America's Failing China Paradigm

If we could win them over by talking to them, things would be getting better, not worse.

Secretary of State John Kerry wrapped up his two-day visit to Beijing late last week with the release of a four-sentence joint statement on climate change. Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, thought to have a pipeline to the Chinese leadership, reports that the “only result” of his consultations in Beijing was “a commitment to seek greater co-operation” on that issue. Climate change, along with North Korea, was at the top of Kerry’s agenda, according to a former State Department official with knowledge of the trip.

There was no progress on more pressing matters, such as the worsening humanitarian crisis in Syria or the ongoing negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. Moreover, there were, according to the Post, no “breakthroughs” on what many believe to be the most important topic of discussion, Beijing’s provocative actions in the East China and South China Seas. “Kerry’s China visit only provided an opportunity for both sides to make clear their differences on these issues,” said the oft-quoted Shi Yinhong of Renmin University in Beijing.

Shi’s assessment looks correct. Kerry, for instance, did not adhere to custom and hold a joint press conference with his Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Instead, America’s top diplomat took questions in what the State Department termed a “Solo Press Availability.” During the event, Kerry spent almost all his time relaying what he said to his hosts, a sign there was little substantive agreement. Even on climate change, the Chinese do not appear to have progressed far from last April, during Kerry’s first visit to China as secretary of state.

Nonetheless, he spoke with great optimism after his day of meetings in the Chinese capital. As Kerry told the press, “Our partnership with China we view as one of great potential.”

Secretaries of state have been sensing great potential in China since President Nixon went to visit Mao Zedong in 1972. Five Chinese and seven American leaders later and the thinking has not changed much, at least on the American side. Consistent and bipartisan American policy has sought to ease China’s entry into the world, helping Beijing adhere to norms, contribute to the global commons, and become a peaceful member of the international community.

The thinking is that China will realize it has the same general interests as the U.S.—that it will become a “responsible stakeholder” to borrow Bush-era lingo—so it too will support the institutional framework created after the Second World War. Washington’s policy presumes the U.S. can engage the Chinese and enmesh them into that system. It not only can happen, we think, it must happen. “We simply cannot afford,” Nixon wrote in his landmark 1967 Foreign Affairs article, “to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates and threaten its neighbors.” To avoid the horrible prospect of more than a billion hateful and threatening Chinese, America’s enlightened engagement of China has become more than just a policy or doctrine; it has attained the status of geopolitical religion, a paradigm.

Yet as Kissinger pointed out in On China, “In all of China’s extravagant history, there was no precedent for how to participate in a global order, whether in concert with—or opposition to—another superpower.”And these days, under new leader Xi Jinping, Beijing is showing it cannot reconcile itself to any system, however accommodating, created by others. He is using China’s newfound strength to seize specks in surrounding seas, to lay claim to international waters, to push out the country’s borders. Perhaps most troubling are his regime’s oblique threats to use China’s most destructive weapons, such as in boasts made last October, without provocation, about the ability of the Chinese navy to launch nuclear-tipped missiles toward the West Coast of the United States.

Xi’s actions suggest that all his talk of “building a new model of China-U.S. relationship” is merely blather or a cover for something more sinister. He may say he wants to “enhance dialogue, boost mutual trust and cooperation and properly handle differences,” as he did after meeting Kerry, but clearly that is not what he has in mind.