Historians often talk of the period in which the United States “lost” China. It was in the very early period of the People’s Republic of China, when there was a brief opportunity for the Unite States to bring the infant nation into their sphere of influence, through diplomatic opening and trade links. But thanks to intransigence on both sides, the moment soon passed. For the next two decades, the United States and PRC were mortal enemies, a situation made all the worse by the primacy Washington placed on Moscow, contributing to Beijing’s sense of injustice and unequal treatment. Now in analyzing the last decade, historians may say that China has lost the United States.
In the era of China’s emergence onto the global stage since 2000, the defensive, victimized posture that Beijing has taken historically overshadows and obscures that fact that these days it can make real decisions about its own fate. Power is increasingly in its own hands now, and Beijing has a world to lose or gain. The rest of the world can only restrict its space, if they feel it necessary – they cannot completely close it off, as some of them once tried to do. And while this creates a sense of prestige, China is still reticent to shoulder the burdens of a great power with a stake in the international order. Beijing’s predictable use of its position on the UN Security Council and refusal to work within a rules-based system to address territorial disputes suggest a less mature approach to engagement than its material capabilities intimate. Grand strategy and true diplomacy take a backseat to court politics, continuing an ancient narrative that is no longer useful.
We observe this play out even further in bilateral relations with the world’s only superpower. The treatment of President Barack Obama by the Chinese was a huge and expensive strategic mistake, one that is only now truly showing its diplomatic cost. The humiliating treatment of Obama during his first visit to Beijing and Shanghai in 2009, where he was carefully shielded from public contact and did not even get a meaningful press conference, may have made the Chinese feel empowered at the time. But it showed a terrible misjudgment. Whatever the Chinese feelings about Obama, the simple fact is that he represented what is still, by far, the world’s strongest military and economic power. The office of the presidency takes precedence over the person who holds it. Failure to grasp this point illustrates the disconnect that a culture driven by the privileging of personal connectedness (guanxi) will face in dealing with different political traditions.
Chinese assessments of Obama as a weak president from that time on provoked their often haughty words and actions toward the United States. Beijing’s shrill denunciations of his so called “pivot” to Asia often backfired, signalling to worried neighbors that the era of “keeping a low profile and biding time” had long since come to an end. What the Chinese missed was the broader reality that the “pivot” was largely a public relations effort to shine a light to the Asia-Pacific region and refocus the American people’s attention on truly strategic initiatives. The pivot itself offered little more than the reassignment of a few troops, a small contingent of littoral ships, and an economic alliance structure that has been fully scuppered. Rather than concrete new policies, the pivot more accurately represented a chance to showcase the already well-established U.S. footprint in the Pacific and the actual primacy that the region plays in America’s long-term strategy.
We have to ask today, however, whether Beijing’s posture was really the right one. It was by no means the main factor, but the ways in which the Chinese often made Obama’s life hard contributed to a perception that he was, in fact, a weak president, and one unable to defend and prosecute the interests of the United States abroad. Now the terminology of “pivot” is over, as the Trump administration recently acknowledged. But little has changed in terms of real equity or power. This is where Beijing continues to miss the mark.
The net result of China’s approach was the repudiation of Obama’s style of diplomacy with the election of his complete opposite: the brash, transactional Trump, with a brutally simplistic view of the world and of how to deal with the China threat. The Chinese lost the chance to match their skills at the game of go with a leader willing to play chess, and will now find themselves facing an American president bent on playing a far simpler, more brutal game – one premised not on playing over the long term and spreading risk, but rushing to seize quick gains that have a high chance of going wrong.
In 2009, the Chinese misread Obama. They simply got him wrong. Obama, in many ways, was open minded and cerebral enough that the Chinese could have worked much better with him. Instead, they mistook him as weak, and acted in ways that restricted his own space for maneuver toward China.
This mistake should instill in them more humility. Reading Trump as just a simple-minded, deal-making buffoon might make Beijing feel even more emboldened. But at the end of the day, Obama and Trump are front men for the same machine, and that remains the most formidable military, economic and diplomatic entity the world has ever known. Whatever Beijing’s leaders’ personal feelings for Trump, they would be wise to see past the man, with all his faults and unattractiveness, to the entity that he represents, and to recognize that they still need to work with that. Losing the United States once in a decade was a mistake. Doing it twice would be a sign of an existential inability, despite all their years of studying the United States and its system, to get their greatest competitor and potential ally right.
Kerry Brown is Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London, and an Associate Fellow at Chatham House, London.
Meghan Iverson is a Master’s student at King’s College.