The Great Debate: U.S.-Chinese Relations and the Future of Asia

Lyle Goldstein responds to his critics in an ongoing debate concerning U.S.-Chinese ties and the future of Asia-Pacific region. 

TNI Debates U.S.-Chinese Relations: The following is a debate centered on the TNI recent article by Lyle Goldstein How China Sees America’s Moves in Asia. A response was submitted by Michael Chase, Timothy Heath and Ely Ratner which you can read here. The below is Mr. Goldstein’s reply:

The appraisal of my most recent short piece on U.S.-Chinese Relations by Michael Chase, Tim Heath and Ely Ratner is a useful discussion about this most critical relationship as our national leaders head off to Beijing. We all evidently agree that there are major “risks of strategic rivalry,” and that careful reflection is required to find “the best way to avoid the destabilizing effects of military competition…” Yet their response is flawed: there is an incomplete understanding of Chinese sources, a shallow approach to international-relations theory, and an all-too-rosy picture of a deeply troubled and underperforming bilateral relationship.

On the key issue of Chinese sources, the authors named above appear to have little familiarity with 东北亚论坛 [Northeast Asia Forum], the journal that they consider to be not worth discussing. This is inappropriate for a scholarly assessment. It they had the opportunity to read this journal, maybe even more than one issue as I have, they would find some of the most detailed and interesting Chinese scholarly analyses published about North Korea and Sino-North Korean relations generally—for example, this fascinating piece written by a professor at the Central Party School. Indeed, the salience of Northeast Asia issues strongly suggests that Western analysts should pay more attention to this unique Chinese-language journal.

The article under discussion is actually described in its preamble as funded by research grants from the [China] National Social Science Foundation’s “key projects,” as well as the Chinese military’s “Key Point Science Building Project.” This high-level sponsorship suggests the article cannot simply be dismissed as so much bloviating by uninformed military enthusiasts. It will likely interest (and discomfort) American policy specialists that studies by RAND and also CNAS are discussed in the Northeast Asia Forum article as primary evidence for malevolent American intentions with respect to China.

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My critics suggest that the article I discussed from Northeast Asia Forum was an outlier of some sort, but their discussion fails to note that the article was the lead piece in that journal and that I had clearly stated the caveat that the authors were not among the Beijing elite. In fact, I made this point explicitly to show that the approach I was taking would be different: a kind of “bottom-up” approach to looking at Chinese strategy. Readers and critics alike are not aware that my original title for the piece was “A Look Under the Hood of US-China Relations.” Sometimes, to understand a complex issue, one has to look deep into the machinery, rather than at the shiny exterior.

Indeed, it is by focusing on the shiny exterior that these critics seem to develop a truly muddled understanding. Western diplomats and analysts who have spent time in the Chinese capital know that there are no shortage there of “barbarian handlers”—people expert at explaining how reasonable China is. They tend to speak superb English, and generally excel at telling foreigners what they want to hear, more or less. My critics here cite the writings of Prof. Zhu Feng as representing a more “authoritative” source of analysis. Their citation is, in fact, a case in point and illustrates exactly the problem I am suggesting. Any Chinese scholarly article that is published in English should be considered a likely “propaganda piece” aimed at a foreign audience. There are exceptions to that rule, of course, but this is often the case. Reading Chinese foreign-policy journals appearing exclusively in Mandarin is essential to achieving a deeper understanding of the origins of China’s policies.

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Peking University is a very prestigious institution. My critics failed to note that I also briefly discussed in my original article a detailed strategic analysis in 世界经济与政治 [World Economy and Politics] by Peking University professor Hu Bo. This second piece supports my contention that the hawks are making headway in penetrating the Beijing foreign-policy elite. Indeed, in many respects, this latter piece by a Peking University professor is actually much more disturbing than the piece I originally discussed.