US–China Relations: The Long View From Beijing

(Centennial Fellow) In the classic musical My Fair Lady, Professor Henry Higgins plaintively asks “Why can’t a Woman be more like a Man?” Similarly Americans perpetually wonder “Why can’t other countries be more like us?”

A case in point is our current relations with China which to American eyes seems willfully stubborn in its refusal to cooperate on sanctions against Iran. Similarly China seems inexplicably furious over the U.S. decision to sell six billion dollars worth of new weapons to Taiwan. Add to this China’s recent dire warnings against any U.S. officials meeting with the Dalai Lama.

Realistically Americans should understand that Chinese behavior is deeply rooted in the values and experience of their own 3,000 year history and hardly at all influenced by the values and experience found in little over 200 years of U.S. history. Furthermore the things Americans constantly preach e.g. democracy, human rights have virtually no resonance in Chinese history or the “world view” of those men in Beijing who are charting China’s future.

It could be fair to say that currently the three central imperatives of Chinese policy are in ascending order of importance:1.developing a military establishment capable of projecting power on a global scale; 2. achieving economic might competitive with the U.S.A.; and 3. solidifying the regime’s legitimacy, stability, and territorial integrity. These goals are mutually reinforcing. China knows it cannot attain global military influence without a world class economy to support it. Finally China will have neither military nor economic clout if the regime fails the test of long term stability.

It is hard for Americans to grasp the compelling force of these three objectives because all of them are things we achieved long ago and now take for granted.

What drives China’s obsession with stability as evidenced by their harsh attitudes regarding Taiwan, Tibet, Uighurs, Falun Gong, Japanese history books and even Google?

The answer is that all of Chinese history can be divided into two constantly recurring cycles. The first: long periods of unity, power, and prosperity under stable and legitimate regimes (dynasties). The second: long periods of ruin occasioned by the breakdown of central authority which commonly led to civil war, feudal chaos, and foreign invasion. Examples abound. Early in the 13th century Mongol raiders appeared on the northern borders; within three generations they had conquered all of China. Early in the 19th century “peaceful traders” from the West appeared in Chinese ports; by the end of the century they had totally humiliated China’s rulers, and carved the country up into foreign “concessions” and “spheres of interest”. The Japanese invasion and occupation beginning in 1937 visited unimaginable horrors upon millions of Chinese.

To Chinese the lessons of their long history are clear: small problems can lead to large catastrophes. Thus small problems must be aggressively attacked, and constant vigilance is demanded.

When China looks at its great U.S. rival it sees a contracting military power (mothballed carriers, defunded missile defense, etc.) greatly stressed by nine years of combat deployment, an economy racing towards a cliff owing to metastasizing deficits and debt (mainly owed to China), and a national leadership desperate to push its burdens of world security toward a hopelessly fragmented United Nations or a toothless European Union.

In this environment for China to succumb to U.S. pressure regarding Iran would not only be out of character historically but also a clear violation of its national interest. A nuclear armed Iran may be a game changing threat to U.S. interests but the view from Beijing is very different. To abandon Iran would clearly signal that China is an unreliable ally vulnerable to U.S. pressures such as the unusually blunt public warning recently made by Secretary Clinton in Paris.

China portrays the U.S. as a declining power that cannot be relied upon as evidenced by its impatience to leave Iraq and Afghanistan and inability to successfully deal with either Iran or North Korea. In contrast China portrays itself both economically and militarily as the rising world power that stands by its friends and its commitments, a nation that has both the desire and the capability to be the avatar of a new post-American world order.

For thousands of years the Chinese have regarded their civilization as superior to all others, a self-perception not unlike “American Exceptionalism”. History will reveal which vision shall own the future.


Centennial Fellow William Moloney was previously Colorado Education Commissioner. His columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News and Human Events.

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