The Debate

Why Calling China an “Adversary” Doesn’t Matter

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The Debate

Why Calling China an “Adversary” Doesn’t Matter

When Obama called China an “adversary” during Monday’s debate, he wasn’t telling Beijing anything new.

In some quarters much is being made about the fact that President Obama referred to China as an “adversary” during Monday’s foreign policy debate.

During the debate, Obama said, “China is both an adversary, but also a potential partner in the international community if it's following the rules.” By contrast, Romney—who has repeatedly said he would label China a currency manipulator during his first day in office—responded that, “We can be a partner with China. We don't have to be an adversary in any way, shape or form.”

As Josh Rogin at The Cable noted immediately, Hillary Clinton’s views were more aligned with Romney than the President’s own. As Rogin notes, Clinton began her term by refusing to label China an adversary. This was in line with the administration’s initial engagement policy with China during 2009. Even as U.S.-Chinese relations have deteriorated in the intervening years, Rogin points out, Clinton has still refused to apply the term adversary towards China.

Some in the Beltway have been parsing Obama’s words for significance. Gregory Kulacki of the Union of Concerned Scientists, for instance, told Voice of America that, “While there is no way of knowing” whether the term was used purposely, “ I do think it is interesting that he chose to use the word ‘adversary’ in combination with the word ‘partner.’  ‘Adversary’ is a term used in a military or security context.”

I tend to think that the president simply slipped in calling China an adversary, and using that description was in no means premeditated. This in itself is somewhat significant given that it provides insight into how the Obama administration, diplomatic niceties aside, views China.

Nonetheless, any significance this does have doesn’t extend to Beijing. For Chinese leaders, and likely the Chinese masses, there has never been any real doubt that the U.S. viewed their country as anything but an adversary.

This was stated in no uncertain terms by Wang Jisi, one of China’s foremost American experts and a close, informal aide to Chinese President Hu Jintao. In a report he co-authored for the Brookings Institution earlier this year, Wang explained, “China’s strategic distrust of the United States is deeply rooted, and in recent years it seems to have deepened. He went on to note:

"It is strongly believed in China that the ultimate goal of the United States in world affairs is to maintain its hegemony and dominance and, as a result, Washington will attempt to prevent the emerging powers, in particular China, from achieving their goals and enhancing their stature. According to typical Chinese understanding of world history, American politicians are true believers of “the law of the jungle,” and their promotion of democracy and human rights are in reality policy tools to achieve goals of power politics. This cynicism is so widespread that no one would openly affirm that the Americans truly believe in what they say about human rights concerns. The rise of China, with its sheer size and very different political system, value system, culture, and race, must be regarded in the United States as the major challenge to its superpower status. America’s international behavior is increasingly understood against this broad backdrop."

Similarly, following Monday’s debate, Peking University’s Zhu Feng told the Wall Street Journal that he didn’t expect much of a reaction in Beijing about Obama using the term “adversary” because, according to WSJ’s paraphrasing of Zhu, “it reflect [sic] broad attitudes in Washington toward Beijing.” The Wall Street Journal also reports that China’s state-run media didn’t dwell upon the president’s comment.

Thus despite years of Washington’s repeated assurance that the U.S. does not view China as an adversary and isn’t trying to contain its rise, Beijing accepts as an article of faith that the opposite is true on both accounts. Increasingly, it seems that most in Washington are coming around to the same conclusions, however belatedly.

Zachary Keck is Assistant Editor of The Diplomat. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.