There has been a subtle, yet important reset in tone – albeit not in material attitudes, yet – in relations between China and the United States. Much of the reset can be attributed to breakthroughs on the fronts of trade negotiations, hostage diplomacy involving Meng Wanzhou and the two Michaels, and the United States’ disgraceful evacuation from Afghanistan. Yet not a negligible part of the shift can also be traced to Beijing’s active attempts to turn down the temperature in the room, with moderate and reasonable success.
Beijing’s strategic deescalation
Upon arriving in the United States, China’s new ambassador to the United States, Qin Gang, remarked, “I think the door to China-US relations, which is already open, cannot be closed.” His debut remarks were made in late July, at a time when the prospects for Sino-US relations looked as bleak as they had ever been over the past two decades.
For two and a half months along the way, China and the United States appear to be interfering slowly – and somewhat uncomfortably – towards a turnaround in bilateral relations. Whether the progressive de-escalation should last, or is merely a window of short respite, remains to be seen. Still, Beijing has at least opted for a more explicitly stated, strategically implemented de-escalation to the tensions. While The anchorage meeting in March offered a certain level of pragmatic, reasonable engagement behind closed doors, the loudness exhibited in public differed markedly from the more conciliatory tone and language adopted in recent weeks.
At a virtual meeting with Democrats and Republicans in September, Chinese Politburo member Yang Jiechi more dialogue to “improve mutual understanding and cooperation.” This was followed by his meeting with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in Zurich, Switzerland, at a summit that many have proclaimed to be the precursor to a more meaningful virtual meeting between President Xi Jinping and President Joe Biden before the end of the year. Yang’s conciliatory remarks were reiterated by Deputy Prime Minister Liu He, who – in her talks with US Trade Representative Katherine Tai – called for more regular discussions to dispel tensions and resolve unresolved disputes between the two parties.
The official rhetoric has been backed by state media. An article published on September 13 by the state-owned media China Daily was the headline, “Xi, Biden engagement is crucial to fixing ties, analysts say.” He praises Tai’s speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies as a sign that the United States has recognized that “it is unrealistic to ‘transform China’ based on American interests,” a Global Times editorial on 5 October proposed that “China welcomes dialogue and negotiations and is willing to make an effort to jointly build an equal and mutually beneficial trade system between China and the United States.” Beijing at least seems willing to offer some degree of rhetorical concessions in its external propaganda and media efforts. Such olive branches can be subtle and easy to miss, but should not be overlooked.
There are three features to note when it comes to Beijing’s recent de-escalation. First, there has been a significant downgrading of the rhetoric, arguments, and gestures used by some of its diplomats and state-affiliated commentators – both when it comes to explicit criticism of America and aggressive rejections of what China perceives as slander and deception. of its interests. Such a restriction gives some credibility to the view that China’s sharp turnaround in diplomacy could have been avoided, at least in part, if the state apparatus had chosen otherwise.
Second, the statements and releases from the Chinese Foreign Ministry in recent weeks reflect a change in the terms and language of engagement. Significantly greater emphasis is placed on designating areas that are ripe for further negotiation and compromise. Although maintaining China’s “national core interests” remains a significant privilege, such rhetoric did not occupy the central stage in Yang, Liu, and – in particular – Xi’s talks with their respective counterparts, in which extensive discussions on cooperation were held.
Third, Beijing has been tactfully committed to keeping its options available and wide open. While Zhongnanhai has called for deepening dialogue and exploring co-operation in areas that have so far been largely out of the picture (eg labor mechanization challenges and civil-to-civil exchange), it has avoided the pressure of to make firm concessions and material political promises on any of these fronts. These gestures should be interpreted as both invitations to further dialogue and discussions, as well as indications of the goodwill of the country as a whole.
Beijing’s de-escalation efforts should be read in conjunction with the US desire to control and mitigate Beijing’s potential reprimand over the launch of the AUKUS alliance (which received a relatively subdued response from Chinese state media), the dangerous flirtations with disturbances to the status quo of Tsai Ing-wen Government in Taiwan, and the burgeoning bipartisan consensus on Beijing’s apparent threat to American values and norms. Washington is adamant that such movements must not be contagious in creating real conflicts – and Beijing currently appears to be content to go along with the approach to “risk management”. In any case, such deescalation is very necessary, especially in light of rising tensions over the Taiwan Strait, a region where neither Xi nor Biden could afford to be perceived as capitulating. While the maneuvering space is larger than it may seem, both Xi and Biden must tread carefully – for reasons that will be discussed below.
The dangers of citizens’ hypernationalism
There is a dangerous and naive temptation to believe that all forms of nationalism in China are the product of the state. To regard Chinese nationalism as a pure top-down imposition, a deprived organic and grassroots support, would be to neglect the feelings and views of individuals on earth. It also does an injustice to the level of civilian political agencies as they project and express their nationalist sentiments – the epitome, perhaps most viscerally, of the waves of setbacks directed at pop culture phenomena and stars. Zhang Zhehan var drawn into disgrace and public incantation after three-year-old photos of him at the Yasukuni Shrine in Japan were revealed by netizens. Chloe Zhao and Simu Liu – ethnic Chinese who have found stardom in the West – have been met with mixed, even hostile, reactions in the country where they were born. Underlying such setbacks was the constant claim that these stars had “seriously damaged the national sentiment of the Chinese public.”
In an attempt to understand modern Chinese nationalism, Rana Mitter’s “China’s Good War” offers a clear and useful starting point. In his latest publication, Mitter highlights how both the Chinese state apparatus and the public pick up the basis for contemporary nationalist narratives and emotions in history – specifically the struggles of the Chinese people during World War II. Much of such nationalism is fruitful and natural as a means of recalibrating and strengthening the confidence of the Chinese people in the face of adversity – natural or artificial. Yet the danger arises when elements among such nationalist discourses develop into overtly chauvinistic and revanchist, and apply historical narratives deterministically in a way that sets China up for what is perceived as an inevitable conflict, struggle, and future war with the West. Such narratives are neither indicative of reality nor conducive to steering China away from a dangerous path of militaristic aggression.
How, then, could these individuals pose a concrete threat to Beijing’s attempts to recalibrate its diplomacy? First, the sharp populist dogma that China cannot be seen as capitulating to any international economic issues – especially in terms of trade terms, intellectual property rights and how it engages in multilateral cooperation with other states – may well spur a potent force within the party privates. Zhongnanhai has sought to pacify and channel the views of grassroots party members by embracing a more unwavering, resolute approach to diplomatic language and demands in recent years. Will attempts at downsizing fit well with such internal pressure? Could such attitudes be carefully curbed without jeopardizing the stability and unity of the party? These are questions that need to be answered and answered with gentle care.
In addition, grassroots nationalists could also force Beijing’s hand in other ways. For example, civilian-initiated divestiture campaigns and demonstrations against perceived provocation from Taiwan could put significant strain and pressure on the military in the Eastern Theater Command and municipal officials in Fujian and Zhejiang to respond to perceived provocation by the Taiwanese government – especially in light of rising strategic demands. clarity in the United States, a shift toward more zealous nationalism in Taiwan, and Beijing’s loud declarations that Taiwan remains part of China. While Xi’s military reforms have significantly reduced bureaucracy and communication barriers that had previously stifled Zhongnanhai’s access to and command of the army, it remains an open question whether the Eastern Theater Command would choose to respond to clashes in the Taiwan Strait with sufficient tact and acumen. , whose answer would come with an oversized price tag.
Skeptics may argue that this reading of Chinese foreign policy gives the average civilian too much autonomy and decision-making capacity. Yet this setback ignores both the extent to which popular opinion matters in the Communist Party’s quest for legitimacy in general, as well as the particular need – on the part of Xi Jinping – to satisfy domestic demands when seeking a third term in the 20th Party. Congress in 2022. Grassroots nationalism is by no means a decisive factor in Chinese foreign policy, but it plays a crucial role in general.
Towards a more pragmatic, flexible Chinese foreign policy
Beijing must seek more actively to curb domestic hypernationalism as it seeks to shift Sino-American relations to a more pragmatic modus vivendi. It would be naive to think that bilateral relations could be restored to the pre-Trump era with heartfelt and substantial commitment, but China and the United States remain hugely economically intertwined in ways that would make military confrontation not only unwise but disastrous for civilians in both countries.
How Beijing navigates domestic opinion will therefore be a delicate and imperative question. So far, the dualism that Chinese bureaucrats and diplomats have embraced – by highlighting China’s firm commitment to defending national interests and baselines abroad, while discussing and negotiating new trade and investment arrangements – seems to at least be works a little. The domestic public is sufficiently convinced that their diplomats are pursuing their best interests, while Washington (and also Brussels, perhaps to a lesser extent) is convinced that there is some value in continued engagement and connection with Beijing.
The recent resumption of talks between senior leaders in Beijing and Washington means that Beijing’s approach really works: it is actually possible to meet the demands of the public at home while struggling with complex geopolitical and economic issues abroad. A more flexible foreign policy – one that separates internal messages from external broadcasting, distinguishing between capitulation over material demands and rhetorical moderation – would be one that serves not only China well, but also Sino-US relations in general. We would all benefit from a less dogmatic, less rigid and more dynamic brand of Chinese diplomacy.