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.


Does the United States really fear that China will succeed in supplanting it as the global hegemon by winning the hearts and minds of much of the rest of the world and imposing on it the CCP system of governance and development? That overestimates Beijing’s strategic intentions, underestimates the agency of other countries, and reflects a striking lack of confidence in the global appeal and legitimacy of democracy and capitalism. In any event, the international system is reshaping itself in the wake of historic shifts in the distribution of wealth, power, and influence—not because China has launched an effort to reshape it. Beijing, nonetheless, is taking advantage of the opportunity to drive the process to its benefit, while Washington appears instead to be resisting or denying the historical trend. The United States should be competing with Beijing to capitalize on it, with confidence in the assets and strengths it brings to the process.

China’s competitive moves against the United States and its efforts to cultivate support from other countries are partly driven by Beijing’s judgment that this probably will be more productive than seeking U.S. acknowledgment of and attention to its views through reciprocal engagement. Chinese leaders will not abandon the latter in their bilateral interactions with Washington, but they feel the need to maneuver for advantage both multilaterally and globally. They recognize that the United States has prioritized strategic competition with China over cooperation and engagement, so they are accelerating their plans to meet that competition. In short, Beijing will step up its efforts to score points against Washington because it judges that it is not scoring points with Washington and sees diminishing prospects for doing so.


Antagonism and the lack of strategic empathy on both sides are thus preventing Washington and Beijing from recognizing and genuinely responding to each other’s perspectives. Beijing, arguably the petitioner in the bilateral relationship because of China’s relative disadvantages, routinely invokes the need for diplomacy aimed at pursuing “mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, and win-win cooperation.” Washington, openly confident of its relative strengths and openly critical of what it claims are Beijing’s true strategic intentions, generally dismisses this as CCP propaganda. In contrast, the U.S. side routinely describes U.S.-China diplomatic interaction as aimed minimally at “responsibly managing the competition and maintaining open channels of communication”—as Biden reportedly expressed personally to Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi in late October. This suggests a U.S. lack of interest in aiming higher or perhaps a lack of readiness to assume the necessary requirements and responsibilities of doing so.

The biggest obstacle to American understanding of China thus appears to be Washington’s seeming determination to misunderstand China—rather than grant any credibility and legitimacy to its strategic outlook and goals. This only reinforces Beijing’s adversarial response. Washington will not be able to work constructively with Beijing toward overcoming bilateral mistrust—and sharing global leadership, which ultimately will be necessary—until it is prepared to consider the Chinese point of view and recognize that the long-term risks of misunderstanding and antagonizing Beijing are greater than the risks of taking into account China’s strategic interests and concerns.

Paul Heer is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He served as National Intelligence Officer for East Asia from 2007 to 2015. He is the author of Mr. X and the Pacific: George F. Kennan and American Policy in East Asia (Cornell University Press, 2018).

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