Fueling US-China clash, years of disconnects

Mr. Trump and China’s leader Xi Jinping stroll through the Forbidden City after an opera performance during a trip to China in November 2017.
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In 2015, the White House’s National Security Strategy welcomed China’s rise and “unprecedented” cooperation. Just two years later, the Trump administration’s new strategy labeled China a “strategic competitor,” seeking to “shape a worldview antithetical to U.S. values and interests.” And today, the two countries are in a tailspin, with antagonism not seen since before the 1970s.

To Washington, those shifts are the product of long-building U.S. disappointment. To be sure, American engagement with China succeeded on many fronts. But profound misperceptions and misplaced expectations go back decades.

Why We Wrote This

By now, U.S.-China relations being in a tailspin seems like old news. But not that long ago, officials in Beijing and Washington were singing a sweeter tune. Years of misplaced expectations have led to today’s shrill face-off.

Republican and Democratic administrations alike envisioned deeper ties creating an opportunity for China to embrace free market economics and greater political freedom, even democracy. But as reforms stalled and then reversed under Xi Jinping, disenchantment grew. Chinese officials, meanwhile, have misread America’s motives, analysts say, and increasingly dismiss the U.S. as a declining power.

Today’s often fractious contest promises to shape the world for generations. Beijing’s leaders and both U.S. presidential candidates now face the challenge of accurately gauging the others’ intentions as they map a way forward – and try to keep tensions from escalating out of control.

“Welcome to China! I love you!” the young Chinese Peking opera performers exclaimed to President Donald Trump, who beamed back at the children performing in Beijing’s Palace Museum. Chinese leader Xi Jinping looked on, smiling at the choreographed flattery.

It was Nov. 8, 2017, and compliments flowed between the men, both flush with victories – Mr. Trump’s U.S. election win, and Mr. Xi’s solidification of power as chairman of China’s ruling Communist Party at the 19th Party Congress in October. 

During Mr. Trump’s visit, Mr. Xi would evoke President Richard Nixon’s groundbreaking 1972 trip to China, proclaiming the two nations “partners, not rivals.” Mr. Trump lauded Mr. Xi as “a very special man” and, quoting a Chinese proverb, hailed the “incredible opportunity” to advance peace, prosperity, and friendship. 

Why We Wrote This

By now, U.S.-China relations being in a tailspin seems like old news. But not that long ago, officials in Beijing and Washington were singing a sweeter tune. Years of misplaced expectations have led to today’s shrill face-off.

But despite the leaders’ lofty declarations, tensions festered beneath the surface. Soon a dangerous tailspin in U.S.-China relations would plunge the countries into antagonism not seen since before the 1970s rapprochement.

U.S. President Donald Trump talks to opera performers on a trip to China in November 2017

Today, China’s authoritarian rise and a narrowing power gap with the United States have unleashed an often fractious commercial and geopolitical contest that promises to shape the world for generations. Beijing’s leaders and both U.S. presidential candidates now face the challenge of accurately gauging the others’ intentions as they map a way forward – and try to keep tensions from escalating out of control.

What is clear is that the current conflict has been exacerbated by profound misperceptions and misplaced expectations that go back decades, eliciting feelings of betrayal on the U.S. side and arrogance on China’s side. 

All these dynamics were on the mind of Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, as he rode the next day in the presidential motorcade toward the massive, Soviet-style facade of the Great Hall of the People, for another meeting with Chinese leaders. The three-star Army general was preparing to unveil a new U.S. national security strategy at home with an elevated focus on China. On his first trip to the country, he was soaking up “the symbolism, the zeitgeist” of Beijing, he recalls in an interview.  

As General McMaster settled into a black swivel chair at a conference table in the great hall, he and his team had one simple goal: to wrap up the meeting quickly so the president could prepare for the evening’s lavish dinner. Premier Li Keqiang began speaking, reading from 5-by-8 cards – as Chinese officials often do to stay on message. The general girded himself for more empty diplomatic speak.

But what came next surprised General McMaster. Despite Mr. Li’s reputation for being friendly to the West and relatively pro-reform, he spoke bluntly, echoing Chairman Xi’s assertive 3 1/2 hour speech at the October party conclave. His brusque message: China no longer needs the U.S. China has come into its own. Beijing would, however, help Washington solve its trade problem by importing U.S. raw materials for China’s emerging high-end manufacturing economy. 

What struck General McMaster was how Mr. Li’s monologue suggested an almost neocolonial relationship between a superior China and a servile U.S. It was “remarkable for the aura of confidence, you could almost say arrogance, and the degree to which he dismissed U.S. concerns about the nature of not only the economic relationship but the geostrategic relationship,” he recalls.

Such encounters helped convince General McMaster that a dramatic shift in China strategy was critical. “It reinforced the work we were doing and highlighted the urgency of it,” he says. 

Soon, it would be Beijing’s turn to be surprised.

Performers dressed in traditional Chinese opera costumes take a selfie in front of the National Stadium, called the Bird’s Nest, on Sept. 5, 2020, in Beijing. The city was hosting a trade fair that showcased Chinese and foreign products.

Shift in strategy

In December 2017, Washington released its new National Security Strategy. In sharp contrast to the 2015 blueprint, which welcomed China’s rise and hailed “unprecedented” cooperation, the new document labeled China a “strategic competitor” that seeks to “shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests” and “displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific.” 

Underlying this shift – ending the decades-old U.S. policy of engagement with China – was American disappointment that had been building for years. To be sure, U.S. engagement with China had multiple goals and had succeeded on many fronts. President Nixon reestablished ties with Beijing primarily to counter the Soviet Union, and the normalization of U.S.-China relations in 1979 ushered in decades of relative peace and rising prosperity in East Asia. 

Over time, Republican and Democratic administrations alike envisioned deeper ties creating an opportunity for China to embrace free market economics and greater political freedom, even democracy.

“Was it foolish or ... misbegotten? I don’t believe it was,” says Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York. Engagement was worth the chance, he says. At different junctures, Communist Party reformers seemed to gain the upper hand. But success was never guaranteed. Hard-line, anti-Western leaders won out, fearing a loss of control that would spell the party’s demise, he says.

What was naive, experts say, was the conviction among some Americans that opening China’s markets made political liberty inevitable – a misperception echoed in centuries of Western interactions with the country. 

Western engineers, soldiers, and other advisers brought expertise to China “as the wrapping around an ideological package,” seeking to entice the Chinese to accept both, writes historian Jonathan Spence in “To Change China,” a study of Western advisers in the country from 1620 to 1960. “It was this that the Chinese had refused to tolerate; even at their weakest, they sensed that acceptance of a foreign ideology on foreign terms must be a form of weakness.”

Similarly, when China opened up in the late 1970s, pragmatic leader Deng Xiaoping introduced market techniques to generate wealth and raise living standards, but without relinquishing state ownership or one-party rule.

“China saw that prosperity was related to capitalism, and Deng Xiaoping’s revolution basically adopted capitalism with socialist characteristics,” says Ambassador Julia Chang Bloch, president of the U.S.-China Education Trust. “Things they saw in America were things they aspired to – not the values, not the political system, but the things, the prosperity. They wanted that.” 

Protesters hold lights while forming a human chain during a rally to call for political reform in Hong Kong on Sept. 13, 2019.

While overly optimistic about liberalism transforming China, many Americans underestimated the immense pride Chinese felt in building a booming economy after a century of war, famine, and political purges. “It was so hard to take for the Chinese because they had lived in a Sinocentric world prior to that,” says Ms. Bloch, who was born in Japanese-occupied China in 1942 and became the first U.S. ambassador of Asian descent. “It’s just like what if the U.S. does not recover from coronavirus, if our economy goes into the shredder? I can’t contemplate America overrun by foreign powers, but that is what happened to China. China’s current policies today are driven by those memories.”

China’s history of invasion and internal rebellion has exacerbated its rulers’ obsession with control. “Americans think they should be more like us, without realizing how fragile the top people must feel about their political order,” says Ezra Vogel, professor emeritus at Harvard University and biographer of Deng. “Considering all the chaos China has had since the [19th-century] Opium Wars ... the warlord period, the [1966-76] Cultural Revolution, now they have things under better control and they want to keep it that way. Americans’ DNA doesn’t allow us to sympathize with that.”

Instead, U.S. policymakers cheered on Chinese reformists, entrepreneurs, and activists. They underrated the authoritarian forces that prioritized centralized rule and political stability and resisted bottom-up pressure for economic, social, and political change. Their vision for China – as a liberalizing, benign, and responsible power that would integrate with the world – overrode concerns about incidents such as Beijing’s violent crushing of pro-democracy protests in and around Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Even as China’s market reforms slowed in the 1990s with a reprioritization of cities, big infrastructure projects, and state-owned firms, Washington continued to reward China with most favored nation trade status and entry to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001. Rather than retaliating against Beijing’s repression and protectionism, the U.S. showed tolerance and even deference toward Beijing.

A new aircraft carrier launches from a shipyard in northeastern China in 2017 – a symbol of the country’s aggressive military buildup.

But as reforms stalled and then reversed after Mr. Xi took charge in 2012, disenchantment grew among Americans who had long championed change in China.

Some U.S. officials, in fact, felt deliberately misled. Looking back, General McMaster, who has a Ph.D. in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, sees deception. “The party officials with whom we engaged for so many years, in so many different dialogues, were just great at stringing us along and holding the carrot in front of our donkey noses,” he says.

U.S. engagement “underestimated the will of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to constrain the scope of economic and political reform,” concludes a White House report on China strategy published in May.

For their part, China’s experts on the U.S. view the American reaction as irrational. “Washington people are in emotional mode on China,” says Jia Qingguo, a professor in the School of International Studies at Peking University, in a phone interview from Beijing. He thinks U.S. policymakers who’ve promoted engagement as a way to advance U.S. values are “very disappointed with the direction of China’s political development ... and conclude they failed.”

View from Beijing

When Premier Li highlighted China’s willingness to buy more U.S. raw materials in the 2017 meeting with President Trump, he likely didn’t anticipate the lukewarm reaction from Washington. 

China’s leaders have long misunderstood what makes Americans tick, says Yasheng Huang, professor of global economics and management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The disconnect, he says, is rooted in the assumption that “Americans think and behave very much like Chinese.” 

One of the most enduring misperceptions Chinese have about Americans is that their biggest priority is making money.

“Economics is everything, making money is everything, material aspects are everything,” he says. Practical and nonideological themselves, Chinese downplay Americans’ commitment to values such as freedom and human rights, or cast them as insincere, he says. “They typically never took it seriously that the U.S. could care about the South China Sea, and human rights, and all of that.”

Nadège Rolland, a senior fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research and expert on Chinese strategic thinking, agrees about the misperceptions. “[The Chinese] view the promotion of liberal democracy not as a genuine driver for the U.S., but as a tool the U.S. continues to use to sustain its hegemony,” she says. 

For China’s leaders, Ms. Rolland says, “everything is seen through the lens of power, and therefore values and beliefs don’t have much of an importance, unless they can accrue power.”

A woman wears a face mask protesting China’s treatment of Muslim minorities in a demonstration in Berlin on Sept. 1, 2020.

Beijing sees China’s growing economic and military might and the tremendous pull of its market as overriding protests by the U.S. and other democracies over its violations of human rights and international law and agreements. Indeed, since the 2008 financial crisis in the West, China has increasingly viewed itself as surpassing the U.S., dismissing it as declining power. 

Beijing’s new confidence has brought displays of superiority. “It’s an instinctive response to new power,” says Professor Vogel. “It’s a political version of nouveau riche. A person wears flamboyant clothes because he can now afford them, and a person with new power is ready to swagger around.” 

Such sentiments have reached a new intensity under Chairman Xi, who promotes an ethno-nationalist vision of China entering a “new era” on the world’s center stage. It’s a role reminiscent of the country’s history as the Middle Kingdom around which other nations revolve. 

Experts say, in fact, that Mr. Xi’s grandiose vision has echoes of the ancient tributary system, perfected in the Qing dynasty, that required any nation seeking to trade with China to come as vassals to the emperor, ruler of “all under heaven.”

“The central kingdom sits there and is wealthy and more or less stable and powerful, and all the vassals ... turn towards it like iron filings turn toward the poles of the magnet,” says William McCahill, senior fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research and a former U.S. diplomat in China.

Under Mr. Xi, China has veered toward arrogance and overreaching, experts say. Internally, he has used an anti-corruption campaign to amass power unseen since Mao Zedong. He has enshrined his ideology in China’s Constitution and removed term limits, foreshadowing lifelong autocracy. Under Mr. Xi, the party has tightened controls, advanced a high-tech surveillance state, imposed a draconian national security law on Hong Kong, and detained an estimated 1 million Muslim minorities in internment camps. 

Overseas, Mr. Xi has flexed new muscles from China’s massive defense buildup. He has militarized islands in the South China Sea after pledging not to and aggressively asserted claims along the Sino-Indian border. Perhaps the greatest fallout from China’s overreaching has stemmed from its exploitative business practices – breaking market-opening commitments made when it joined the WTO and waging commercial cyberespionage, intellectual property theft, and forced technology transfer.

Ironically, such moves alienated the U.S. business community – a staunch pro-China group that had lobbied for closer relations. Business interests were the ones most susceptible to the allure of China’s market and offered what Beijing thought would be the most leverage over Americans. 

Chinese leader Xi Jinping delivers a speech in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Sept. 8, 2020, lauding the country for its fight against the coronavirus.

“China’s own actions have effectively turned many in the business community and both U.S. political parties against China,” says James McGregor, chairman of the greater China region for APCO Worldwide, a global consulting firm.

“There was a lot of goodwill coming out of the United States toward China, and that was not reciprocated,” says Mr. McGregor, an executive and author who has lived in China for more than 30 years. “As China got wealthier, it was: ‘OK, thank you very much, and we are going our own way.’”

Still, when President Trump took office, China’s elites were initially delighted, thinking it would be business as usual. 

“The Chinese thought Trump was the best thing to happen to them,” recalls Ambassador Bloch. “One expert after another said: ‘We can do business with Trump. He is transactional.’”

Professor Jia, too, recalls that in Beijing “people were thinking, Trump was a businessman and would be pragmatic. It’s a matter of what kind of deal he can get. But then,” he says, “they realized he is not a usual businessman.”

Hard-line rhetoric

The culmination of Washington’s disillusionment with Beijing has been reflected in the Trump administration’s China policy. Chairman Xi’s broken promises, rollback of reforms, domestic repression, and overseas aggression united key American constituencies in a rare bipartisan consensus to get tough on China.

“Xi Jinping’s great tragedy is that he killed engagement – the very thing that enabled China to develop peacefully,” says Mr. Schell. Instead, he says, China is “now in a world of decoupling, antagonism, and possibly conflict.”

Adopting a policy of “long-term strategic competition” and “principled realism,” Washington is sanctioning China for unfair trade practices, espionage, and rights abuses. It is patrolling the South China Sea more frequently. The stark shift caught Beijing off guard, as China’s leaders had misjudged U.S. priorities and grown accustomed to Washington’s accommodation.

“Time after time they miscalculated,” says Professor Huang. When the trade war started, he says, “they thought, ‘Gee, we’ll just spend a few dollars and that will be it.’ That didn’t happen. They thought they could get away with things like Hong Kong, the national security law – they probably calculated there is nothing the U.S. can do, or whatever they do will be mild.”

“They vastly underestimated how far the U.S. is willing to go,” he says.

Today, each side increasingly views the other as an existential threat. Beijing accuses the U.S. of waging a new cold war, pursuing decoupling, containment, and regime change. U.S. leaders warn that future generations of Americans may live at the mercy of China’s Communist Party, if unopposed.

As friction has escalated with the spread of the coronavirus from China to the U.S., hard-liners holding sway in Washington and Beijing have lashed out with shrill rhetoric.

“Nationalism is really at the root of the rhetorical spiral which is driving the tit for tat in policies that are accelerating the confrontation,” says Jessica Chen Weiss, associate professor of government at Cornell University. “Both governments have calculated it is politically advantageous to sound and act tough, which makes it difficult to walk back.”

Public opinion has soured: Two-thirds of Americans and Chinese hold negative views of the other, according to surveys in March by the Pew Research Center and in August by the Communist Party-run Global Times newspaper. Meanwhile, the pandemic and visa restrictions have curtailed travel, hurting people-to-people exchanges. As mistrust deepens and diplomatic and other communications shut down, the risk of a military mishap grows. 

“The chance of a conflict because of a miscalculation is pretty high,” says Professor Jia. “The two militaries are getting very close to each other, so some of my military friends are really worried that some kind of accident will occur.”

Back from the brink?

The risk of war – if Beijing used force against the democratic island of Taiwan, for example – unnerves experts in both countries. Yet some are optimistic, offering a counternarrative that the superpowers can find a new footing, pull back from the brink, and cooperate, especially on global issues such as climate change – even as they compete.

Engagement did not wholly fail, and is still badly needed, they stress. U.S. engagement helped make it possible for China to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty since the Maoist era, while significantly opening its society – and benefiting the world. The flow of millions of students, businesspeople, and tourists between the two nations has also helped generate demand for greater freedom and political reform in China, even if the one-party regime has not supplied it.

“What we have done over the years created ... millions of pro-American Chinese,” says Stephen Orlins, president of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations and a lawyer who helped establish diplomatic relations in 1979.

Engagement also intertwined the U.S. and Chinese economies, offering tools for influence that wouldn’t otherwise exist. Washington is now belatedly using that leverage, the optimists say.

While Trump administration officials assert China seeks world domination, experts say Beijing wants to influence, not take over, the international order from which it has greatly benefited. It seeks a loose, malleable hegemony in Asia and other parts of the “global south.” Significant internal weaknesses, including an aging population, inequality, brittle governance, and slowing economic growth, constrain China’s ambitions.

China seeks to spread its authoritarian model in weaker countries and struggling democracies, “creating dependencies in the shadow of its economic and military clout,” but Beijing “doesn’t have the values to export to the rest of the world,” says Ms. Rolland.

Nor does Washington intend to contain China, keep it down, or incite regime change, as some in China fear, says General McMaster, now retired from the military and a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Instead, Washington aims to compete and counter Beijing’s aggression as the best way to maintain peace.

“I would like to see the United States, Japan, the EU, and other like-minded countries sending a simple clear message to the Chinese Communist Party: You can achieve enough of your ambition, you can achieve enough of your goals to do the right thing for your own people, without infringing on our freedoms and our security.”

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