Washington’s Willful Blind Spot on China

Washington’s Willful Blind Spot on China

The biggest obstacle to American understanding of China appears to be Washington’s seeming determination to misunderstand China—rather than grant any credibility and legitimacy to its strategic outlook and goals.

China’s international behavior appears to be getting increasingly bold, more assertive, and coercive. Beijing’s diplomatic efforts to claim a global leadership role are accelerating as Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Xi Jinping promulgates his signature “Global Security Initiative” and his pursuit of the “reform of global governance” toward the goal of a “community of common destiny for mankind.”  With a particular focus on the Global South, Xi recently hosted the third “Belt and Road Forum” and is centrally involved in expanding the “BRICS” group. All these projects are clearly aimed at boosting Beijing’s international clout relative to Washington’s.

Meanwhile, China’s economic diplomacy and questionable trade practices continue to be aimed at maximizing Beijing’s global economic footprint and leverage relative to the United States. Its overseas influence and intelligence operations—both covert and overt—appear increasingly pervasive and, in some cases, increasingly malign. And China’s military behavior in the South China Sea and on the Taiwan Strait is getting more belligerent.

Echoing earlier Biden administration policy documents, the U.S. Defense Department’s annual report on “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” released in mid-October, assesses that Beijing’s overall objective is to “revise the international order in support of the PRC’s system of governance and national interests.” To that end, Beijing’s strategy “entails deliberate and determined efforts to amass, improve, and harness the internal and external elements of national power” that will give China a “leading position” in the “enduring competition” between the “ideological systems” of the PRC and the United States.

The prevailing American view is that these Chinese objectives and ambitions are driven by the authoritarian nature of the CCP political system and by Xi Jinping’s personal leadership in particular. There is truth in this, but it overlooks—and in some respects denies—the reactive component of Chinese international behavior: the extent to which it is a response to external variables and the strategic environment as Beijing sees it. Indeed, it is essential to examine the extent to which Chinese leaders feel the need to push back against what they view as foreign challenges to—or disdain for—China’s interests and security.

This is not to suggest that Beijing’s characterization of China’s interests and security is wholly valid or should be taken at face value. CCP leaders routinely blur the distinction between the regime’s interests and the nation’s, and they exaggerate the threats to the security of both in order to rationalize objectionable domestic and foreign policies. At the same time, China does have legitimate interests and security concerns that it perceives as being challenged or disregarded by other countries. Indeed, foreign governments themselves sometimes blur the distinction between China and the CCP regime—potentially alienating the former in their efforts to avoid conceding anything to the latter. U.S. officials often distinguish between their problems with the CCP and their support for the Chinese people, but usually with an eye to the Chinese people’s presumed democratic aspirations and little reflection on their external national ambitions.

For example, Chinese foreign policy often invokes the need to rectify the “century of humiliation”—the period from the Opium War of the 1840s through World War II in the 1940s, during which China was attacked, colonized, and exploited by foreign powers. This is cited to defend China’s sovereignty claims and pursuit of great power status. Because much of this narrative has been exaggerated and propagandized by the CCP, U.S. officials often dismiss its validity and contemporary relevance. But the “century of humiliation” is not merely a CCP slogan. It evokes real historical experiences that remain a visceral source of genuine Chinese nationalism (even among anti-Communists) and affects how Chinese people view their country’s rightful place in the world.

From Beijing’s perspective, it often appears as if Washington is unwilling to publicly acknowledge that China has any legitimate concerns or national interests. Indeed, one is hard-pressed to find official U.S. statements that do so because the political environment in Washington—in which the Republicans and Democrats are competing to be toughest on Beijing—seems to proscribe conceding the validity of any aspect of the Chinese point of view. It also seems to proscribe acknowledging that Chinese behavior might in any way be reactive to U.S. policies and actions. Instead, U.S.-China tensions are attributed almost exclusively to the nature of the CCP, the unreasonableness of its international behavior, and its expansive strategic ambitions.

Beijing also perceives that its positions on international issues—unless they support U.S. policies—are similarly dismissed as duplicitous, disingenuous, or self-serving. This has been reflected in China’s approach to the war in Ukraine, where Beijing has asserted that Russia has “legitimate security interests” that were compromised by NATO expansion, and its approach to the Israel-Gaza war, where it has sought to promote the legitimate security interests of the Palestinians. Although Beijing maintains these views for genuine strategic reasons, in both cases, the Chinese position has been largely rebuffed in Washington as implicitly supporting aggression and inadequate to advancing peace.

On territorial and sovereignty issues, Beijing also sees Washington as generally dismissive of assertions that China’s aggressive behavior is in any measure a reaction to steps taken by other countries. In the South China Sea, there is a long and complex history to the interactive dynamic that has fueled regional tensions, but Beijing garners no empathy for its view that other countries have also assertively pushed the envelope in pursuit of their sovereignty claims. This is especially evident with regard to Taiwan. There is virtually no public acknowledgment in Washington that Beijing’s escalatory behavior on the Taiwan Strait might be a response to policies and statements emanating from Taipei and Washington, which have eroded the “one China” understandings that largely maintained stability for four decades. Instead, the rising cross-strait tensions are attributed almost exclusively to Chinese impatience and internally driven aggression.

Beijing also sees Washington as largely disregarding Chinese assessments of the strategic environment, especially when they incorporate judgments about U.S. intentions. The new 2023 DOD report on China states that PRC leaders view the United States as “deploying a whole-of-government effort meant to contain the PRC’s rise.” This correctly summarizes Beijing’s view, but it overlooks the fact that the U.S. government is expressly engaged in a “whole-of-government effort” to counter, constrain, and compete against China. Many U.S. politicians have even explicitly referred to this strategy as “containment.” Similarly, the DOD report states that PRC leaders have “characterized China’s view of strategic competition in terms of a rivalry among powerful nation-states. . . as well as a clash of opposing ideological systems.”  This, too, is correct, but it overlooks the fact that the Biden administration itself routinely talks about “strategic competition” with China in terms of a rivalry between great powers and a clash between ideological systems. It thus should not be surprising if Beijing views Washington’s own rhetoric as disingenuous and self-serving.

Nor should it be surprising, given all these indicators of Washington’s apparent disregard for the Chinese perspective, that Chinese leaders are inclined to discount U.S. concerns in a similar fashion. More importantly, they are also inclined and even motivated to double down with their own competitive “whole-of-government” approach to confronting the challenge they perceive from the United States. In short, Beijing’s increasingly active pursuit of global influence relative to—and at the expense of—Washington is a predictable response to its failure to make headway in getting U.S. acknowledgment of and attention to Chinese interests and security concerns. Indeed, Beijing has arguably grown more ambitious, arrogant, and provocative in its international behavior because of its frustration with the lack of substantive progress in engagement with Washington. From the Chinese perspective, the U.S. side has made the strategic competition a zero-sum game. Beijing will act accordingly by using its levers of power and influence to bolster China’s position and effect changes in “global governance” that are more conducive to Chinese interests and strategic objectives. This is central to the reactive component of China’s international behavior, which is no less a driver of that behavior than the nature of the CCP regime or Xi Jinping’s personal ambitions.

Would the United States, or any other confident and powerful nation, react differently to circumstances in which its interests, security, and strategic perspective appear to be largely rejected—or deemed illegitimate—by a strategic rival? How do we expect Beijing to act in such circumstances? For example, how do we expect Beijing to act with regard to the Taiwan issue? By admitting the error of its ways, its exclusive responsibility for cross-strait tensions, and its relative vulnerability in a potential conflict scenario, thus abandoning its pursuit of unification with Taiwan? That is not going to happen because Beijing’s commitment to its position on Taiwan is visceral, and its calculus of its relative leverage is strong and may be getting stronger. Nor will Beijing retreat from its strategic calculus or principles about Ukraine, Gaza, the South China Sea, global governance, or a range of other international issues because Washington believes it has the balance of leverage and the moral high ground.

Again, none of this is meant to suggest that Beijing’s strategic ambitions and behavior are benign or that Washington should acquiesce to them. China seeks to maximize its global power, influence, legitimacy, and security relative to and at the expense of the United States. And it does seek revisions to the international system that facilitate and advance that goal. But that goal is partly a product of Beijing’s assessment that Washington is determined to minimize China’s power, influence, and legitimacy—and thus its security—and is unwilling to accept the validity of China’s external interests or pursuit of a global leadership role. This is the zero-sum contest that Beijing believes Washington has imposed upon China, even though Washington appears to judge that Beijing is responsible for making it zero-sum.