America and China’s Perception Problems

Around the world China is increasingly seen as the bully while the U.S. seems more and more irresolute.

America and China’s Perception Problems
Credit: State Department Photo

What is a rising power to do? Let’s face it—anything Beijing does these days that seems aggressive in any way, shape, or form is big news. It will be discussed, overanalyzed and hyped over and over again thanks to the nature of social media, the size and scope of the global media, and the blogosphere’s repetitive nature.  From naval exercises in the Indian Ocean, to aggressive actions and territorial claims all over Asia, to frightening comments from various politicians and military leaders, a certain caricature of China is taking shape that will not be easy to change—that of a 21st century hegemonic schoolyard bully. There is certainly room for debate whether this is deserved or not—and I have my own opinions on the subject—however, perception is becoming reality for China.

Washington also seems to be suffering from a bit of a perception challenge. Defender of a peaceful and prosperous Asia-Pacific region since the end of the World War II, many now see the U.S. as merely reacting to events as opposed to providing global leadership. Will America defend the status-quo it spent so much blood and treasure shaping in the face of China slowly and steadily working to undermine it? Whether we want to call it retrenchment, isolationism, or war-weariness, many an op-ed page are littered with calls for America to define its interests in Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific region.

And we are not talking about containing Beijing—just merely defining a strategy in Asia that is beyond the usual boilerplate of peace, trade, and seeing China as a “responsible stakeholder” etc. In countless panels and meetings I attend with Asia hands here in Washington, many feel the so-called “pivot” or “rebalance” was more a slick marketing slogan than an actual declaration of direction in U.S. foreign policy. They ask, “Besides words, what deeds back up the talk?” The recent appointment of a new ambassador to Beijing who seemingly borrowed China policy advice from a famous U.S. boxing ref, that he would be “fair but firm,” does not meet the sniff test when it comes to serious strategic thinking. Also, many see this summer’s Syria crisis and come to an interesting conclusion: if America would not stop a brutal dictator from using chemical weapons would it really come to the aid of allies in Asia in a crisis with China over rocks that sometimes disappear during high tide? The answer many are beginning to come to is that Washington does not care that much about Asia—the pivot was just talk—America’s decline is real.

So Diplomat readers, why should you care about any of this? Simply put: China and Washington are slowly but surely being cast into roles that will not be easy for them to change for the foreseeable future—and such roles will have repercussions for policymakers throughout the Asia-Pacific and wider Indo-Pacific. China the rising, bullying hegemonic power. America the retrenching, declining superpower that does not value the status-quo enough to defend it. We can surely debate how much traction this all has and how much of this is believed to be the defining narrative of each nation. I would argue though it is undeniable such attitudes are something close to mainstream and becoming an increasing part of foreign policy debates in Washington, Beijing and the world.

The challenge for China and America, if you accept the above argument, is different for both parties. For Beijing, being seen as a bully is a problem for obvious reasons. While making claims on territory that it feels was wrongly stripped away or is part of its historical heritage may score points back home in the face of a slowing economy, such victories may ring increasingly hollow.  They come at a price—the further reinforcement of the bully narrative. Yet, China has made so many claims, flexing its muscles time and time again, can it reverse course in a way that it can reclaim the mantle of a “peaceful rise” without looking weak domestically in certain nationalist circles? I would answer yes. It would need to slowly alter the scope of its claims or change its tone—seeking dialogue in multilateral settings on issues of territorial challenges, ensuring senior officials do not “mouth off” or go off the reservation or face consequences. Beijing, for lack of a better word, needs to change the conversation. It needs to put forward a much more positive vision for Asia as opposed to what many nations in the region fear—a Chinese hegemony based on what is good for Beijing and not the region.

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The challenge for Washington will be equally complex. I would make the argument that the Obama Administration in many respects is running out the clock, making no major moves beyond Kerry’s gambit in the Middle East that hold a great deal of risk in Asia. Yes, there is the occasional declaration that America will not stand for this or that, but Pacific capitals are past such talk—they have seen this song and dance before. They are not looking for America to craft some sort of anti-China alliance or outright containment of Beijing, but rather take the lead in defending the status-quo Washington created. This means showing up at each and every regional forum—no matter what. It means leading the way in creating trade blocs like the TPP that could tie the region together—even extending a hand to China to join if it can meet the criteria. It also means pushing for mechanisms that can lessen tensions in contested areas such as some sort of U.S.-China incidents at sea agreement. And it means no more using bumper sticker style slogans that people will countlessly use as bellwethers to make judgments of progress up or down. Washington needs to lead the order it created in Asia—anything less invites instability.

So what happens if one or both sides allow such perceptions to become de facto realities? In some respects, we are already seeing the repercussions. Nations in Asia may assume the worst and begin what is already looking like a dangerous arms buildup that could have major consequences for the region. Add in budding nationalism, perceptions of historical wrongdoings and a toxic brew seems to be coming to a slow boil. It is up to Washington and Beijing to decrease tensions and ensure the prosperity of the last several decades is not cast aside in a flash of anger that descends into chaos. Otherwise, the only alternative is seeing the tragedies of history play out all over again, but this time, with even more deadly arms at their disposal.