Influencing China

Since President Nixon’s historic meeting with Chairman Mao Zedong in 1972, the U.S. – China relationship has developed into a dynamic and challenging strategic relationship that should not be taken for granted.

China on world map

The bilateral relationship was established primarily because both the U.S. and China were concerned about Soviet expansionism.  China witnessed this during the 1960s, concerned that the Soviet Union would use nuclear weapons against a defiant China.  The U.S. was concerned with Soviet inroads in Latin America and threats to our NATO allies.  This convergence of interests, to counter the Soviet Union, brought President Nixon to Beijing to meet with Chairman Mao.  Eventually, in 1979, normal diplomatic relations were established.

Chairman Deng Xiaoping, after being purged twice and surviving the Gang of Four, quickly moved China closer to the U.S.  His priorities were clear:  Improving a sick economy and countering the Soviets.  Deng did both.  He discarded Marxism and introduced capitalism to an economically sick China.  He encouraged U.S. investment and exhorted Chinese students to get an education in the U.S., so as to help jump start the economy. At the same time, Deng worked with President Carter to ensure that both countries shared information on the Soviet Union and cooperated in defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan.  Eventually the Soviets were defeated in Afghanistan and after their withdrawal in 1987, President Gorbachev visited Beijing in June 1989, in an effort to solicit a loan from China.  How ironic.

Cooperating against the Soviet Union was in the interest of both China and the U.S., as was a close economic relationship. Thus bilateral relations thrived when it was mutually beneficial.

The 1989 Tian An Men incident was a clear statement from Chairman Deng that civic disobedience would not be tolerated.  The crack down on the students and others at Tian An Men on June 4, 1989 was reaffirmation from the leadership that the Communist Party would not tolerate civil unrest; that the Party was in charge and controlled the gun.  While Marxism was dead, Leninism and Party control would retain power.  U.S. condemnation of Beijing for its handling of this incident put a chill in the bilateral relationship.

The 1990’s, with Chairman Jiang Zemin in charge, was a period of economic cooperation, with Prime Minister Ju Rongji working hard to enhance U.S.- China economic cooperation.  The U.S. worked equally hard to get China into the World Trade Organization and to grant China Most Favored Nation economic status.  Politically, however, the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis was a clear message from the U.S. to China that the U.S., in line with the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, would come to the defense of Taiwan if China attempted to use military force to invade or intimidate Taiwan.  The introduction of two aircraft carrier battle groups into the Taiwan Strait in 1996 was a stark message to China that the U.S. would not abandon Taiwan.  It also impressed upon the Chinese leadership that China’s military was no match for the U.S.

The beginning of the 21st century witnessed U.S. – China collaboration, on issues dealing with international terrorism, proliferation, piracy on the seas and North Korea, for which China took the lead in hosting Six Party nuclear negotiations with North Korea, starting in August 2003.  It was during this period that the Strategic Dialogue with China was established, headed by the Deputy Secretary of State and China’s Deputy Foreign Minister.  These geopolitical issues were of interest to China and the U.S., thus cooperation was good.  It was also during this period that China started to put more emphasis on building its military capabilities.

Currently, the U.S. – China economic relationship is extensive, with significant U.S. investment in China and significant bilateral trade.  There is considerable bilateral tension with issues dealing with the South and East China seas.  China’s declaration of the nine dash line and its claimed sovereignty over this expansive area has resulted in international condemnation and a U.S. commitment to ensure these sea lanes remain open.  Friction of reported Chinese Cyber intrusions into U.S. public and private entities recently resulted in a bilateral Cyber Agreement, signed by Presidents Obama and Xi that neither country will use cyber to steal the intellectual property and trade secrets of the other country.

The Xi Jinping administration in Beijing is ensuring that the Communist Party not only controls the gun, but remains dominant in all aspects of China’s peaceful rise.  That means the middle class will grow and economic progress will continue to be key priorities.  It also means that the security services will continue to play a dominant role in all aspects of Chinese society, to ensure stability.  The lessons of the  160 years of humiliation, from the Opium War of 1841 to liberation in 1949, followed by internal upheaval with the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution,  which resonate with the people, is that when China is weak, militarily and from within, foreign entities will exploit a weak and vulnerable  China.  The late Ming period, when corruption and decadence made imperial China vulnerable to subjugation by the warrior Manchus and the imposition of the Qing Dynasty in 1647, is contemporary history for which all Chinese students are familiar.  Thus Nationalism speaks to the pride with which many Chinese view China’s economic rise and its assertive military.

These historical realities speak to Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, which prosecuted over 16 senior government officials and over 1,500 less senior officials.  Appointing a noted senior Chinese official, Wang Qishan, to head this campaign was testament to Xi’s commitment to make this a successful campaign.    Indeed, this campaign resonates with the people.  Xi Jinping’s assertive policies in the South China Sea also resonates with the people, given their historical humiliation by foreign entities and by its weak military and inability to repel foreign invaders.

Although I believe the South and East china seas probably are negotiable, what is not negotiable are China’s core interests – Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang.  Any leader in China who negotiates these issues would be replaced.

China’s leaders will continue to modernize its military, while devoting significant resources on domestic security.  According to recent pronouncements from Beijing, foreign non-governmental agencies will be monitored to ensure these entities do not interfere in China’s domestic affairs. 

Past dealings with China tells us clearly that the government will cooperate with the U.S. and others if it’s in China’s interest.  Lecturing China doesn’t work. 

This piece is based upon a presentation before FPRI’s Competitive Soft Power and Engagement Seminar held in Washington, DC, on May 4, 2016.