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Editorial: The U.S.-China downward spiral will only get worse

  • July 30, 2021
  • , The Japan Times
  • English Press

In his meeting last week with visiting U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, Xie Feng, China’s vice foreign minister, accused the United States of treating China as an “imaginary enemy.”


He and his government are dismayed that the Biden administration has not softened Donald Trump’s hard-line policy toward China and instead continues to hold it accountable for its misdeeds. The expectation that the U.S. would reverse course was folly.


U.S. policy reflects a new consensus about China and this consensus extends to other governments as well. China needs to recognize this new normal and adjust policy accordingly. It appears to be doubling down on belligerence instead.


Xie’s characterization of U.S. policy is wrong on both counts. The U.S government does not consider China the enemy. The Biden administration has made it clear that it sees China as a competitor and a rival, but also a partner. It is eager to work with Beijing on issues of mutual concern, and there are many — climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, the bloody situation in Myanmar and the North Korean nuclear problem top a long list.


But the U.S. also has a list of complaints about Chinese behavior that it — like other nations — rightly considers inappropriate and dangerous. Those offenses include, but are not limited to, the disregard for international law in the South China Sea, a similar indifference to its international obligations in regard to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, the increasing pressure on Taiwan and ongoing attacks on U.S. computer networks.


Japan too is ready to work with China on pressing issues, but it also wants Beijing to respect international law, cease the pressure on Taiwan, quit turning a blind eye to and enabling North Korea’s disregard for its nuclear obligations, end the daily incursions into waters around the Senkaku islands and provide greater transparency about its military.


Meeting Sherman, Chinese diplomats countered with their own demands, among them: end visa restrictions on members of the Communist Party of China, as well as their families and Chinese students; stop suppressing Chinese companies and Confucius Institutes; stop registering Chinese media as foreign missions; and halt the extradition of Meng Wanzhou, a senior Huawei executive held in Canada on U.S. charges of money laundering.


Foreign Minister Wang Yi, with whom Sherman met on her second day of meetings, provided a revealing set of principles for the bilateral relationship. He insisted that the U.S. must not challenge or attempt to subvert the system of socialism with Chinese characteristics, it must not block China’s development process and it must not infringe upon China’s sovereignty or territorial integrity.


Those sound reasonable and U.S. officials would insist that they have no intention of crossing those red lines. Unfortunately, however, Beijing considers any criticism to cross a line.


Charges of unfair economic practices apparently violate the first and second principles, while the demand that Beijing respect the international arbitral decision that ruled illegal China’s island-building projects in the South China Sea transgresses the third.


Beijing responds to all accusations with either a flat denial or a claim that China’s behavior is of no concern to other nations. It thunders that any criticism constitutes interference in its internal affairs. It accepts no authority — not even the treaties and charters that it signed — as superior to that of its own government. Beijing is quick to attribute any charges to a desire to keep China from assuming its rightful place in the regional and global order or the belief that the U.S. is using China to “reignite a sense of national purpose.”


China’s refusal to accept that it plays a role in the downward spiral in relations with the U.S. guarantees that the deterioration will continue. No nation is above criticism. Unnamed U.S. officials reportedly said that they would “take a look at … some of the concerns that were raised with us.” China is likely to see that as validation of its complaints rather than an opening to engage in self-reflection.


The way that Xie’s remarks were released — first through Chinese language social media — reveals that China’s stiff-necked and caustic engagement is aimed as much at domestic audiences as those in Washington and other capitals. It is part of a belligerent triumphalism that has assumed still more strident tones since the ruling Chinese Communist Party marked the centennial of its founding earlier this month.


This nationalist crescendo seems to be girding the public for hardship as much as celebrating China’s strengths. The country’s leadership should worry that tidal waves of emotion are difficult to control or direct.


One of Beijing’s greatest concerns is the creation of a multinational front that takes a united stand against China on issues such as its human rights practices, its predatory economic policies or its cyber attacks. The Biden administration is committed to forging that consensus among like-minded nations and has had success with statements condemning China’s behavior in bilateral summits like that with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga or the multilateral G7 and NATO meetings last month. That, for Beijing, is an alarming development.


China and the U.S. need to have a working relationship. The world needs China and the U.S. to have a working relationship. That will include both cooperation and competition, and both sides need to find common ground to ensure that the latter does not dominate, nor does it slide into conflict.


Compromise will be required, and a belief that one side is never wrong and that all the work must be done by the other is misguided and dangerous. China should recognize that other nations wish to work with it as a partner and engage in more self-reflection as to why the current moment is fraught. Without it, the downward spiral in relations will only get worse.


The Japan Times Editorial Board

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