The Truth About Anti-China Discourse in the United States
Image Credit: White House Photo

The Truth About Anti-China Discourse in the United States


I’ve noticed a pattern of analysts and scholars who, being either sympathetic to Chinese government views or critical of U.S. Asia policy, point to an “anti-China” discourse in U.S. scholarly and policymaking circles.  These discourse analyzers express concern that the United States is provoking China and, at the most logical extreme, threatening regional stability.  Their concerns are mostly misplaced.  Blaming U.S. discourse for Chinese assertiveness would be amusing were it not irresponsible; it alleviates China of any accountability for its own actions.

To the extent that there’s an “anti-China” discourse in U.S. circles, its roots are not inherently with hawkish propensities of U.S. policymakers but with regional and U.S. perceptions of Chinese word and deed.

In a recent Diplomat piece, Dingding Chen repeated an occasionally heard argument that U.S. discourse about China is worrying, not because it reflects an aggressive China, but because it reflects a potentially aggressive or reckless U.S. policy establishment; this is the subtext of such arguments.  In 2013 Alastair Iain Johnston offered a similarly themed analysis, claiming there was an “assertive China” meme in U.S. discourse, and that it was not connected to any particularly assertive change in Chinese behavior.  Indeed, a large body of work of uneven quality has tried to frame any friction in Sino-U.S. relations as the onus of the United States, declaring the latter should, among other things, stop reconnaissance mission in international waters and not deploy ballistic missile defense to protect allies.

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The logical error made by discourse analysis of this ilk is not in pointing out that some in the United States routinely express concern about Chinese behavior; this is accurate.  But it does not necessarily follow that because an “anti-China” discourse exists in the United States that either U.S. perceptions are unfounded, or that U.S. behavior is to blame for Chinese behavior.  Both of these logical leaps require scrutinizing not primarily U.S. behavior and perceptions, but dyadic behavior and regional perceptions.

Chinese discourse routinely calls for an end to U.S. alliances, a return to multipolarity, and a new regional architecture in lieu of the post-Cold War liberal order.  This is frequently written about, but was on display yet again during the Asan Plenum 2015, an international conference in which I recently participated in Seoul, South Korea.  Unlike many conferences where these arguments are advanced, the Asan Plenum’s panel discussions involving Chinese friends making such statements are all available online here.  These arguments are not only audience tone-deaf (telling a conference host they shouldn’t want or need a U.S. alliance); they also constitute a Chinese discourse that is fundamentally revisionist in the sense that it represents and seeks to foment deviations from an international status quo that has ironically accommodated China’s economic and military rise.

The Asan Plenum was not an isolated incident; attending international conferences with Chinese friends has often left me with the same impression, one summarized rather well by a loyal Diplomat reader: “I occasionally attend academic conferences in which there are Chinese participants. And usually some if not all of the theories about China — collapse, Asia for Asians, balancing, punishing– are discussed. One feature has been free wheeling, transparent discussions by all non-Chinese participants and only rigid presentations by the Chinese.”  Chinese discourse about China is crafted and controlled; U.S. and Asian discourse about China explores all logical possibilities in open debate.

As a Pew Poll in 2014 evidenced, most Asian countries are worried about China’s behavior and intentions.  This sentiment comes through even more compellingly in a survey of Asian policy elites conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies: while 83% of Chinese elites polled believed China’s impact on regional security was either “very positive” or “somewhat positive,” less than 20% of respondents from other countries on average shared that view.  There is, in other words, a massive chasm between Chinese perceptions (and those who sympathize) and virtually everyone else.

These polls matter because they’re suggestive of regional perceptions, which is overwhelmingly concerned with Chinese intentions.  Ignoring this ignores an important source of military modernization happening throughout the region.  Worse still, by focusing blame on the United States rather than analyzing Chinese word and deed, discourse analysts effectively give China a pass; anything China does gets to be framed as defensive or reactive, and any friction can be blamed on U.S. provocativeness.  Such framing also overlooks a great deal of contemporary research making both a logical and evidentiary case for contemporary Chinese assertiveness.

Problematizing discourse has its roots in sociology, and the idea that shared symbols and representations among a group of people not only reflects the identity and interests of the group, but “shapes and shoves” the behavior of groups and individuals in various ways.  Sociology went mainstream in the study of international relations (IR) after the end of the Cold War and the seeming failure of realist and rationalist theories to anticipate such an epochal shift.  As every graduate student knows, the strands of realism popularized by Kenneth Waltz and John Mearsheimer view IR as a system of unceasing competition for power among states, leading to pessimistic assessments of state behavior and intentions in virtually all circumstances.

Constructivism, a sociological approach to IR—which defends the basic claim that real-world actions and material “reality” lack inherent meaning, and that meaning is instead assigned by group perceptions—was analytically game-changing.  Constructivism offers an ontology that makes it possible for states to escape endless competition.  Discourse analysis, a tool of constructivism, has subsequently become more popular among and associated with scholars who might be described as averse to military affairs and as more interested in focusing on cooperation than conflict.

But there’s no reason discourse analysis must be the sole province of critics of U.S. defense policy, and just because it’s possible for states to transform relationships doesn’t mean states can’t be trapped in security dilemmas or face material danger from others.

Discourse matters, which is why I find it troubling that a number of intelligent and thoughtful Asia watchers would perpetuate narratives about Sino-U.S. relations that allows China to engage in more assertive behavior unchecked, while even the mere discussion of the United States taking steps to induce restraint in a more assertive China are framed as provocative.  That’s analytically dishonest.

Rather than marginalizing the opinions of elites in Asian capitals and focusing public attention on U.S. policymaker concerns about China’s intentions, discourse analysts would do well to direct their analysis to benchmarking regional perceptions of China, studying Chinese discourse intended for foreign audiences, and observing patterns of Chinese behavior.

In the final analysis, policy prescriptions for China depend on whether one believes China is or will be a status quo or revisionist state, as I discussed in a Diplomat piece last week.

As Sebastian Junger emotionally extolled, “At some point, pacifism becomes part of the machinery of death.”  We need not seek conflict with China and we should cultivate empathy for its perspective, but the ironic consequence of focusing on a U.S. “anti-China” discourse and allowing Chinese assertiveness to escape from view may be a failure to balance a rising revisionist power before it’s too late.

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