Beijing has clearly failed to achieve at least one of its major, long-term foreign policy goals.
Chinese leaders have known for decades that the ideal circumstance for a “rising” China is for other powerful nations such as the United States to acquiesce rather than resist. Consequently, a major component of recent Chinese diplomacy has been reassurance: trying to persuade foreigners that China is in no way a threat to them. Former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping famously advised his successors that for the foreseeable future China should keep a low profile, avoid seeking international leadership, and resist overreacting to adverse events. Deng’s immediate successor Jiang Zemin instituted the mantra “China will never seek hegemony.” Starting in 2003, senior Chinese officials used the term “China’s peaceful rise” until it fell out of favor for various reasons.
For China to grow relatively stronger without alarming the prevailing superpower into counter-action was a historically difficult challenge. In an oft-quoted commentary on international relations, the Greek historian Thucydides wrote of the Peloponnesian War, “what made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.” This suggests that a shift in the relative strength of two states is sufficient by itself to make them war-prone adversaries. To put it another way, an increase in a state’s capabilities to do harm, even in the absence of an apparent intent to do harm, is enough to make the state an enemy in the eyes of a neighbor.
Despite this challenge, Chinese leaders basically had what they wanted up until the second decade of this century. China was on a path of expanding both its regional and global influence. The People’s Republic of China was as secure and prosperous as any country in history. No state threatened to invade China. Beijing’s only significant external security concerns involved self-defined irredentist issues. The Chinese government handled these by constantly reiterating China’s claims and by building up its military and paramilitary forces at a rate that local rivals could not match. The Chinese economy had been growing at an average of over 8 percent annually since the 1980s. China was becoming the region’s most important trade and investment partner, with seemingly unlimited growth potential.
America, in particular, was supportive of an already strong China growing even stronger. Washington moved to quickly rehabilitate U.S.-China relations shortly after the setback of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre. The Clinton administration granted China Most Favored Nation trading status with the United States and supported China joining the World Trade Organization. Washington allowed American technological and managerial expertise to flow into China with few restrictions and accepted trade deficits with China that grew to massive levels. The Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama administrations all said publicly they welcomed a strong and prosperous China, sometimes with the condition that China should be “peaceful” or “responsible”—i.e., strong Chinese capabilities were not a deal-breaker if Chinese intent was benign.
It was in Beijing’s interest to extend this favorable circumstance as long as possible. Theoretically, the United States might have eventually felt so threatened by China’s relative strength that Americans would have begun resisting the “rise” of China even if China did not display alarming intentions and generally played within the rules of the U.S.-sponsored liberal international order. This proposition, however, did not get tested. The era of the United States welcoming an ever-stronger China ended not because China became too big, but rather because the Chinese government took actions that Americans perceived as indicating an unfavorable shift in Beijing’s intentions.
Several major Chinese policy decisions changed Washington’s view. Americans noted increased Chinese government hostility toward liberal political philosophy, as exemplified by the infamous Document 9 promulgated in 2012, and a turn toward harder authoritarianism in China under Xi Jinping.
The PRC government organized a massive Chinese effort beginning in 2013 to install military bases in the South China Sea on artificially-constructed islands. It also became clear that Beijing intended the “nine-dashed line” not as an opening bargaining position but as a delineation of what China claims as national territory. Americans consider the South China Sea an international waterway, and the U.S. Navy relies on it for transit between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Beijing further dismayed Americans by trashing the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration decision that went against China, and by Xi breaking his 2015 pledge to former President Barack Obama not to “militarize” the newly-constructed islands.
U.S. firms complained of worsening systemic discriminatory and predatory Chinese policies toward foreign businesses. Americans became increasingly aware starting around 2013 of the huge scope of Chinese government-directed cyber espionage. Raising the issue led only to Chinese denials and more broken promises.
In 2010 there were two high-profile cases of Beijing attempting to use its economic leverage to punish other governments for defying political positions dictated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP): a partial Chinese embargo against Norway for awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to a Chinese dissident, and a temporary cutoff of supplies of rare earth elements to Japan over the arrest of a Chinese fishing boat captain involved in an incident near the disputed Diaoyu/Senkakus Islands. In subsequent years PRC economic coercion against various foreign countries became routine.
Observers in the United States were appalled by the policy of mass incarceration and attempted thought reform of China’s Uyghur community that began in 2014.
Journalist James Fallows was among the US commentators who saw a change; he opined in 2016 that China was “lashing out” in ways different than during the previous thirty years. Former Obama administration senior officials Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner concluded in 2018 that the U.S. business and policy-making communities had overestimated their abilities to steer China’s development toward characteristics favorable to U.S. interests.
Although many outsiders believe Chinese foreign policy became more aggressive and ambitious under Xi Jinping, who became China’s paramount leader in 2012, the groundwork for this shift preceded Xi. The 2008 financial crisis convinced many Chinese elites that the United States was in permanent decline. China, on the other hand, had just celebrated its achievement of major power status by hosting the 2008 Olympic Games. Xi is at least as much a creature of the CCP, an expression of its will, as he is its master. Nevertheless, Xi presided over the Chinese policies that changed American thinking about China, so he gets the discredit for this downturn in bilateral relations.
The Trump administration’s approach to China was strikingly more confrontational than Beijing had seen since the fallout from the Tiananmen Massacre. Although President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken served in the Obama administration, they have signaled that U.S.-China relations will continue to be largely adversarial despite pleas from senior Chinese officials to return to maximum cooperation and to set aside contentious political and strategic issues. Blinken says that “Trump was right in taking a tougher approach to China,” and Biden previews his China policy as “extreme competition.”
From Xi’s point of view, there were compelling political reasons to take actions that risked antagonizing the United States. Xi faced difficult domestic tasks that included restructuring the Chinese economy to maintain healthy long-term growth, restoring the authority of the Party over Chinese society, making the Chinese military more efficient and more tightly controlled, subjugating the powerful vested interests that would oppose Xi’s efforts, and strengthening the Chinese political system against threatening foreign ideologies. Xi needed to simultaneously consolidate his own personal power and authority, which in turn required him to satiate a nationalistic mass public’s demand that the government demonstrate Chinese strength in response to foreign challenges to China’s honor and interests.
Whether the cost was worthwhile and necessary is a matter for China’s political elites, who appointed Xi and assented to his lifetime tenure, to consider. One thing is certain: cutting short the period of American acquiescence will make the achievement of all the Chinese government’s chief objectives more difficult.
Denny Roy is a senior fellow at the East-West Center.