Susan L. Shirk is a research professor and chair of the 21st Century China Center at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California, San Diego, and served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the U.S. Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs. Her most recent book, Overreach: How China Derailed Its Peaceful Rise, won the 2023 Lionel Gelber Prize.
It’s looking more and more like China and the United States – politicians and ordinary citizens alike – have given up on one another. In a recent speech, Wang Jisi, one of China’s most respected international relations scholars, said that “China no longer holds any expectations for improving China-U.S. relations.” A Chinese diplomat told me that people in China had lost hope that diplomatic talks or changes in policy by either side could mend relations. They believe that the U.S. strategic intention is to kill China, he said, no matter how the country acts. China’s President, Xi Jinping, depicted American objectives in the worst possible light at the March, 2023, meeting of the National People’s Congress, blaming the U.S. for an “all-around containment, encirclement and suppression of China.”
American politicians and the public have come to similarly pessimistic conclusions about Chinese intentions. According to a March, 2023, poll by the Pew Research Center, negative views of China are at an all-time high (83 per cent) among Americans, and the share of Americans describing China not just as a competitor, but as an enemy, has risen to 38 per cent. More than half of Americans think that the two countries cannot co-operate on international issues.
This fatalistic gloom about the future of U.S.-China relations is a dangerous trend. It could blind the two sides to realistic possibilities for working out their differences peacefully and cause them to drift into war.
The U.S. and China have become so hostile toward one another that they have lost all their motivation to make gains through mutual accommodation. Why adjust your behaviour if you believe that it won’t be reciprocated or even acknowledged by the other side?
That’s why the most urgent priority for both sides should be a return to traditional diplomacy and confidence-building, to reduce hostility. The U.S. government has been calling for “guard rails” and “putting a floor under the relationship.” But another crucial objective is to dispel hostility and restore motivation for compromise. Showing our ability to get agreement on some less sensitive issues, such as having Fulbright scholars and Peace Corps volunteers return to China, would help. Another way to incentivize positive action would be to publicly acknowledge it when it occurs, for example, crediting China for brokering the peace agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Today’s dangerously high level of hostility has resulted from the interaction of China’s overreach and America’s overreaction. After Mao Zedong died, Chinese leaders Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin exercised international self-restraint to reassure the world that China’s intentions were peaceful, even as its economic and military capabilities were growing. China managed its foreign policy to enable it to rise peacefully.
But during the Hu Jintao era, even before the 2008 global financial crisis, China changed its behaviour. Its aggressive posture in world affairs and tightened grips on its domestic society and economy led to what it most feared – a return to the politics of containment.
After 2012, Xi Jinping’s centralized, personalistic regime, and the top-down pressure it put on all officials to demonstrate their loyalty to the leader, made it even more prone to overreach. China’s image as a responsible power was sullied by Beijing’s new, bullying style of foreign policy, which included economic coercion against countries that critiqued Chinese domestic policies; belligerent “wolf warrior” rhetoric; operations to cultivate political influence with politicians and organizations in other countries; cyberhacking of foreign firms; military intimidation against Taiwan and Japan; and coast guard and fishing boat deployments in the coastal zones of Southeast Asian neighbours, in violation of international law. All backfired against China. The thought-reform camps for Muslims in Xinjiang and the destruction of Hong Kong’s freedoms under the Hong Kong Security Law made China all the more repugnant in the eyes of Westerners. Mr. Xi’s continuing cover-up of information about COVID-19 and his refusal to condemn Russia’s brutal unprovoked invasion of Ukraine further inflamed animosity against China.
Chinese policy making could become even more arbitrary and self-defeating during Mr. Xi’s third term, which began in 2022. Mr. Xi will be General-Secretary of the Communist Party, Chairman of the Central Military Commission, and the country’s President for at least another five years. Typically, when political leaders extend their time in power by changing the constitution, the quality of governance declines as the strongman leader struggles to remain popular and shore up the loyalty of other politicians, who resent the lack of power-sharing. Economic problems pile up and foreign policy becomes a handy tool to stimulate nationalism and divert attention from domestic problems, with potentially dangerous consequences. That’s why people inside and outside China worry that Mr. Xi might dare to attack Taiwan, even before the end of his third term in 2027.
While the impetus to push back against China extends beyond the U.S., it is strongest in Washington. The Biden administration came into office intending to revise the Trump administration’s confrontational strategy toward China, but finds itself perpetuating it instead. Joe Biden is using the contest with China as a foil for winning bipartisan support for his legislative agenda of American self-renewal. Taking advantage of the rivalry with China, he is challenging the U.S. Congress to prove that democracies can perform better than autocracies. Having heard both Democratic and Republican administrations vilifying China, the public naturally has become more suspicious of it. Anti-China attitudes have become the bipartisan axis of American politics. It’s turned into a new kind of political correctness that interferes with sensible thinking about the cost-benefit trade-offs involved in strategic choices toward China.
Many Americans have concluded that China is bound and determined to subvert the global order and supplant the U.S. as the world’s No. 1 power. They believe that negotiating to induce Beijing to moderate its aims and act more co-operatively would be fruitless.
Public statements by senior Biden administration officials accusing Beijing of “genocide” against Muslims in Xinjiang and identifying China as a greater threat than Russia – even though Russia is fighting a brutal, unprovoked war in Ukraine – communicate an unequivocally adversarial stand toward China.
A Chinese scholar, who had been briefed on the Bali meeting between Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi in November, told me that Mr. Biden had sought to reassure the Chinese leader on Taiwan and other issues, but that Mr. Xi didn’t believe he would be able to deliver on these commitments. They felt President Biden lacked the political courage to express his sentiments publicly, and that Congress would be unlikely to go along with them.
Strategic competition between China and the U.S. is focused on science and technology. U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan has stated that staying a couple of generations ahead in advanced logic and memory chips is no longer adequate; instead, America must “maintain as large of a lead as possible.” Export controls, embargoes on American technology to Chinese firms, and visa restrictions on Chinese science and engineering students who seek to study at America’s world-class universities – all of these policies aim to protect national security, but they end up harming American competitiveness.
America’s greatest asymmetric advantages are its open society, fair and law-based market economy, and its allure for talented people from around the world. Politicizing access to the American market, as China does its own, may give the U.S. an edge in the short term, but it ultimately harms economic efficiency and innovativeness, and tarnishes America’s credibility as the defender of open markets. Embargoing our technology to keep it out of the hands of Chinese firms will just align their incentives more closely to Beijing’s security-driven pursuit of self-sufficiency.
What’s more, these sanctions stoke anti-American sentiment in China. Since the sanctions aren’t part of a larger diplomatic strategy to nudge China into changing its behaviour, these restrictions are construed in China as a weapon for hampering their country’s progress. Ever since 2019, when the U.S. Commerce Department banned sales of American technology to the private Chinese company Huawei because of its close ties to the Chinese government, Chinese public views have grown increasingly anti-American. The festering resentment created by hostile U.S. rhetoric and actions, which is then fuelled by CCP propaganda, becomes a liability for stabilizing the relationship in the future.
But China’s overreach doesn’t have to lead to overreaction by America and a dangerous stand-off between the two. The next few years will tell whether the American body politic – and its counterparts in Canada and other democratic countries – can respond to the Chinese government’s actions in a proportionate and effective manner. The U.S. aim should be not to hold on to the top slot in a global pecking order. Instead, its overriding goal should be preventing a war by motivating China to behave constructively and not aggressively toward other countries, even if in some dimensions it outdoes the United States. China’s co-operation on global climate and public-health threats is also essential.
Some voices, including respected commentators such as Fareed Zakaria and Max Boot, and the editorial boards of The New York Times and The Washington Post, are urging a rethink of the hostile confrontation with China. Kurt Campbell, the top White House official responsible for China policy, framed the challenge: “I think you will see in the coming months whether it’s going to be possible to re-establish effective, predictable, constructive diplomacy between the United States and China.”
These will be crucial months.