AS China’s economic situation worsens and tension in the neighbourhood rises, the Chinese leadership is worried at the turn its relations with the US is taking. China acknowledges that this bilateral relationship has immensely facilitated its rise. The US remains China’s prime source of hi-technology, Chinese companies list on the New York stock exchange, and China’s exports to the US touched a whopping $452.58 billion in 2020. Any further slide would stall, if not reverse, China’s rise.
To get a sense of China’s thinking on Sino-US relations, it is worth examining comments by influential Chinese analysts, including those made around the time of the US-China summit in November 2021. These comments reflect the divergence of views that have existed for some years within the CCP and suggest that the subject is again under active discussion, with a renewed focus on ways to mend it. The preparations for a potential meeting between top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on core national security concerns could also be a factor in the debate’s revival.
Yuan Peng, one of China’s leading America experts, who heads the think tank of the Ministry of State Security, warns that the US is used to dealing with other countries from a position of strength and has failed to see that the east is ‘rising’ while the West is ‘falling’.
He says the attacks of September 11, 2001, caused a security crisis, the 2008 subprime fiasco led to an economic crisis and Trump’s victory in 2016 created a political crisis. Now, he says, the US may also face a social crisis of a magnitude that it has not seen in decades.
Citing the hurried withdrawal from Afghanistan by the US, the analyst asserts that the US was willing to lose face to better respond to China. He states that what really worries the US is not the extent of China’s economic strength but the growth of its science and technology, its military, and its governance model which has facilitated China’s rise.
This shift in the strategic focus of the US to the ‘Indo-Pacific’ has now brought it to China’s doorstep he declares, where the two sides face ‘hand-to-hand contact’ for the first time in a century and regard each other’s every move with suspicion.
Although Yuan appears to take a hard stance, he subtly hints that China will need to reach some compromise with the US in the near term to facilitate its development. Because, he asserts, the US is still powerful and “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” is the most important issue for China.
Yang Jiemian, another expert and the brother of a Politburo member, appears to toe the government’s hawkish stance. He suggests that China play off the US against Russia and vice versa. At the same time, Beijing must remain alert about Washington’s attempts to split China, while recognising that Russia is wary of China’s expanding influence in Eurasia, as even brothers can have problems.
Yang also expresses concern about China’s deteriorating ties with Europe, which he calls the fourth pillar in global affairs. With Angela Merkel’s departure, he says, it would be unrealistic to expect Sino-German relations to remain the same, because while Europe and the US may have differences, these are only up to a point.
The views of China’s longest serving ambassador to the US, Cui Tiankai, are also significant. Ideologically, one of the more conservative ‘left’ cadres, Cui’s term in Washington was extended by Xi Jinping because he had built up good access to Donald Trump’s family and inner circle. Interestingly, though Cui’s views appeared to have sharpened since his ambassadorial appointment, he too hints that China must keep its eye on the bigger issue of its “great rejuvenation” and be “clear-headed and fully prepared to deal with the twists and turns, turbulence, and even the roller-coaster of Sino-US relations in the future.”
Cui also asserts that China must be very vigilant while dealing with the US as tensions between the two powers continue to grow despite the November summit, and these are unlikely to improve in the near future.
He adds that there has been “a very strong element of racism” in Washington’s China policy, with the US unwilling to accept the rise of a power that is very different in its social system, ideology, cultural traditions and ethnicity. “The US will inevitably try every possible means and spare no effort, even without a bottom line, to suppress, contain, divide and besiege China,” he asserts.
Zhang Baijian — who took part in Zhou Enlai’s talks with Henry Kissinger during his secret visit to China in 1971 — presents a somewhat contrary viewpoint. Seeming to leave the door open for compromise, Zhang stresses the need for China to balance its opening up with safeguarding its national interests. He cautions that the US is down but not out, and while its role as a global leader is declining, history shows that it can recover and revive.
All three were careful to subtly express their views without overtly criticising Xi’s US policy. However, in a thinly veiled criticism on January 23, Jia Qingguo, an America expert and member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the country’s highest political advisory body, warned China not to unduly focus on national security as it would be self-destructive.
These comments will have disconcerted Xi, coming as they do just months before the crucial 20th Party Congress, where his third term will be decided. Nevertheless, Xi is likely to continue to pursue his hard-line policy to forestall obstacles and prevent any loss of face — at least till the Party Congress.
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