This article examines Chinese views toward the U.S.-China relationship since CLM 56 in May 2018, which described Chinese views of the relationship following the promulgation of several major U.S. strategy documents (the 2017 National Security Strategy and the 2018 National Defense Strategy), and the so-called Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy. Unfortunately, recent developments in the Sino-U.S. relationship have not validated the limited optimism expressed by many Chinese observers, as described in CLM 56. Since May, bilateral tensions have increased considerably on many fronts as a result of actions taken by both sides, but especially the U.S.1
These developments over the past few months have considerably worsened the Sino-U.S. relationship, bringing it on the verge of what several Western observers believe is a new Cold War.2 Indeed, many U.S. observers now seem to believe that anything resembling the constructive engagement of the past is replaced by an fundamentally adversarial stance on both sides. This raises the question of whether Chinese views of the bilateral relationship have in fact become similarly pessimistic since May, or retained a level of positivity that argues against drawing such a dire assessment.
A transformation of the Sino-U.S. relationship into one rooted in deep hostility and suspicion may lead Beijing to conclude that its long-standing characterization of the reform era great power environment as one of “peace and development” is no longer applicable. Instead, the Chinese leadership might move to designate the emergence of a new era of potentially destabilizing great power confrontation and even conflict. Given the high importance Beijing places on such formal designations of great power relations, this change would likely result in a thoroughly negative, long-term shift in China’s future policies toward the U.S. and an overall worsening of the bilateral relationship, as well as adverse changes in the regional and global economic and security environments.
This article takes a close look at Chinese views toward the Sino-U.S. relationship since May to see if there are signs that such a change is actually occurring and if not, what the lines of Chinese debate might be over the state of current and future relations. As in the past, the article uses open sources to assess Chinese views, divided into authoritative and non-authoritative categories to distinguish between official and unofficial perceptions and to identify possible differences within the leadership and elite circles.3 The article ends with a summary and assessment of the Chinese perspective and its implications for future U.S.-China relations.
1 For example, Washington disinvited Beijing from participating in the large annual Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) maritime exercises in response to China’s “continued militarization” of the South China Sea. Washington has leveled billions of dollars in tariffs on Chinese imports, announced new rules aimed primarily at China that tightened national security reviews of foreign investment, and extradited a supposed Chinese intelligence operative from Belgium to the U.S. for conspiring to steal trade secrets from a U.S. company.
Perhaps the most significant U.S. action from the past six months relevant to Chinese perceptions of the Sino-U.S. relationship is Vice President Mike Pence’s speech at the Hudson Institute on October 4, 2018. In this speech, Pence fully endorsed the Trump Administration’s hostile, adversarial stance toward China, declaring that the bilateral relationship had entered a new era of intense competition and confrontation, marked by Washington’s refusal to “back down” in the face of Chinese threats and misbehavior.
For their part, the Chinese have applied billions of dollars in counter-tariffs on the U.S., increased military pressure on Taiwan while enticing several nations to transfer their diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, and pushed back against U.S. FONOPs in the South China Sea by engaging in a dangerous ship maneuver directed at a U.S. destroyer. U.S. companies continue to lose intellectual property and technology from both clandestine Chinese activities and onerous joint venture contracts while both Chinese citizens and foreigners are subject to increasing levels of surveillance and control. Beijing’s placement of hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs into “re-education camps” in Xinjiang stands as the most appalling example of this more repressive behavior.
See Helene Cooper, "U.S. Disinvites China From Military Exercise Amid Rising Tensions," The New York Times, May 23, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/23/world/asia/us-china-rimpac-military-exercise-tensions.html;
2 Michael C. Bender, Gordon Lubold, Kate O’Keeffe and Jeremy Page, "U.S. Edges Toward New Cold-War Era With China," The Wall Street Journal, October 12, 2018, https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-edges-toward-new-cold-war-era-with-china-1539355839?;
"Vice President Mike Pence's Remarks on the Administration's Policy Towards China," Hudson Institute, October 4, 2018, https://www.hudson.org/events/1610-vice-president-mike-pence-s-remarks-on-the-administration-s-policy-towards-china102018;
Orange Wang, "US-China trade war heats up as Beijing hits back at US President Donald Trump’s new tariffs," South China Morning Post, September 18, 2018, https://www.scmp.com/economy/china-economy/article/2164686/china-says-it-will-hit-back-against-donald-trumps-latest-trade;
Russell Hsiao, "China’s Intensifying Pressure Campaign against Taiwan," Jamestown Foundation China Brief Volume 18, Issue 11, June 19, 2018, https://jamestown.org/program/chinas-intensifying-pressure-campaign-against-taiwan/;
Liu Zhen, "Beijing’s aggression in South China Sea driving expansion of Southeast Asian coastguard fleets, report says," South China Morning Post, August 3, 2018, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2158047/beijings-aggression-south-china-sea-driving-expansion
Michael C. Bender, Gordon Lubold, Kate O’Keeffe and Jeremy Page, "U.S. Edges Toward New Cold-War Era With China," The Wall Street Journal;
Clay Chandler and Eamon Barrett,"The US-China Cold War Has Begun," Fortune, October 6, 2018, fortune.com/2018/10/06/the-us-china-cold-war-has-begun/;
Ishaan Tharoor," Under Trump, U.S. enters a new ‘Cold War’ with China," The Washington Post, October 11, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2018/10/11/under-trump-us-enters-new-cold-war-with-china/?utm_term=.6897638b73ed;
Kenneth Rapoza, "China And U.S. Inch Closer To Cold War," Forbes, October 9, 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/kenrapoza/2018/10/09/china-and-u-s-inch-closer-to-cold-war/#513d6db54bd7;
Mark Landler, "Trump Has Put the U.S. and China on the Cusp of a New Cold War," The New York Times, September 19, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/19/us/politics/trump-china-trade-war.html;
Graham Allison, "The US is hunkering down for a new cold war with China," Financial Times, October 12, 2018, https://www.ft.com/content/666b0230-cd7b-11e8-8d0b-a6539b949662;
Julian Borger and Lily Kuo, "US-China tensions soar as 'new cold war' heats up," The Guardian, October 16, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/16/us-china-new-cold-war-tensions;
3 Several types of PRC sources are considered authoritative in the sense of explicitly “speaking for the regime.” Authoritative statements include, in descending order of authority, PRC government and CCP statements, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) statements, MFA spokesperson statements, and MFA daily press briefings.
Many types of low-level commentary and signed articles appearing in a wide variety of PRC and Hong Kong media convey notable yet decidedly non-authoritative views. Such articles appear in the PRC government news service (Xinhua), CCP and PLA newspapers, the Hong Kong–based (and People’s Daily–owned) Global Times (环球时 ), and many minor PRC and Hong Kong newspapers and academic publications. See Michael D. Swaine, “Chinese Views and Commentary on Periphery Diplomacy,” China Leadership Monitor 44 (Summer 2014), 28.
Several types of usually homophonous, bylined articles appearing in People’s Daily are considered non-authoritative. A major example of this is articles using the byline “Zhong Sheng” (钟声). See Michael D. Swaine, “Chinese Views on the South China Sea Arbitration Case between the People’s Republic of China and the Philippines,” China Leadership Monitor 51 (Fall 2016), 2.