China is in no mood to match US’s desire for dialogue

By accusing the US of not observing diplomatic niceties and of wrong deeds, China is implying that the former is an uncivilised, and therefore, undeserving superpower
Last Updated : 20 June 2023, 05:00 IST
Last Updated : 20 June 2023, 05:00 IST

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United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in China over the past two days attempting to cool temperatures in a bilateral relationship that appears to be going from bad to worse. Beijing had cancelled Blinken’s planned visit in February over the shooting down of a Chinese spy balloon over US airspace. While Blinken has met with the Chinese foreign policy leadership in third countries and the Chinese commerce minister met with his US counterpart in Washington last month, the Chinese defence ministry has repeatedly rebuffed US requests for dialogue.

Even accounting for unhappiness following the balloon incident, Beijing took the idea of not talking to Washington to an extreme. While Blinken is now the highest-level US official to visit China since President Joe Biden took office and the first Secretary of State to make the trip in five years, from the statements so far, it is safe to assume that the conversations have yielded little.

The question the Americans are failing to ask themselves is — what explains Chinese reluctance and their increasingly shrill statements about the US? Why is it that China appears less concerned about the ‘risk of misperception and miscalculation’ than the US?

The answer can only be that Beijing finds use of such incidents as with the spy balloon and ‘misperceptions’ to promote — as it always does — a certain kind of narrative about itself and the US.

Chinese official statements, media coverage, and editorials of the US frequently spew fire and brimstone, but to think that they simply mirror a similar shift to a harder line on China in the US would be wrong. For one, the US shift is comparatively new in the making, beginning with perhaps the end of the Barack Obama presidency. For another, this thinking also misses an important and uniquely Chinese aspect in the narrative: of China using its long civilisational history and culture to distinguish itself from the US.

While the US acknowledges China as a ‘strategic rival’, it does not seek to convey the impression that it is in an existential conflict with China as it did against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The US is aware of the math — China’s economy and its military, especially, its navy, are truly behemoths. The US appears inextricably linked to the former — despite talk of ‘decoupling’ and ‘derisking’ — and increasingly challenged in the Indo-Pacific by the latter. It is for this reason that while Washington does call out ‘China’s regular dangerous operational behaviour at sea or in international airspace’, it appears equally concerned about ‘strengthen[ing] the guardrails against conflict’ as US Secretary of Defense General Lloyd Austin put it at the Shangri-La Dialogue earlier this month in Singapore.

China, has, however, used every incident with the US to create a domestic and international narrative that Washington’s status is somehow illegitimate and undeserved. Self-identifying as a country with a long-recorded history and civilisation, China has taken to berating the US about the latter’s lack of observance of diplomatic protocols and niceties implying, by extension, a lack of civilized behaviour and culture.

During the balloon incident, China’s defence ministry refused a US request for a telephone conversation accusing the latter of ‘irresponsible and seriously wrong practice’. Sharper language was used earlier during talks between the foreign policy and national security leaderships of the two countries in Alaska in March 2021, when the head of China’s delegation, then Communist Party of China (CPC) Politburo member and Director of its Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission Yang Jiechi, rebuked the US saying, ‘we thought too well of you, we thought the US side would follow basic diplomatic protocols’.

During Blinken’s visit, too, the Chinese carried forward the approach from Alaska calling on the US to ‘handle unexpected eventualities calmly, professionally and rationally’ suggesting that the US had hitherto displayed none of these qualities.

In his meeting with Blinken, Wang Yi, the former Chinese Foreign Minister and Yang’s successor in the more important CPC role, declared that ‘the root cause for Sino-US relations falling to their lowest point is that the US side holds a wrong perception of China’. Earlier, at the Shangri-La Dialogue, China’s Defence Minister General Li Shangfu had said, ‘the US side… needs to act with sincerity, match its words with deeds’ while another official in the delegation accused the US side of ‘a series of wrong words and deeds’.

The reference to the US inability to form a correct perception or to use the correct words is once again meant to impute that the Americans are uncivilised and behaving in a manner unworthy of a global power. China, by contrast, supposedly adheres to diplomatic niceties even under (US) duress.

This attitude and approach follows from CPC General Secretary and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s desire to highlight and promote, ‘fine traditional Chinese culture’ and a ‘stronger sense of cultural confidence and a higher level of morale throughout the Party and the nation’. While primarily about providing additional support for the ruling CPC’s legitimacy at home, such calls also have their foreign policy uses as exemplified by Xi’s launch of the Global Civilization Initiative in March. Even as he ostensibly promoted ‘respect for the diversity of civilizations’, the Chinese leader did not fail to use the opportunity to indirectly criticise the US by saying his country would avoid the ‘crooked path taken by some countries to seek hegemony once they grow strong’.

The attempt to demean the US is a sophisticated one.

The US, however, in its enthusiasm to appear as the less aggressive party, or perhaps, unwilling to get bogged down in another conflict so soon after decades of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, seems to believe that simply talking can somehow keep things on an even keel with Beijing. This would be a misreading of what China under Xi is saying and doing. While General Austin might say that “The United States does not seek a new Cold War”, such a war — one with Chinese characteristics — is already upon it.

(Jabin T Jacob is Associate Professor, Department of International Relations and Governance Studies, and Director, Centre for Himalayan Studies, Shiv Nadar Institution of Eminence, Delhi-NCR. Twitter: @jabinjacobt.)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

Published 20 June 2023, 04:50 IST

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