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The US-China Relationship Is a Shakespearean Tragedy

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The US-China Relationship Is a Shakespearean Tragedy

We are silently witnessing the biggest strategic misjudgment in history: Two superpowers are sliding toward conflict when they still share huge common interests.

The US-China Relationship Is a Shakespearean Tragedy
Credit: USDA photo by Lance Cheung

The one common and peculiar aspect of most Shakespearean tragedies is the fact that the catastrophic events and unfolding misfortunes seem almost inevitable. While characters within the play are well aware of the fact that things are quickly going from bad to worse, it seems almost impossible to change the course of events. Unfortunately, the current U.S.-China relationship seems to be showing the same tendency.

Many Shakespearean tragedies were caused by accidents, which in turn were a result of carelessness and miscommunication. U.S.-China relations have never been smooth and peaceful and have in the past experienced various ups and downs and dangerous crises such as the 1999 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and the 2001 military aircraft collision incident, among others. The main reason why none of these incidents developed into a major tragedy, despite their severity, was owing to the different generation of political leaders, diplomats, and military officials on both sides, who shared a high level of mindfulness and sensitivity toward this fragile relationship. Throughout their years of association, both sides took extra care and preventive measures to avoid misjudgment and accidents.

For example, in 1996 during the Taiwan Strait Crisis the United States sent two aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Strait. This was the biggest military confrontation between the two countries since the Vietnam War. The on-board American journalists surprisingly noticed many reminder posters filling the wall in the aircraft carrier’s meeting room, including Chinese government statements and reminders regarding things that should be strictly avoided during the operation. This disclosed information went on to show that the U.S. side maintained clear communication with the Chinese side. Despite the much bigger gap in strength between the two countries as compared to what now exists, the United States was extremely cautious to avoid any misjudgments and subsequent accidents. Similarly, on the Chinese side, according to a recently published report, at an internal speech made during his official retirement in 1989, China’s top leader Deng Xiaoping said that he wanted to quit all his positions except one. The only role that he wanted to continue playing was looking after the U.S.-China relationship. Emphasizing on the fact that U.S.-China relations were extremely important and complicated, Deng insisted upon the need to oversee ties for more time.

However, this cautious and careful approach toward the relationship, which had been passed down by the previous generation of public servants on both sides, is now long gone. The current political leaders and diplomats seem to be treating this relationship as something so durable that it can never break. They also seem to be openly using this relationship for their own personal agendas such as domestic politics, elections, COVID-19 scapegoating, and personal future plans. As a result, we have been witnessing many remarks and actions from both sides that would have been completely unthinkable not long ago.

Even though most of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes are fundamentally flawed, many Shakespearean tragedies were caused also by the side characters involved. The ignorance and heartlessness of some side characters made the destruction inevitable. This is something that seems to be playing out within the current U.S.-China relations too. In the future, when historians review the Trump administration’s legacy, the one issue that is sure to be mentioned is his appointment of a large number of senior officials to positions that they shockingly lacked credentials or experience for. For example, Donald Trump’s choice for the person in charge of the trade negotiations is probably the only U.S. economist who believes that the trade war is winnable and that the trade deficit is the root cause of the many problems in America. On the Chinese side, in the past — even during the Cultural Revolution — Premier Zhou Enlai’s diplomats were polite and maintained their good nature, whereas now the entire world is stunned to see some Chinese ambassadors and spokespersons making aggressive and astonishing remarks. Within a very short duration, Chinese diplomacy is leaving behind the legacy not only of Deng Xiaoping but also of Zhou Enlai. It seems as if diplomacy no longer is aimed toward maintaining good relations with foreign nations but for domestic propaganda instead. Similarly, during the same time, U.S. diplomacy too has strained its reputation and soft power.

A major concern today is the fact that when sensitive and fragile relationships are in the wrong hands, nothing is impossible. When senior officials display significant carelessness toward a relationship, it is almost impossible to expect lower level officials — such as warship commanders and air force pilots — to treat their own interactions with dedicated caution and commitment.

In many Shakespearean tragedies, the looming disaster could very well be avoided through third-party mediation or truth-telling, but the indifference of bystanders makes the tragedy inevitable. This is again something that we are clearly witnessing in the current U.S.-China relations. As this is a conflict between two superpowers, it appears as though no nation, including European countries or those from the Asia Pacific, is keen to come forward to mediate. But everybody should know that if a tragedy were to happen between the United States and China, it would also be a major catastrophe for the entire world.

In such situations, scholars can play an important role by sounding alarm bells and warning against the looming disasters and crisis within the relationship. However, a special phenomenon is being witnessed in both the United States and China. Due to changes in the domestic political environment, with toughness and hostility toward the other side having become the correct political stance in both countries, many experts have fallen silent. Scholars who have been closely observing the other country for years have self-censored themselves to avoid political troubles, while those who are being heard actively and loudly in policy communities on both sides are often individuals lacking in-depth and specialized knowledge on the matter. Many popular policy reports from both sides include major conclusions regarding the other side’s strategic intentions and future masterplans. The authors of these publications are very confident of their analysis and judgements, despite the fact that many of them are not real U.S. or China experts and some of them have never even visited the other country that they have analyzed. Very often, ignorance leads to bold and confident judgement.

In recent times, many policy analyses have been found to be based on wrong data and the authors’ imagination. These individuals have interpreted the other country’s policy and behavior based upon their own institutional experience and cultural framework and by using dated frames and theories to understand the new developments of the other country. Diplomacy requires intensely dedicated work on the part of diplomats, policy scholars, and analysts in order to gather deep knowledge of each other’s situation through longstanding observation of daily activities of the other side. With no historical knowledge, personal experience and lack of dialogue owing to blocked communication channels, misunderstanding and misjudgment become inevitable.

The fact that the communication between the two countries has become so difficult is a great tragedy of our time. This is despite the internet age and the two societies having actively engaged with one another for decades. It is indeed a Shakespearean tragedy where everyone is watching, but no one is standing up to make peace or just to speak the plain truth. We are silently witnessing the biggest strategic misjudgment in history: Two superpowers are sliding toward conflict when they still share huge common interests and responsibilities.

The U.S.-China relationship is reaching its most dangerous point. We could hope that the fragile relations suddenly become more durable and harder to break despite the recent upheavals. While some people also hope that things will get better after the 2020 U.S. presidential elections, as many Shakespearean tragedies have shown us, accidents can happen at any time and a continuation and accumulation of wrongdoings can push any relationship into an irreparable vicious cycle.