Why Beijing Won’t Engage With Washington

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: Mismatched perceptions get in the way of U.S.-China engagement, Hong Kongers can no longer commemorate the Tiananmen Square anniversary, and China’s pro-natalist policies gather steam.

At the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore over the weekend, the United States and China engaged in another round of hostile exchanges—while recent close encounters at air and sea served as reminders of the potential consequences of tensions between the superpowers. At the same time, U.S. officials arrived in Beijing for mid-level talks.

U.S. officials say the talks will lead to a long-delayed trip by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in the next few weeks. But in the last few months, China has consistently rebuffed the Biden administration’s overtures. It’s worth thinking about why, and if anything will change.

In part, it’s because the linguistic and tonal shifts that Washington emphasizes fundamentally don’t matter to Beijing. Whether it’s saying “de-risking” versus decoupling, or calling China a competitor and not an enemy, there is no evidence that Chinese leaders care or would shift their view of the United States as a result.

Ultimately, the vision the White House is projecting—of two powers with significant differences that can nevertheless keep doing business—is unconvincing to the leadership in Beijing. And China’s consistent lack of interest in engaging with the United States seems to come from the very top. Washington makes a convenient scapegoat for Chinese President Xi Jinping: Given the domestic challenges currently facing China, it’s useful to have somebody to blame.

But Xi also seems to sincerely believe that the United States is out to get China. During his decade in power, anti-American rhetoric seems to have grown blunter with every passing year.

The position of any Chinese official is fragile, and those lower down the ranks are unwilling to risk their own safety by responding to U.S. outreach. They are also acting in an environment shaped by the 2010 discovery that the CIA compromised numerous Chinese officials. High-level leadership must sign off on potential U.S. contacts, leading to rebuffs and bureaucratic delays—and ultimately a lack of mid-level contacts between the countries. As a result, everyday U.S.-China communication has reached a low point.

China also simply doesn’t believe that U.S. outreach is sincere. Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders often don’t recognize how messy and varied U.S. policymaking is—thanks to their lack of experience with separation of powers and multiparty systems. Rather than seeing different approaches or internal divisions, Chinese officials tend to look for conspiracies or policies guided by an underlying hostility toward China. The general continuity in China policy between the Trump and Biden administrations has only reinforced this perception.

Russian influence in part shapes these assumptions. Rather than Russia’s failures in Ukraine making Beijing more suspicious of Moscow, Chinese propaganda has taken on a pro-Russian and anti-NATO tone; it has absorbed Russian propaganda narratives, which portray Moscow as struggling against Washington’s oppression. Those messages are also conveyed behind closed doors, through extensive military and political ties between China and Russia.

However, Washington’s approach also has a fundamental contradiction. U.S. leaders and officials love to talk about how they don’t want to “contain” China. But security and military actors in the United States clearly do want to contain China, and U.S. policy toward Beijing now bends more in that direction than ever. Right now, many U.S. government staff members are spending their time thinking about how to contain China and taking steps to do so. It’s thus not surprising that Beijing perceives attempts to say otherwise as doublespeak.

U.S. statements can also reinforce the impression that Washington is only interested in the rules that suit its interests. Take China’s recent ban on some sales by the U.S. chip manufacturer Micron, which U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo described as “economic coercion.” That didn’t sit well with Beijing, given similar U.S. moves against the Chinese semiconductor industry. To be sure, China’s restrictions on investment and use of trade as a political weapon predate recent U.S. policies. But China sees the United States as unfairly holding a superior position in global affairs that it is all too willing to exploit.

U.S. attempts to create a strategic competition framework also miss fundamental and perhaps irreconcilable differences between Beijing and Washington—differences that the CCP takes very seriously, starting with Taiwan’s de facto independence. The United States wants to maintain the policy muddle of its “One China” policy while maintaining long-term commitments to Taiwan. Beijing wants to reserve the right to invade and conquer its neighbor at any moment.

That’s hardly the only disagreement. China also wants to be able to control a diaspora it perceives as a domestic security threat. It perceives U.S. alliances with Chinese neighbors such as South Korea and Japan as essentially illegitimate. Beijing also casts any U.S. promotion of democracy as part of so-called color revolution plots. While these issues aren’t on U.S. officials’ minds every day, the CCP sees them as a threat to its own survival.

Despite all of this, there are high-level Chinese officials who recognize the danger of conflict with the United States—and there is plenty of space between hostility and actual violence. The United States managed a hostile relationship with the Soviet Union for decades, though not without costs. But if Washington wants to convince Beijing that it’s serious about talks, it might need to be more honest about how the two powers see each other.

Historical memory erased. Hong Kong’s commemoration of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre was once a sign of the territory’s continued legal independence from Beijing. But since China imposed its national security law in Hong Kong in 2020, all that is gone. The Hong Kong police have banned public commemoration, and even subtle signs of protest have resulted in arrests.

The destruction of Hong Kong’s once-unique political culture is in keeping with the vision of Chinese civilization laid out by Xi’s recent speeches—in which “national unification always stays at the heart of China’s core interests.” In his telling of Chinese history, ethnic minorities see their place as happily supporting the Han majority, and even archaeology bends toward the narratives of the nation-state.

Beijing wants babies. China’s pro-natalist policies are gathering steam, with family-planning staff who once enforced sterilizations and abortions—and still do among the Uyghur minority— now assigned the task of convincing women to have more babies. Although China’s zero-COVID policy delayed that work, it has now been taken up with a vengeance, with policies and activities rolled out in dozens of cities.

In the last seven years, new births in China have nearly halved. For the urban middle class, having children is an expensive proposition. The educated women who the government wants to have babies are also the least likely to do so, fearing workplace gender discrimination. I suspect the government attempts at persuasion are unlikely to bring the birth rate up, which could lead to state-backed attempts to control women, potentially through abortion restrictions.

Real estate doldrums. China’s post-pandemic economic recovery now looks listless, and one major cause is the property slump in a country where real estate makes up roughly 29 percent of GDP and serves as one of the main sources of local government revenue. Property is barely moving in China’s big cities, but the government is still forcing real estate firms to keep prices high to boost urban middle-class confidence.

Firms are now turning to offers that exploit pricing loopholes, selling property at a discount from the official price while reporting the higher number to the local authorities. More government support measures are planned, but the crisis is spreading to even the biggest firms.

Shein in the spotlight? While the campaign against TikTok in Washington has stalled, it has left other Chinese firms aware that they could be targeted next. Even if U.S. regulatory force is hard to deploy, no company wants the kind of reputational damage incurred by congressional hearings. Big Chinese firms such as fast-fashion giant Shein, which is accused of using cotton produced by forced labor in Xinjiang, are staffing up and trying to shift business out of China, at least on paper.

FP’s Most Read This Week

The collapse of Ukraine’s massive Nova Kakhovka dam this week is a reminder of one of history’s forgotten disasters: The intentional destruction of the Yellow River dikes in northern China in 1938, during the Second Sino-Japanese War. In a desperate moment as Japanese invaders advanced, China’s Nationalist leadership ordered the demolition of levees that had held back the raging force of China’s great river for centuries (with tragic exceptions).

The resulting floods barely troubled the Japanese, but they drowned at least tens of thousands of Chinese civilians, who received almost no warning—and led to an unknown number of eventual deaths from drowning, starvation and disease as the ecological landscape of northern China was wrecked. Flooding continued for years, until a United Nations relief program (negotiating a course between Nationalist and Communist leaders) rebuilt the dikes in 1947.

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