There is high anxiety in the upper echelons of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership in Beijing at the present state of China-US relations. Official Chinese think tanks have described China-US tensions as at a ‘dangerous’ turn and apprehend that relations could rapidly deteriorate further leading even to conflict. China’s leadership assesses that tensions have been sharply accentuated by the coronavirus pandemic and that the consequent worldwide rise in anti-China sentiment has been fanned by the US. The CCP leadership is divided, however, on whether it should make concessions in order to repair relations with the US.
Three Chinese think tanks recently analysed different aspects of US-China relations and issued their reports in late April. Affirming China’s need for good ties with the US, two of them recommended measures to arrest the slide in China-US relations and turn the anti-China sentiment, including in the US, in China’s favour. None recommended yielding concessions to the US, which would mean altering the assertive foreign policy being followed by Chinese President Xi Jinping, and neither suggested steps that might provoke the US. There were two prominent Chinese, though, who hinted through the Hong Kong media at ways to reduce tensions.
The suggestions of these two officials seemed to dilute the deadlines on aspects of China’s ‘Two Centenary’ goals — which include reunification of Taiwan with the mainland and establishment of sovereignty over the South China Sea. Chinese officials have traditionally resorted to publicising their own, or their patrons’, views that are controversial through the Hong Kong media which is read by senior cadres inside China. It is indicative also of serious differences within the top echelons of China’s leadership on whether to re-orient China’s foreign policy.
Reuters reported on May 4 that the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), a think tank of China’s Ministry of State Security (MoSS), had presented an ‘internal’ report to President Xi Jinping and top Chinese leaders in early April. It warned that Beijing faces a rising wave of hostility in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak that could tip relations with the United States into confrontation.
The report concluded that anti-China sentiment globally is at its highest since the Tiananmen Square crackdown and could fuel resistance to China’s Belt and Road infrastructure investment projects. Washington could also step up financial and military support for regional allies, making the security situation in Asia more volatile. The report said Beijing faces a wave of anti-China sentiment led by the United States in the aftermath of the pandemic and needs to be prepared in a worst-case scenario for armed confrontation. It added that the US aims to undercut the CCP by undermining public confidence.
A People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Daily essay on May 5, reinforced the CICIR’s assessment and described the bleak economic and political situation as having reached a ‘high explosive point’. It cautioned that major foreign powers could utilise the difficult global economic situation for gaining overall strategic advantage and use the economic crisis to cause a recession in China and provoke social upheaval. Advocating the need for financial and military preparedness, it warned that an economic crisis could cause a political crisis.
On April 24, China’s biggest government think tank, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) published in its China Social Science Journal a lengthy 3,152-character report analysing US media attacks against China during the Covid-19 pandemic. Published only in Chinese, it identified six main characteristics of the US media ‘slandering and denigrating China’ and said Beijing needs to prepare for future propaganda wars against China during major emergencies.
The CASS report recommended six steps for winning ‘public opinion battles’. Among them are: coordinating with government media, private media, diplomats, enterprises and think tanks to coordinate quick and effective counter-attacks; use all channels including social media and mobilise companies, think tanks, foreign scholars and experts who are ‘China-friendly’ to speak and write articles on foreign platforms; and hire and train people to write op-ed articles in foreign languages and ‘borrow’ think-tank experts and foreign journalists to edit Chinese state media abroad.
The so-called ‘private’ Beijing-based Minzhi International Research Institute, published an article on US-China relations on April 24. The think tank is important because it is headed by Prof Zhang Weiwei, a former Chinese Foreign Ministry official who has successively worked as a translator for then Premier Li Peng, Vice Premier Wan Li and Deng Xiaoping.
Asserting ‘there is no doubt that we can achieve a great renaissance and may even surpass the United States’, the article emphasised ‘senior Chinese officials are very clear-headed that they must improve Sino-US relations’ in which China has invested heavily.
The article discussed 12 ways of reducing anti-China influence in the US, including mobilising lobbies to influence government, and reducing ‘unnecessary’ panic of Americans about China. Panic, it said, will hamper China’s development and rise and ‘is very likely to harm our own fundamental interests.’
Many senior party cadres and officials in Chinese think tanks have since mid-2018 privately blamed Xi Jinping’s aggressive foreign policy for China’s growing international isolation, rapidly deteriorating relations with the US, and poor international image.
Any substantive effort to repair relations with the US would mean backtracking on the ‘Two Centenary’ goals, on which Xi Jinping has staked personal prestige and authority. It would imply reverting to Deng Xiaoping’s policy of ‘lie low, bide your time’. Xi Jinping is unlikely to quietly yield to inner-party opposition.
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