldom announced) now includes Australia, Canada, Japan, both Koreas, New Zealand, Norway, and the Philippines.  China’s exploitation of its economic power to coerce others has raised widening apprehensions.  China’s trading partners fear that it will not respect their economic interests or be prepared to give as well as take.

China now faces the same sort of foreign resentment that similar – though more overt – U.S. bluster, bullying, and swagger generate internationally.  Many outside China see its thin-skinned reactions to criticism as a neurotic and uniquely Chinese form of “great power chauvinism.”  China’s intolerance of perceived challenges to its 面子or amour propre is evidence of a continuing lack of self-confidence born of obsessive memories of long-vanished vulnerabilities.

China’s international political reputation is worsening.  Western political elites are almost universally repelled by the increasingly insistent illiberalism of the Chinese Communist Party.  So are many Chinese in Hong Kong and Taiwan.  Their distaste is not simply a reaction to China’s intolerance of spiritual alternatives to “Xi Jinping thought” and its recent attempts at coercive assimilation of ethnic and religious minorities.  Their disquiet reflects objections to China’s silencing of dissenting views in social media and its repression of independent journalism.  Official efforts to deny or sugarcoat repression do not persuade.  They are branding the Chinese government with a global reputation for brazen dishonesty.

The gap between what Chinese can do in the West and what an increasingly autocratic China will permit Westerners to do in China is growing.  The high-handed restrictions imposed on foreigners by China’s security apparatus strike many as contradicting China’s “opening” and retarding its “reform.”  Rather than trying to win over its critics, as it once did, the Chinese Communist Party now often just writes them off.  This is both counterproductive and a break with the precepts on which the Party rose to power, as two quotes from the late Mao Zedong suffice to illustrate.  He said, “anyone, no matter who, may point out our shortcomings. If he is right, we will correct them. If what he proposes will benefit the people, we will act upon it.” [6]    He also said, “[our] attitude … towards any person who has made mistakes … should be one of persuasion in order to help him change and start afresh and not one of exclusion, unless he is incorrigible.”[7]   This is far from the spirit of contemporary Chinese politics.  Unwillingness to engage with critics – scholars, journalists, religious figures, and politicians – just leaves their criticism uncorrected and allows constantly repeated distortions of reality to become accepted as facts.

In the absence of honest, corrective Chinese engagement with critics of China, false and misleading narratives increasingly dominate American discourse about China.  China’s ostracism of Americans with whom it does not agree leaves Chinese misinterpretations of American motives, strategies, and plans unchallenged.  This is conducive to counterproductive Chinese policies.

Meanwhile, in Washington, fact-free fear-mongering about China has become an all-purpose tool of lobbyists seeking funding for defense projects, advocating protectionist policies that benefit their corporate clients, and urging the adoption of strategies to cripple China’s economic competitiveness and exploit its internal divisions.  To cite a few examples of distorted narratives on the American side:

  • China does not oppose democracy in other countries or promote autocratic government beyond its borders. It is notoriously indifferent to how foreigners govern themselves.  If there is a global contest between American democracy and Chinese autocracy in progress, it is not a battle between rival ideologies.  It is a competition that will be decided by performance – which country delivers the greatest benefits and sense of well-being to its citizens over the long run.
  • “Debt-trap diplomacy” is an invention of American polemicists, not a Chinese policy or practice. The single, often-cited example of so-called “debt-trap diplomacy” – the debt-equity swap proposed by Sri Lanka to the Chinese company that built its port of Hambantota – was not an instance of such diplomacy.  In any event, one case does not demonstrate either a trend or a policy.
  • There has been no “expansion” of China’s claims to islands in the South and East China Seas. Nor has there been any contraction of these claims.  But, in response to actions by others to enforce their claims, China is no longer just asserting its own.  It is belatedly seeking to enforce them.
  • China does not challenge “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea. Two-thirds of the shipping there is en route to or from Chinese ports, giving China a bigger stake in untrammeled navigation there than any other nation.  China’s objections are to U.S. Navy aerial and shipborne reconnaissance of its defenses.  China also objects to U.S. Navy operations that challenge the way it has defined the territorial seas surrounding the land features it controls in the South China Sea.

These and other largely conjectural allegations feed tensions in Sino-American relations and alarm third parties.  Their effect is all the greater for coinciding with discomfiting changes in American foreign policy that are adversely affecting the global order.  Third countries now live amidst rising doubts about the willingness of the United States either to respect their interests or to back them as they adjust to a wealthier, stronger, and more assertive China, a resurgent Russia, and other regional powers.  All are hedging, some against American unreliability; some against potential bullying by China, Russia, or other countries; some against both possibilities.  This adds to strategic uncertainty and angst in both the United States and China.

Meanwhile, previously well-established norms of international conduct are eroding.  Advances in technology and globalization continue to shrink distance.  The safety once provided by geographic separation is disappearing.  Missiles, cybernetics, information technologies, and drones allow nations to wreak havoc in societies once remote from them.  Supply chains create efficiency by eliminating self-sufficiency; this makes those dependent on them vulnerable to their interruption.  Coercive measures short of conventional war that involve the manipulation of information and state exploitation of nonstate actors are ever more common.

Governance in international organizations no longer reflects the actual distribution of wealth and capabilities among states.  As power shifts, these institutions become less relevant and effective.  The United States and other great powers are abandoning the rules they formulated in the last century to sustain stability, protect the weak, limit conflict, and succor those displaced by persecution, war, and natural disasters.  Initiatives directed at arms control and escalation management have halted.  The danger that nuclear weapons will again be employed on the battlefield is growing.

Thucydides, whose “trap” we are said to have entered, wrote that in his world “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”  That is the world the last half of the 20th century sought to put behind us.  But it is the world that now seems to be returning in ways no one expected.

You are young men and women of potential or you wouldn’t be here.  The world into which you will graduate and in which you will spend at least part of your working lives has yet to take form.  It is a disorderly milieu that will punish you if your generation cannot find ways to improve it.  It will challenge you to apply what you have learned here not just to the advancement of your own country – whichever it is – but to the repair of Sino-American relations.  You must prepare yourselves to show your countrymen and women that you have what it takes to recraft a world order in which competition is benevolent and cooperation outweighs antagonism to the benefit of all.

The false hypotheses that are now put forward in each country about the other are best refuted by actions and facts, not by polarizing debate.  Years ago, Joe Nye, a Harvard professor, wisely observed that, if the United States treated China as an enemy, it would become one.  If China treats the United States as an enemy, it will be one.  Given human nature, neither side should expect anything but reciprocity from the other.  American defamation of China will engender Chinese vilification of the United States.  Ill treatment of Americans by China will provoke countermeasures by Americans against Chinese.  Indifference by one side to the complaints of the other will leave both angry and unresponsive to each other’s feelings.

Sino-American rapprochement has enriched the economies and cultures of both countries.  But, recently, the United States and China have strayed from empathy and reciprocity.  We need to find our way back to them.  The friendships you have made and the insights you have gained during your time here can play a role in this process.  The way to advance is by building on common interests despite differences – 求同存异.[8]  There are many shared Sino-American interests that are too compelling to be long ignored.  These include:

  • Cooperation on transnational issues like climate charge, securing commerce and navigation, limiting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems, and countering pandemics;
  • Maintaining a peaceful international environment in which disputes are resolved without violence and in which both peoples can enjoy prosperity, domestic tranquility, and secure national identities; and
  • Collaboration in the advancement of science and technology for the betterment of human life.

And, from time to time, as has been the case, for example, with the Korean nuclear issue, the two countries’ national security interests will coincide sufficiently to enable parallel, mutually supportive policies.

The days when any nation can afford to label others as “either for us or against us” are past.  So is the “Pax Americana,” the regulation of world order by the United States alone.  We are entering an age of competing nationalisms, regional balances of power, and limited international partnerships for limited purposes, perhaps for limited periods of time.   The United States and China must learn to cooperate on specific issues even as they compete on others.  This has become essential to the vital interests of both.  The degree of subtlety and finesse in each country’s statecraft will determine whether both China and the United States can find a safe space in a turbulent future.

The theme of this conference is “two countries, one dream.”  The current reality is 同床异梦 – sleeping in the same bed but dreaming different dreams.  I do not believe there is anything fundamentally incompatible about the American and Chinese dreams.  Quite the contrary.  But it will take sustained effort and a large ration of empathy to demonstrate this.  The recent actions of your elders have not made Sino-American rapprochement easy.  But it is a task that needs to be done.  It is one that only your generation can do.

[1] “Wo xing Deng.”  (My family name is Deng.)

[2] “Xiaoping.”

[3]  Once upon a time three guys were sent to reform though labor – one tall, one middle-sized, and one short.  It was six months before they finally dared ask each other why they were there.  The tall guy said: “I’m here because I supported Deng Xiaoping.”  The middle-sized guy said: “I’m here because I opposed Deng Xiaoping.”  And the short guy said: “I am Deng Xiaoping.”

[4] Only when you have fought can you become friends.

[5] يٰۤاَيُّهَا النَّاسُ اِنَّا خَلَقۡنٰكُمۡ مِّنۡ ذَكَرٍ وَّاُنۡثٰى وَجَعَلۡنٰكُمۡ شُعُوۡبًا وَّقَبَآئِلَ لِتَعَارَفُوۡا​ ؕ

[6] Mao Zedong, “Serve the People” (September 8, 1941), Selected Works, Vol. III, p. 227.

[7] Mao Zedong, “The Role of the Chinese Communist Party in the National War” (October 1938), Selected Works, Vol. II, p. 198.

[8] “Seek agreement; defer differences” [for resolution later].