A House United

Paul Heer. Foreign Affairs. Volume 79, Issue 4. July/August 2000.

Policymakers in Washington have long split between those who believe China will inevitably threaten vital U.S. interests—and thus needs to be isolated or contained—and those who think a nonadversarial relationship is still possible if pursued through greater engagement. People on both sides of the debate, however, share a seriously flawed understanding of how Chinese leaders view the United States. According to conventional wisdom, Beijing’s behavior toward Washington is driven by factional politics within the Chinese leadership. This assumption, however, is misguided and even dangerous. It misrepresents the Chinese political spectrum, overlooks the more fundamental sources of Beijing’s foreign policies, and greatly exaggerates Washington’s ability to exploit imagined differences within the Chinese leadership. Worse, this skewed framework obscures the fact that Beijing is currently reassessing its view of the world and China’s place in it—a process that will have profound implications for the United States.

The politicians and pundits who frame the U.S. debate on China invariably focus on the struggle in Beijing between hardline ideologues and moderate reformers. According to this view—which originated in the Hong Kong press but has since been adopted by the Western media—hard-liners, who mistrust U.S. intentions, routinely obstruct efforts by mainstream moderates to pursue an accommodating and flexible approach toward the United States. This camp was thought to be behind Beijing’s handling of the World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations, its reaction to the accidental NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, and its persistently harsh proclamations on Taiwan. In each of these episodes, President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji—who are portrayed as leaders of the moderate faction—were said to have been constrained in their dealings with Washington and forced to mouth harsh anti-U.S. rhetoric by pressure from the hard-line camp.

In the WTO negotiations, for example, Jiang and Zhu were thought to be more prepared than their colleagues to make more concessions; similarly, Westerners assumed that these two were inclined to accept Washington’s explanation for the Belgrade bombing. The same goes for Taiwan. Washington thinks both Zhu and Jiang favor a nonconfrontational approach, since they supposedly understand that U.S. intentions toward the island are not hostile to China. In each of these cases, if Jiang and Zhu ultimately adopted a hard-line stance, it is assumed that this was because they were forced to, since their relative weakness within the leadership leaves them subject to coercion, especially by the military.

The problem with this characterization—as China scholars, who command less attention than pundits, have long understood—is that the hard-liners versus moderates dichotomy is a false one. The fact is that no two-line model can explain Chinese politics. Even those scholars who divide the Chinese political spectrum into three or more camps emphasize that these factions are rarely discrete or mutually exclusive. Instead, competing schools of thought coexist within particular institutions, and even within the minds of individual Chinese leaders. The Chinese military, for example, displays a full range of views on whether it should fight a war over Taiwan or is even ready to do so. And Jiang himself routinely embraces both reformist economic policies and repressive internal security measures. Ignoring these complexities, observers often exaggerate or oversimplify policy disputes in China. But contrary to conventional wisdom, policymaking in Beijing is not a case of pendulum swings of control by antithetical factions. The process is much more subtle, fluid, and narrowly confined than that.

United They Stand

The failure to recognize and acknowledge these crucial distinctions represents a larger failure in the West to recognize the common goals that unite the Chinese leadership and underlie its policy debates. If Washington truly wants to understand Beijing, it should look to its own history; an analogy to U.S. politics helps explain matters. In his first inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson, speaking of the “contest of opinion” between Federalists and Republicans, observed that every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.

By the same token, today Chinese leaders are all moderates, and they are all hard-liners. On domestic economic policy, for example, they are all reformers in the sense that they are all openly committed to the reform program Deng Xiaoping launched more than twenty years ago. At the same time, Chinese rulers are all hard-liners, since they retain a commitment to socialism, albeit with Chinese characteristics, and to Communist Party rule.

On foreign policy, the common denominator is a genuine commitment to Chinese nationalism, the inevitable result of China’s bleak history of vulnerability to foreign powers. Public and private statements by Jiang and Zhu show that even they are hard-liners in this respect-staunch nationalists unwilling to compromise on core sovereignty issues, especially Taiwan. Even these two are fundamentally suspicious of U.S. intentions, suspecting that Washington wants to contain China’s international ambitions and see the demise of the Communist Party. At the same time, Chinese leaders recognize the global importance, in military and economic terms, of the United States and the benefits of good relations with it—and thus remain, in another sense, moderates.

It is, consequently, a mistake to ascribe nationalistic, uncompromising, or suspicious statements or actions by Beijing to an intractable minority within the Chinese leadership. Perhaps more important, it is misguided to presume that the occasional, harshly nationalist rhetoric of Jiang and Zhu and other supposed moderates is the product of political pressure and not genuine. There simply is no compelling evidence to show that Jiang and Zhu do not believe what they say, both publicly and privately, on core foreign policy and sovereignty issues. Having experienced the same history as their allegedly hard-line colleagues, they are no less nationalistic.

Based as it is on that history, the view on sovereignty issues in Beijing generally characterized as hard-line is in fact mainstream. Suspicion and resentment of the United States is not a source of division within the Chinese leadership-it is one of the common denominators. The statements and writings of a wide variety of Chinese officials suggest that, although Chinese leaders may argue about how best to respond to the challenge of Washington, they all agree on the nature of that challenge: that the United States is trying to Westernize and divide China through a process of “peaceful evolution”—policies aimed at undermining the Communist Party’s authority—and support for Taiwan’s separatist agenda. Consequently, neither a strengthening of supposed moderates nor a change in leadership will make Beijing more accommodating to U.S. interests. Even a change in the nature of the regime would not necessarily produce such a result. A democratic and capitalist China would remain strongly nationalistic, retain mixed feelings about the United States, and insist on doing things its own way.

Divided We Fall

For all these reasons, it is futile to adopt any approach to China aimed at cultivating and dealing exclusively with leaders who are thought to be especially sympathetic toward the United States. Jiang and Zhu, for example, may be the architects of Beijing’s pursuit of a “constructive strategic partnership” with Washington, but this does not mean they will accept an American definition of that partnership—or that they will compromise on Chinese national interests. True, Jiang and Zhu may be among the Chinese leaders best disposed toward Americans; they may be more interested in and impressed with the United States than many of their colleagues are, and more willing to visit or send their children to American schools. But none of these characteristics is inconsistent with their fundamental ambivalence toward the United States and their basic suspicions of U.S. intentions toward China.

The American ability to exploit differences in the Chinese leadership on policy toward the United States is therefore almost nonexistent. Aside from the fact that those differences themselves are narrow or even marginal, the record shows that the last thing any Chinese leader wants is to be perceived in Beijing as a favorite of Washington. There is perhaps no greater liability that he or she can suffer when real leadership struggles or policy debates ensue. Ironically, efforts by Americans to cultivate specific Chinese leaders as preferred interlocutors are likely to undermine those very leaders’ credibility and influence in Beijing. This, according to many Hong Kong and Western press accounts, is what happened to Zhu last year—although the setback he suffered was overstated by the same pundits who perpetuate the hard-liners-versus— moderates dichotomy Indeed, Zhu’s central role in concluding the U.S.-China WTO agreement belied those rumors and that dichotomy.

Method To Their Madness

Given these dangers, American leaders should resist the temptation to go looking for friends in Beijing whenever their counterparts there do or say problematic things. When it comes to core Chinese sovereignty issues, there is little to be gained—and much to be lost—by dealing with Beijing as anything other than a collective leadership. Furthermore, the unwarranted focus on leadership politics in the formation of Chinese foreign policy—in the hope of finding a U.S. lever against it—has prevented the United States from recognizing and confronting the more fundamental reasons for Beijing’s behavior. Foremost among these is the shape of the international environment itself, and Chinese leaders’ perception of it. Astute scholars have long recognized this as the most consistent determinant of Beijing’s foreign policy To neglect the role of the outside world is to overlook or even deny the challenge that China poses to the United States.

Strategic realities outside the Middle Kingdom—such as the relative power, perceived intentions, and actual behavior of other major countries—set the parameters of foreign policy debates in China, much as they do in any other country. These external factors are decisive because they are inescapable. They affect all Chinese leaders equally, and they effectively limit Beijing’s viable policy options. This is why the policy spectrum is invariably narrower on foreign than on domestic issues. This is also why major Chinese foreign policies, such as engagement with the United States, have been sustained by different Chinese leaders in various regimes. (In a similar fashion, the U.S. policy of engagement with China has been criticized but ultimately adopted by every president since Nixon, also out of strategic necessity.)

This centrality of the external environment among the sources of Chinese foreign policy suggests that major changes in China’s diplomatic behavior will most likely occur—indeed, might only occur—when China’s external environment changes, or at least when Beijing perceives that it has. Statements by Chinese officials and foreign policy researchers indicate that such a shift in Chinese perceptions has been underway since at least the middle of last year. And as with Chinese nationalism, this change in Beijing’s attitude toward the outside world-and especially the United States—transcends factional politics.

For the past twenty years, Beijing has described its overall international strategy as an “independent foreign policy of peace” based on the “five principles of peaceful coexistence.” Key elements of this approach have included the notions that Beijing could subordinate everything else on its policy agenda, including military modernization, to the goal of economic development; that a peaceful external environment was vital to the success of that goal; and that Beijing could afford to focus on economic development to the detriment of other concerns because China faced no serious external threat.

New developments have led the Chinese to reconsider those assumptions and the order of their priorities. This reassessment began with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which eliminated some of the basis for strategic cooperation between China and the United States. But more recent developments have intensified Beijing’s perception that it faces a more hostile environment than ever.

The Taiwan Strait crisis of 1995-96 and its recurring sequels, for example, reopened an old wound that had never entirely healed. The Chinese remain fundamentally suspicious of the U.S. relationship with Taiwan. Now Beijing’s “one China” ultimatum to Taiwan’s new president, Chen Shui-bian, and its insistence that Taiwan not be included in any U.S. theater missile defense program, show that the problem has reached a new and possibly decisive stage.

Simultaneously, the strengthening of the U.S.-Japanese strategic alliance has quickened China’s fears. Wherever Beijing looks today in Asia, it finds fuel for its suspicion that the containment of China and the defense of Taiwan are central American projects in the wake of the Cold War.

Finally, China’s public reaction to the NATO operation in Kosovo—even before its embassy was hit—was illustrative. The operation greatly alarmed Beijing because Chinese leaders saw it as a demonstration of the post-Cold War purpose of NATO. Beijing also drew conclusions from Kosovo about the interests that will drive future U.S. foreign policy, and about the degree to which China can rely on its leverage in the United Nations to prevent challenges to Chinese interests.

In the wake of these events, Beijing now seems to suspect that its security interests are seriously at risk and that China must start shifting its attention and resources toward minimizing those risks and maximizing its ability to deal with them. This is precisely the kind of reassessment that could substantially change Beijing’s approach to the rest of the world—especially the United States. Such changes could include accelerated military modernization, renewed arms sales abroad, increasing obstructiveness in the United Nations, and more active diplomatic cultivation by Beijing of other allies.

A Great Leap Forward

Washington must remain alert to these dangers and not dismiss evidence of such thinking in Beijing as reflective of a minority hard-line view. Even so-called moderates share this thinking, and thus the shift must be taken seriously Rather than trying to identify friends and enemies in Beijing, Americans should accept the prevalence of Beijing’s nationalist concerns and, leaving aside the question of their validity, focus on devising a response to them. Furthermore, Washington should recognize that Beijing’s diplomatic behavior is, to some extent, a function of Washington’s own, and it should examine more closely the basis for China’s suspicions that the United States wants to contain and subvert it.

Such a reexamination of the American approach to China would facilitate—and should be accompanied by—a real strategic dialogue with Beijing, one in which Americans acknowledge the existence of mutual interests, Beijing’s leverage in the bilateral relationship, and the need for reciprocal concessions as the price of avoiding enmity. “Constructive strategic partnership”—a much-maligned and overinterpreted phrase—need never have implied more than this: namely, a relationship based on reciprocity and focused on cooperation in those areas where U.S. and Chinese interests coincide.

This realistic approach will entail costs and risks. Although the United States should continue to deal aggressively with China when required, it must also be prepared to reward China when appropriate. Similarly, Washington should stand firm in defense of its vital national interests but be ready to compromise in areas where the U.S. interests are less than vital, which includes some areas of trade and human rights. In the security realm, America must dispense with the notion that China’s military modernization somehow presupposes an intention to attack the United States, and that key U.S. interests are in imminent danger in Taiwan. They are not, and therefore Washington should impose some limits on its support for the island—especially in arms sales. This can be done without compromising Taiwan’s security or its democracy Indeed, the Taiwan problem would be easier to address if the United States recognized and acknowledged the extent to which China’s interests in Taiwan actually coincide with America’s.

The alternative to such a realistic approach is to continue along the current path. Having attributed the problems in Sino-U.S. relations to hard-line intransigence in Beijing, Americans today are edging toward a cold war with China. Choosing such a strategy would be a viable and even a defensible choice to make, but it, too, will entail serious costs and risks—certainly in terms of military commitments, but also in terms of sacrificing many of the potential benefits of a cooperative relationship with China while increasing the danger of conflict. The time has come to face both options honestly and choose between them. Washington must decide just which set of costs and risks the United States is prepared to assume. But any decision should be based on a realistic understanding of how Beijing actually works-not how Washington pretends it does.