US Vice President Joe Biden’s recent four-day trip to China ended on a high note. He assured Chinese leaders that the United States is committed to honouring all of its debts, despite its recent credit downgrade; he talked enthusiastically about US-China interdependence; and he showcased his granddaughter, who has studied Chinese for several years, as a future bridge between the two countries.
But behind all the smiles and banquet toasts, serious issues and perception gaps continue to divide the world’s two great powers.
For a start, there’s always an attitude problem. To those who view China’s rise in a negative light, the country is simply becoming ever more arrogant. It is getting tough in its territorial disputes with Japan in the East China Sea; it’s becoming assertive in the South China Sea with its neighbours, also over disputed islands; it put its own stealth fighter on display during US Defence Secretary Robert Gates’ visit to China; it’s sending its first aircraft carrier out to sea for trials, indicating the possibility of establishing naval bases in the Indian Ocean. Even a brawl between the Chinese and a visiting American basketball team is viewed as evidence of China’s aggressive behaviour.
Many Chinese, on the other hand, tend to think that the United States is suffering from a severe case of conceited superpower syndrome. As these Chinese see it, the United States has a rather dysfunctional government, but still insists that its political and economic system is the best in the world, and that everyone should emulate it. It’s heavily in debt, but can’t stop spending and borrowing. It is no longer competitive in manufacturing, but blames others for its huge trade deficit. And the world’s only military superpower is often seen within China as trigger-happy when intervening in other countries’ internal affairs.
Then there’s the issue of trust. China’s critics argue that its claims to a peaceful rise aren’t credible, given the country’s non-democratic, one-party system. Coupled with this is a zero-sum view of the world, in which any Chinese gain in the share of the global economy, or any increased presence in many parts of the world, must be at the expense of the United States or other powers. Any Chinese military move is portrayed as an expansionary and aggressive act that must be contained. Any attempts at engagement by Western politicians, such as Biden’s recent trip, are automatically met with doubt and criticism for cozying up to dictators.
Likewise, for those Chinese who are suspicious of US intentions, conspiracy is always in play. They see a declining superpower using economic, military, and diplomatic means in an unrelenting effort to prevent China’s rise. Talk of human rights and democracy is nothing but a smoke screen for demonizing China. Arms sales to Taiwan, Tibetan activism, and ‘colour revolutions’ of various kinds are all sponsored by the United States and other Western powers, and are aimed at weakening China.
Despite decades of close interaction, with millions of Americans, Europeans, and Japanese visiting China every year and similar numbers of Chinese now visiting the US and other advanced countries, both sides see each other through a glass darkly. Increased interdependence hasn’t led to better understandings on even some of the most basic issues.
China’s Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Fu Ying expressed her country’s anxiety about this state of affairs in a recent interview. ‘The most important thing is the question of whether China and the US are enemies. Are we going to be in a war? Are we preparing for a war against each other?’ Biden, while reaffirming that the United States doesn’t view China as an enemy, implied that Fu’s worries are not fanciful, saying that the worst scenario is a misunderstanding that leads to an unintended conflict.
So the key issue for China, its neighbours, the United States and rest of the world isn’t how many aircraft carriers, missiles, submarines, and next-generation fighters China may produce and deploy in the coming years and decades. Rather, it’s how China intends to use its newly acquired economic and military strength in pursuing its domestic and foreign-policy goals – and how the world’s leading powers can ensure that they do not end up harming each other by accident or misunderstanding.
To meet these challenges successfully, there is no viable alternative to a positive, continuous, and frank engagement between China and the rest of the world. The Chinese economy will continue to grow; the Chinese military will continue to modernize; and the Chinese people will remain united in their great power aspirations. A Cold War-style confrontation and containment policy from the West will be met with strong resistance from the Chinese, whose global leverage, particularly in finance, cannot be ignored.
Only a patient, creative, and consistent engagement strategy will mitigate fears on both sides. China’s rise is a fact; the enduring peacefulness of that rise must be a priority for China, its neighbours, the West, and, most importantly, the United States.
Wenran Jiang is Chair of the China Institute at the University of Alberta and Senior Fellow of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. This article is an edited version of a piece that appeared with Project Syndicate that has been reproduced with the permission of the author.