US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping. A compromise and recognition of each other's different systems could be the way forward. Photo: AFP/Paul J Richards

Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s statement on CNN to the effect that the United States should negotiate with China “from a position of strength” should be taken both with caution and concern.

Caution because foreign policy statements made during the course of an interview are often produced for internal political consumption and do not necessarily reflect a global vision of a nation’s foreign relations. Concern because what is termed as a “position of strength” is a questionable proposition at best.

Historically US foreign policy has always operated from a position of strength. This applied not only to its relations with its Latin American neighbors, but also, subsequently, to the likes of Germany and Japan as the losers of World War II.

Regarding the US/Soviet Union relations, the two blocs operated essentially as two parallel incompatible systems functioning independently of each other with very little interplay between the two. With neither side able to impose itself on the other, the relationship was not based on a process of negotiation, but rather on coexistence and not much more.

As for America’s allies during the Cold War, these all depended on Washington for their security, their economic performance or both. Thus, while the relationship on paper was between allies, in practical terms it was between one dominant power and a number of reliant states.

The end result is that the concept of negotiation with what one assumes to be a foreign equal is not part of the American political mindset. Ironically, it is also not part of the mindset of what has emerged as America’s main, if not only counterpart, namely China.

For Imperial China, the outside world was exactly that: the outside world, inhabited by Barbarians, at best ignored and left to their own devices. The invasion of China by the West followed by the collapse of the imperial regime brought about one century of anarchy during which what had been, over the centuries, a highly structured centralized power structure that became at best a geographical expression.

Citizens of West Berlin hand a pot of coffee to GDR border forces on the Berlin Wall in Germany on November 11, 1989. Photo: AFP/DPA

The fall of the Soviet Union

The coming to power of the Communists in 1949 marked the resurrection of the Chinese state. During the subsequent 50 years, the isolation imposed on China by the United States compounded by the successive social disruptions resulting from Mao’s ideological vision ensured that a country that was by nature inward-looking would be further induced to be so by being essentially focused on domestic developments.

This situation was radically overturned by what proved to be a seminal moment in the history of China’s Communist party: the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The collapse of the Soviet Communist party had a traumatizing effect on its Chinese counterpart. Not only had the impossible occurred, but the agonizing question for the Chinese communists was whether they would be next.

The conclusions reached after a protracted process of introspection that hinged for the Chinese Communist party on how to retain its hold on power were three.

First, the Soviet economic model was deficient and was no longer relevant as a development blueprint. Second, the state apparatus was the basis on which the power of the Party rested. Third, force alone was not sufficient to ensure that the Communist Party retain its hold on power. To do so it needed the support of a sizable part of the population.

The end result was “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” a strange hybrid that, while paying lip service to “socialism,” was for all practical purposes a modern reincarnation of China’s Imperial Order with the equivalent of an emperor as its paramount leader and the Communist Party establishment as its new mandarins.

For the constituents of the Imperial Order, the overriding priority was to stay in power. This in turn required that two conditions be met. First, the Imperial Order should have a monopoly of power. Second, in order to retain the “Mandate from Heaven,” the Imperial Order must provide for the material well-being of a significant part of the population.

Its population base notwithstanding, China did not have the domestic resources needed to implement a rapid and effective development policy. Thus, opening to the outside world became an imperative, with one caveat. Development was not an end in itself. It was a means by which the party would, by catering to the needs of the grassroots, consolidate its hold on society.

Demand for ‘democracy’

Conversely Washington, China’s main counterpart, saw an inverse scenario. The conventional wisdom in the United States held that economic development would bring about an increased demand for “democracy” in China and thus weaken the hold that the Party had on the country. This in turn would ensure that China would become increasingly aligned with what stood for America’s interests in the region.

The end result was that for some 30 years China operated freely in an open Western environment, while Western economic actors operated with heavy constraints in a restrictive Chinese environment.

This asymmetrical relation was not necessarily viewed as deleterious by a significant component of the American economic establishment. Actually, the “conceived in California, assembled in China” model resulted in lower prices for the American consumer, jobs for the Chinese economy and greater profits for the American corporate world.

In the medium term, however, the model was not tenable for essentially two reasons. It provoked a substantive erosion of America’s industrial base with a corresponding rise in unemployment and it failed to take into account the fact that the “assembler” had the potential for becoming a “conceiver” and thus to challenge the technological leadership of its American counterpart.

There is no doubt that China’s long-term development potential was overlooked by the United States, which was not fully aware of the fact that they were dealing not with just another third World economy aspiring to develop, but with a civilization that had endured uninterruptedly for thousands of years, with some 1.4 billion inhabitants steeped in an imperial tradition and the harbinger of a deep-seated national identity, considerable intellectual resources and a strong work ethic.

For the United States, the problem of dealing with China was compounded by the fact that they were operating within a political system in which the executive is subject to an eight-year term at best.

Passers-by keep their distance from Ronald McDonald as he sits outside the first McDonald’s restaurant to be opened in Beijing on April 20, 1992. Photo: AFP/Mike Fiala

Long-term perspective

Thus it would have been unrealistic to expect the successive administrations in Washington to look at the relationship between China and the US in a 50 or 100 year-long perspective and to establish a framework within which to manage an asymmetrical relationship: on one side a state-run economy in a one-party system operating through a combination of state-owned companies, partly state-owned companies and private companies subject to state-oversight and on the other a Western free-market environment subject to erratic political scrutiny.

For the Chinese, juggling their relations with the United States is no easy task either. Seen from Beijing, the American support to the KMT during the civil war, General MacArthur’s threat to use KMT troops in Korea, the safeguarding of Taiwan, the 20-year-long denial of China’s seat at the UN or the emblem of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam representing a sword thrust through a great wall, portray the United States as an unrelenting foe of the regime from its very inception.

And even when relations were at their best, US support for radio stations hostile to the regime, that broadcast in the likes of Mandarin, Tibetan or Uighur, endured unabated. It did not take much more for a regime already by nature averse to respecting rules and norms drawn up by “Barbarians” to view itself under siege and to make light of any constraints, such as those pertaining to intellectual property and the like.

The course of events that unfolded subsequent to the collapse of the Soviet Union further increased the suspicions of China’s ruling elite regarding Washington’s global ambition. Expanding  NATO to the very borders of Russia, invading Iraq, striving for regime change in Syria are seen as an attempt by Washington to act as the leader of a cluster of western nations bent on containing, not to say humiliating, China.

Starting with the opening of China to the West, and more specifically to the United States, it took some 30 years for the two systems to come head to head. On one side the world’s only remaining superpower, albeit an unsettled one: unresolved domestic tensions, a weakened industrial base, a difficulty in translating into substantive and enduring achievements, its unique military potential and a reservoir of suspicion regarding “Communist China” have conspired to fuel a politically oriented domestic backlash as regards a relationship that was questionably managed and had a realistic potential to turn toxic at best.

Rules and standards

And on the other side an aspiring superpower of massive proportions that has not yet fulfilled its potential and has problems coming to terms with the fact that it operates in a global system which, while not of its making, has rules and standards that cannot totally be overlooked.

Few would disagree with the fact that interactions between China and the United States have reached a nadir not seen since the two established diplomatic relations in 1979. One can likewise assume that both countries, without compromising their core interests, would be receptive to a process that would lead essentially to a major clarification as regards how the two stand in relation to each other and how they can interrelate constructively while retaining their specific systems. 

Such a process should be based on two components. The first should focus on a number of peripheral issues which have significantly contributed to a deterioration of the political environment in which the two operate.

The second should deal with the fundamental issue as to how the two systems can interrelate and what mechanisms, if any, should be set up to enable them to do so.

Among the peripheral issues, the toning down of the rhetoric that bedevils the relations between the two countries should be seen as a priority. Granted there is some merit in calling a spade a spade, but a minimum of civility is called for when one state refers to another.

Some sophistication would also be appropriate as regards the issuing of American visas to Chinese citizens, be they students or others. In an imperial system where the state is the ultimate overseer, distinguishing between citizens or entities related, currently or potentially, fully or in part to the defense establishment or to the ruling party, is at best irrelevant.

And it is even more so in the light of relations in the United States between the private sector and the defense establishment.

Among the issues that should be sidelined is Taiwan. Originally the confrontation pitted two Chinese entities, the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China, both claiming to be the sole representatives of the Chinese state. With time the problem morphed.

In this file photo taken on January 31, 2018, Taiwanese sailors salute the island’s flag on the deck of the Panshih supply ship after taking part in annual drills at the Tsoying naval base in Kaohsiung. Photo: AFP / Mandy Cheng

‘Hands-off’

Today what stood as the “Republic of China” is for all practical purposes a breakaway Chinese province under a local authority distinct from the one in Beijing. This is a status quo that Beijing can live with. Alternatively, secession is not only a geopolitical issue. It is also a highly charged emotional one, something the United States should understand simply by looking back at its own history.

Ultimately, the less Taiwan is mentioned the better it is for all concerned and the temptation of posturing by bringing the issue to the fore with publicized state visits or advertised arms sales should be resisted.

A somewhat similar “hands-off” perspective should be adopted as regards the issue of the South China Sea. It is obvious that none of the local actors are liable to surrender their territorial claims on the islands and shoals they consider their own.

It is also obvious that nothing will induce China to either give up its claims or refrain from militarizing the islands under its control. Ultimately, this is irrelevant. The only relevant issue is freedom of navigation and, if this is guaranteed, who exercises sovereignty on what is inconsequential.

With the issue of Taiwan and the South China Sea hopefully moved to the back burner, what is called for is a substantive dialogue between the United States and China that should not be intended as a negotiating process and even less as a bargaining one.

Tariffs, quotas and the like should not be the issue. What the parties should focus on is a  process of joint exploration on how their two systems can interrelate without coming into direct conflict for the foreseeable decades.

Additionally, the process should also permit both parties, in a subsidiary role and when required, to address issues and complaints which, when or if made public, would erupt into ineffectual confrontations. 

For both parties to accede to such a process would require the recognition that they address each other as equals, that their systems are incompatible and liable to remain so for generations to come, that they have no alternative but to exist side by side and that some common rules and understanding are better than the current state of relations between the two.

Alexander Casella

Alexander Casella PhD has taught and worked as a journalist for the likes of Le Monde, The Times, The New York Times, Die Zeit, The Guardian, and Swiss radio and TV, writing primarily on China and Vietnam. In 1973 he joined the UNHCR, serving, among others, as head of the East Asia Section and director for Asia and Oceania. He then served 18 years as representative in Geneva of the International Center for Migration Policy Development.