Western public media are replete with China bashing. But such rants are—or were– rarely authored by US scholars who claim to be objective analysts. However some are now joining this club of dubious distinction. This is a sign of the times we live in. Like during the US-Soviet Union Cold-War, the US government has launched a massive public diplomacy campaign that demonizes China and encourages and enables such biased analyses and commentary. A good example recently appeared in the Diplomat authored by Denny Roy, a Senior Research Fellow at the US government affiliated East-West Center.
Roy’s piece entitled “China should follow its scholars advice to Biden ” https://thediplomat.com/2020/11/china-should-follow-its-scholars-advice-to-biden/ was a savage critique of a previous article in the Diplomat by Hu Junyang and Chen Dingding of Intellisia, a think tank in China. https://thediplomat.com/2020/11/how-should-president-elect-joe-biden-address-the-us-china-competition/
Their piece was a well reasoned analysis from China’s perspective of how incoming president Joe Biden’s administration should address US-China relations. As such it was a welcome read compared to diatribes from “wolf warriors” or worse, yet another unsolicited proffering of advice by the legions of US analysts (including myself). The Hu/Chen article suggested that the two identify bell weather actions that could be used as “thermometers’ to measure the temperature of relations and also as alarm bells. They recommended that replacing biting tit-for-tat with more conciliatory rhetoric could do much to mitigate “the rising nationalism among the public.”
This is sound advice. Domestic nationalism is a dangerous force—in China – – as well as in the U.S. – or any country for that matter. They also recommended that the U.S. and China “fortify and normalize the crisis management mechanism”. This too is sound advice and the two are in fact doing so. Finally, they suggested that the new administration “contemplate the long term US-China relationship and how they can coexist competitively”. This is a reasonable proposition and something that other more distinguished Chinese and American analysts have also urged. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/24/opinion/china-us-biden.html
Roy takes particular umbrage at Hu and Chen’s use of the phrase “must reflect on their perceptions about China”. He says that language—”foreigners must reflect on x_ _is the “same way Chinese officials and media have scolded other world leaders over the years”. But they were referring to an article in Foreign Affairs by eight of the nation’s leading China scholars who said “U.S. policymakers must adopt a more careful and considered approach” [to China]. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2020-10-23/overreach-china-hawks The only essential difference is who said it.
Roy seems to be enraged by what he considers the unmitigated gall of two Chinese analysts to offer advice to the US government. Indeed, from this starting point, he turns his piece into a contemptuous diatribe against China. While some of his points are well taken, he misses the forest for the trees. It is the U.S. – not China – that is the current hegemon in a region far away from its homeland and that is trying to maintain that hegemony in the face of China’s rise. He also seems to make an implicit value judgment that the U.S. is ‘right’ and more deserving of domination and China is ‘wrong’ or less deserving. An objective analyst would conclude that both are –as Roy puts it –using “alteration of tensions as an instrument of state craft, a tactic for intimidating the adversary” into acceding to its wishes.
Roy goes on to list a litany of China’s sins. Some have objective reasonable explanations. The collision between the US EP-3 intelligence collection plane and a Chinese fighter jet may have been due to the EP-3 threatening China’s national security by tickling its defenses and interfering in its military communications. Regarding China’s concern that Japan has not been sufficiently penitent for its criminal behavior prior to and during WW II, many Asian countries including North and South Korea agree. As for China’s criticism of the Dalai Lama’s ‘separatism,’ whether one supports it or not, he is certainly advocating a ‘separate’ Tibet.
Roy suggests that China feels that sting of US President Donald Trump’s racist joke referring to the COVID 19 pandemic the “kung fu flu”. Most objective analysts would agree that such racism on the part of a nation’s President is inappropriate.
Roy says “the Chinese government is incapable of not issuing tit-for-tat remarks that worsen bilateral relations.” But this tit-for-tat pales in the face of US insults to its leaders and its political system. The U.S. says that it and China are engaged in “a geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order” in the Indo-Pacific region. https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905-2.pdf
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo even framed the conflict in existential terms saying “the world cannot be safe until China changes.” https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/1316894/US-news-China-relations-Mike-Pompeo-warning-CCP-latest-South-China-Sea-Huawei; https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2020/07/29/commentary/world-commentary/u-s-china-reconciliation-drifting-away/ Such a call for ‘regime change’ was bound to attract a nasty response.
Roy lists as China’s sins,” the resurgence of Communist Party and state power relative to Chinese society, Xi Jinping’s personality cult, and domestic war against liberal political values _ _ and Beijing’s frequent use of economic coercion against trade partners over political grievances and the like”. These criticisms all have some validity.
But missing from Roy’s diatribe is balance and an acknowledgement of serious drawbacks of the current US democratic system like Trump’s personality cult, the dysfunctional politically split society, its burgeoning racial conflict and its frequent use of economics and military force to further its political objectives in Asia.
The anti-China posture that emerged during the Trump administration is indeed bipartisan as Roy acclaims. But this is not a mandate to start a war on behalf of far away countries’ disputed claims to maritime rocks. The U.S. needs to sort out the wheat from the chaff and decide what, when, where and how a military response to China’s actions against rival South China Sea claimants and risking kinetic conflict is in its national security interest and thus warranted.
Hu and Chen propose injecting “more cultural and society factors into the mix to reverse the negative dynamics”. But Roy dismisses this proposition by concluding that “a vast network of personal and civil society connections _ _ will not overcome the friction generated by each government concluding that the other threatens its vital interests.” That may be. Indeed, even scholarly exchanges are now being caught up in this Cold-Warish public diplomacy competition. But this is something to be lamented and certainly not encouraged and engaged in by supposedly objective analysts.