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Beijing’s Balancing Act on China-US Relations

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China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

Beijing’s Balancing Act on China-US Relations

Chinese leaders must balance the current push for strategic de-escalation with the hyper-nationalism at play among average Chinese.

Beijing’s Balancing Act on China-US Relations
Credit: USDA photo by Lance Cheung

There has been a subtle, yet important reset in tone – albeit not in substantive stances, just yet – in China-U.S. relations. Much of the reset can be attributed to breakthroughs on fronts of trade negotiations, hostage diplomacy involving Meng Wanzhou and the two Michaels, and the United States’ ignominious evacuation from Afghanistan. Yet not an insignificant part of the shift, too, can be traced to Beijing’s active attempts at dialing down the temperature in the room, with moderate and reasonable success.

Beijing’s Strategic De-escalation

Upon arrival in the United States, China’s new ambassador to the U.S., Qin Gang, noted, “I believe that the door of China-U.S. relations, which is already open, cannot be closed.” His debut remarks were made at the end of July, at a time when the prospects for Sino-American relations looked as bleak as it had ever been over the past two decades.

Two and a half months down the road, China and the United States seem to be shuffling slowly – and somewhat uncomfortably – toward a turn in bilateral relations. Whether the progressive de-escalation is to last, or is merely a window of brief respite, remains to be seen. Yet at the very least, Beijing has opted for a more explicitly stated, strategically conducted de-escalation to the tensions. While the Anchorage meeting in March did feature some level of pragmatic, reasonable engagement behind closed doors, the vociferousness on display in public starkly differed from the more conciliatory tone and language adopted over recent weeks.

At a virtual meeting with Democrats and Republicans in September, Chinese Politburo member Yang Jiechi called for more dialogue to “enhance mutual understanding and cooperation.” This was followed by his meeting with U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan in Zurich, Switzerland, at a summit that many have touted to be the precursor to a more substantive virtual meeting between President Xi Jinping and President Joe Biden before the end of the year. Yang’s conciliatory remarks were echoed by Vice Premier Liu He, who – in his talks with U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai – called for more regular discussions to diffuse tensions and resolve non-intractable disputes between the two parties.

The official rhetoric has been backed by state media. An article published on September 13 by the state-owned media China Daily was headlined, “Xi, Biden engagement essential to fixing ties, analysts say.” Praising Tai’s address at the Center for Strategic and International Studies as a sign that the U.S. has recognized “it is unrealistic to ‘transform China’ based on US interests,” a Global Times editorial on October 5 suggested that “China welcomes dialogue and negotiations, and is willing to make efforts to jointly build an equal and mutually beneficial China-US trade system.” At the very least, Beijing seems willing to offer some level of rhetorical concessions in its external propaganda and media efforts. Such olive branches may be subtle and easy to miss, yet should not be overlooked.

There are three features to note when it comes to Beijing’s recent de-escalation. First, there has been a considerable dialing down of the rhetoric, arguments, and gestures employed by some of its diplomats and state-affiliated commentators – both when it comes to explicit criticisms of America and aggressive parries against what China perceives to be slander and misrepresentation of its interests. Such curbing lends some credibility to the view that China’s trenchant turn in diplomacy was at least partially avoidable had the state apparatus opted otherwise.

Second, the statements and releases made by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs over recent weeks reflect a change in the terms and language of engagement. Significantly greater emphasis is placed upon pinpointing areas ripe for further negotiation and compromise. While upholding China’s “core national interests” remains a significant prerogative, such rhetoric did not take central stage in Yang, Liu, and – most notably – Xi’s conversations with their respective counterparts, in which wide-ranging discussions concerning cooperation were held.

Third, Beijing has remained tactfully non-committal in keeping its options available and wide open. While Zhongnanhai has called for deepening dialogue and exploring collaboration in areas that have hitherto remained largely out of the picture (e.g., challenges pertaining to mechanization of labor and civilian-to-civilian exchanges), it has dodged the pressure to offer firm concessions and substantive policy promises on any of these fronts. These gestures should be interpreted as both invitations for further dialogue and discussions, as well as indications of the country’s goodwill at large.

Beijing’s de-escalatory moves should be read in conjunction with the United States’ desire to manage and mitigate Beijing’s potential rebuking over the launching of the AUKUS alliance (which received a relatively muted response from Chinese state media), the dangerous flirtations with disruptions to the status quo by Tsai Ing-wen’s government in Taiwan, and the emerging bipartisan consensus over Beijing’s ostensible threat to U.S. values and norms. Washington is adamant that such gestures must not spill over into engendering actual conflicts – and Beijing, for now, seems content to go along with the approach of “risk management.” In any case, such de-escalation is very much needed, especially in face of heightening tensions over the Taiwan Straits, a region in which neither Xi nor Biden could afford to be seen as capitulating. While the room for maneuver is larger than it may seem, both Xi and Biden alike must tread carefully – for reasons that will be discussed below.

The Dangers of Citizen Hyper-nationalism

There is a dangerous and naïve temptation to think that all forms of nationalism in China are the product of the state. To view Chinese nationalism as purely a top-down imposition, one bereft of organic and grassroots support, would be to neglect the sentiments and viewpoints of individuals on the ground. It also does an injustice to the level of political agency civilians wield in projecting and expressing their nationalistic sentiments – epitomized, perhaps most viscerally, by the waves of backlash directed toward pop cultural phenomena and stars. Zhang Zhehan was dragged into ignominy and public opprobrium after three-year-old photos of him at the Yasukuni Shrine in Japan were uncovered by netizens. Chloe Zhao and Simu Liu – ethnic Chinese who have found stardom in the West – have been met with mixed, even hostile, responses in the country in which they were born. Undergirding such backlashes was the constant allegation that these stars had been “severely harming the national feeling of the Chinese public.”

In seeking to understand contemporary Chinese nationalism, Rana Mitter’s “China’s Good War” offers a lucid and helpful starting point. In his latest publication, Mitter highlights how both the Chinese state apparatus and the public alike source the bases for contemporary nationalistic narratives and sentiments in history – specifically, the struggles of the Chinese people during World War II. Much of such nationalism is fruitful and natural, as a means of recalibrating and shoring up the confidence of the Chinese people in face of adversities – natural or artificial. Yet the danger kicks in when elements among such nationalistic discourses evolve to become overtly chauvinistic and revanchist, employing historical narratives deterministically in a manner that sets China up for what is perceived to be an inevitable conflict, struggle, and prospective war with the West. Such narratives are neither indicative of reality, nor conducive toward steering China away from a dangerous path of militaristic aggression.

How, then, could these individuals pose a concrete threat to Beijing’s attempts at recalibrating its diplomacy? For one, the trenchant populist dogma that China cannot be seen to capitulate on any international economic issues – especially in relation to trade terms, intellectual property rights, and how it engages with multilateral cooperation with other states – could well foment a potent force within the party’s rank-and-file. Zhongnanhai has sought to pacify and channel the views of grassroots party members through embracing a more unflinching, determined approach to diplomatic language and demands over recent years. Will attempts at de-escalation sit well with such internal pressures? Could such attitudes be carefully curbed without jeopardizing the stability and unity of the party? These are questions that must be interrogated and answered with delicate care.

Additionally, grassroots nationalists could also force Beijing’s hand in other ways. For instance, civilian-initiated divestment campaigns and rallies against perceived provocation by Taiwan could place substantial strain and pressure on the military in the Eastern Theater Command, and municipal officials in Fujian and Zhejiang, to respond to perceived provocation by the Taiwanese government – especially in light of increasing calls for strategic clarity in the United States, a shift toward more zealous nationalism in Taiwan, and Beijing’s vocal declarations that Taiwan remains a part of China. While Xi’s military reforms have substantially reduced the red tape and barriers to communication that had previously stifled Zhongnanhai’s access to and command over the army, whether the Eastern Theater Command would opt to respond to skirmishes in Taiwan Straits with sufficient tact and acumen remains an open question, whose answer would come with too hefty a price-tag.

Skeptics may argue that this reading of Chinese foreign policy grants too much autonomy and decision-influencing capacity to the average civilian. Yet this pushback ignores both the extent to which popular opinion matters in the Communist Party’s search for legitimation at large, as well as the particular need – on the part of Xi Jinping – to satiate domestic demands as he seeks a third term in the 20th Party Congress in 2022. Grassroots nationalism is by no means a decisive factor in Chinese foreign policy, but it does play a critical role at large.

Toward a More Pragmatic, Flexible Chinese Foreign Policy

Beijing must seek to more actively curtail domestic hyper-nationalism, as it aspires to shift Sino-American relations to a more pragmatic modus vivendi. It would be naïve to think that bilateral relations could be restored to the pre-Trump era of cordial and substantial engagement, yet China and the United States remain hugely economically intertwined, in ways that would render military confrontation not only unwise, but disastrous for civilians in both countries.

How Beijing navigates domestic opinion, then, will be a delicate and imperative question. Thus far, the dualism embraced by Chinese bureaucrats and diplomats – in highlighting China’s firm commitments to defending national interests and baselines abroad, while concurrently paying vocal lip service to discussing and negotiating renewed arrangements in the area of trade and investment – appears to be at least somewhat working. Domestic audiences are sufficiently convinced that their diplomats are fending for their best interests, while Washington (and Brussels, too, to perhaps a lesser extent) is convinced that there is some value in continued engagement and liaison with Beijing.

The recent recommencement of talks between senior leaders in Beijing and Washington signifies that Beijing’s approach is indeed working: It is indeed possible to meet the demands of the public at home while wrestling with complex geopolitical and economic questions abroad. A more flexible foreign policy – one that decouples internal messaging from external broadcasting, that differentiates between capitulation over substantive demands and rhetorical moderation – would be one that serves not only China well, but also the state of Sino-American relations at large. We would all stand to gain from a less dogmatic, less rigid, and more dynamic brand of Chinese diplomacy.