Trans-Pacific View

Why the US and China Can’t Get to Yes (Even When They Could)

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Trans-Pacific View

Why the US and China Can’t Get to Yes (Even When They Could)

A difference in diplomatic styles between the United States and China has mattered a great deal.

Why the US and China Can’t Get to Yes (Even When They Could)
Credit: Official White House Photo

For the first time in its history, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit just ended without a formal leaders’ statement due to the widening standoff between the United States and China. Sources close to the negotiations blamed the discord on the “uncompromising approach” taken by both countries. The world is indeed reminded of what is at stake when its two largest economies fail to get to yes.

According to the CIA, China and the United States are now in the midst of a new cold war. While such a view may seem extreme, U.S.-China relations have indeed been defined by a series of flashpoints. Some of these emerge from divergent interests; others from vastly different positions. However, flashpoints between the United States and China do not only occur when there is simply no common interest. They also occur when there is common interest that both sides fail to recognize due to divergent diplomatic cultures. This divergence involves both a clash between Chinese tacitness and American explicitness in communication style, as well as the different sources from which China and the United States each derive their major power status.

Chinese Tacitness Versus American Explicitness

Lawyers by second nature, American negotiators like to begin solving a problem by verbally stating it, often explicitly. By contrast, the Chinese rely heavily on tacit understanding and adjustment in resolving conflicts. The Beijing-Washington hotline established in 2008 was cut off twice by Beijing amidst anti-U.S. protests – presumably when the United States would have most wanted to call. When problems arise between the two countries, the Americans want to talk more and the Chinese less.

Similarly, some in the West were puzzled when China ignored a U.S. request for greater clarity on the South China Sea on the ground that “any attempt to clarify the dash line or maritime claims would only lead to an escalation of tensions.” Americans articulate the problem before resolving it and the Chinese, after.

Fundamentally, this has to do with the fact that verbal communication plays different roles in American and Chinese conflict resolution cultures. For the Americans, to talk is to bargain. For the Chinese, to talk is to engage in rhetorical action. Americans therefore see “talking it out” as the first step to improving a situation whereas the Chinese see it as a sign of failure to resolve the problem otherwise. Instead of words, China prefers to drop hints, expecting the United States will pick them up. But drastic changes at the State Department and the evaporation of “China hands” may precisely hinder the Americans’ ability to do so.

Our own experiences at a series of U.S.-China Track-1.5 meetings highlight this dynamic. Chinese moderators are much more likely than their American counterparts to suggest not resolving everything completely at the table but instead leaving some room for future deliberations. (Framed in the Myers-Briggs lexicon, one could imagine the negotiation between the U.S. and China as being akin to a Judging type versus a Perceiving type. Which type, we wonder, is more likely to request a last-minute change before announcing the results to the press?)

This clash of communication styles is also apparent in the sanctions against North Korea. Chinese negotiators feel that their American counterparts fail to recognize Beijing’s efforts in complying with sanction requirements, especially when they view China as going beyond what is asked. To be sure, Americans are not only pushing China for greater compliance but also for greater commitment to such compliance. For Washington, getting it in writing means just as much as getting it done.

This presents an opportunity and a challenge: On the one hand, recognizing the American love for explicit commitment may enable China to see that it is as much about enforcing sanctions as about communicating such enforcement. On the other hand, pushing China to be more explicit in words may lead it to become less cooperative in deed. For Beijing, the decision may well be between doing without saying and saying without doing.

Admiration Versus Control as the Source of Major Power Status

Equally important, China and the United States derive their perceived major power “status” from different sources. Negotiators who are trained to think of conflict as the result of a disappearing bargaining range have to recognize that the United States and China may in fact be bargaining along two separate dimensions. As RAND’s Ali Wyne puts it, whereas China has believed that enlightened “tributary” states in its periphery will emulate Beijing of their own accord, America has often embarked on a “mission” to remake the world in its image. For China, the legacy of its tributary system translates into symbolic tribute in the form of admiration and deference — especially from the so-called “smaller countries.” It also means that China derives a disproportionately large amount of political prestige from symbols that carry historical weight.

While meeting with U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, President Xi Jinping reiterated his stance on the South China Sea by emphasizing the territory as being “left behind by our ancestors” and that maintaining China’s position does not involve “seeking to take any bit of what belongs to others.” This seemingly generic articulation evokes in a calculated manner the legacy of a state whose greatness is derived more from deference than from conquest.

If, for China, to be great is to be infallible and inviolable, for the United States it is to be proactive and explorative. Admiration carries no weight if not accompanied by a change in others’ behavior. “Status” means nothing if one cannot make the enemy do something that they would otherwise not do – the quintessential definition of power in the modern American vernacular.  Vice President Mike Pence’s references to “God-given liberties” and “rights endowed by our Creator” in appealing to the people of the Indo-Pacific may raise some eyebrows in the region as to just how far the missionary narrative may be realized in America’s foreign policy.

Notably, the American tendency to “go out and change the world” transcends the partisan line. Hawks from the American left and right share the drive to go, see, and conquer even though their ideological motivations differ: Liberals decry China’s authoritarian regime and aspire to align Beijing within the sphere of capitalist democracies. Realists argue that China threatens to upend Washington’s power position in the international system. Regardless of their motive, the China hawks’ favorite phrase is that Beijing needs to be “disciplined” for its bad behavior – the kind of language that ironically feeds right into the Chinese media’s portrayal of U.S. coercive power.

Diplomacy is as political as it is cultural. We ought to remind ourselves of the critical differences in communication style and in worldview between the two countries. Too often we have seen a Chinese bringing heaps of presents in a show of gratitude without uttering a word, only to the bewilderment of the American – “That’s very nice of you but none of this was necessary. And where’s my ‘thank you?’” The negotiation table is of course different, but not by that much.

Meicen Sun is a PhD candidate of political science at MIT focusing on international security, the political economy of technology, and Chinese foreign policy. Jake Sotiriadis is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa and a U.S. Air Force officer.