What Does China Really Want?

For those Chinese paying attention to Xi Jinping’s four-country tour of the Americas this week, one question stands out: Why would their president want to spend two informal days, more or less one-on-one with U.S. President Barack Obama in the middle of the desert?

This isn’t just a matter of protocol -- though there are plenty of questions about that -- but rather a deeper inquiry into what precisely China wants from a bilateral relationship with the U.S.

Varying answers in Chinese media suggest the ruling Communist Party hasn’t become accustomed to, or embraced, China’s role as a “great power,” despite three-and-a-half decades of economic and military growth. The party -- via its official media channels -- has spent the last week softly but explicitly damping expectations that the June 7-8 “summit” at the Sunnylands desert estate in Rancho Mirage, California, will lead to a bilateral global future.

No doubt, some of the party’s discomfort with such a future is the legacy of almost four decades of Chinese foreign policy built on the belief (and the dictums of Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s economic resurgence) that China’s interests are best-served by maintaining a low profile in international relations. But as Jin Canrong, a professor and dean at the School of International Studies at Renmin University in Beijing, wrote on May 27 for the Hong Kong-based China & U.S. Focus website, this reticence is out of tune with the prevailing global perception of China’s economic and political standing:

“Since China became the second largest economy with its GDP exceeding that of Japan in 2010, the international community, including the United States, has changed views and attitude toward China to a varying degree. . . . Back in China, the academia and media have generally failed to put in perspective what the second largest GDP figure holds for China. . . . However, the prevailing public opinions in favor of underestimating China’s strength have prevented us from fully understanding the reaction of the outside world.”

This gap between China’s perception of itself, and the foreign view of the country, has the potential to create profound misunderstandings. Jin’s focus is primarily on foreigners’ misperceptions of China’s foreign-policy motives.

A similar argument could be made that China’s image of itself as a low-profile, developing country has also distorted the way its leaders view the U.S. On June 4, the nationalist, Communist Party-owned Global Times newspaper published an essay by Zhang Jiangang of the Guangdong Oceanic University, which compares the strategic conduct underlying U.S. and Chinese foreign policy (not necessarily in relation to each other) to a game of chess and to the ancient Chinese board game, Go. It’s a simplistic, even silly, narrative, but such short-hand analogies aren’t uncommon in Chinese foreign-policy circles. “Westerners like to play chess,” Zhang notes. “And Chinese like to play Go.” That’s all fine and good, but Go is “a game of cooperation and mutual benefits instead of a game of life-or death struggle.” Chess, on the other hand, “aims at the death of the rival” and reveals “the western law-of-the-jungle.”

These aren’t the mere musings of a renegade, game-loving academic. On June 2, two days before the 24th anniversary of the military-led Tiananmen Square massacre, General Qi Jianguo, the deputy chief of staff to the People’s Liberation Army, told a high-level meeting in Singapore that “in the past 30 years all of the major powers have used military force to varying degrees, with the exception of China,” according to the Beijing Times. His stark statement is deeply tied to the Chinese -- and Communist Party -- narrative of having accomplished a peaceful rise over the last several decades.

Accurate or not, that narrative has deeply influenced the outlook of senior Chinese leaders and affects how they view themselves in relation to what they perceive as an aggressive U.S. that is disruptive to the international order (and thus, a potential threat to China’s stability).

On May 31, as Xi was en route to Trinidad and Tobago, the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, ran a lengthy editorial on foreign policy. The goal, the editorial declares, is to create a peaceful environment for the rejuvenation of China, economic globalization and “multi-polarization.” Stable and respectful relations with the U.S. are described as a long-term aim but occupy a relatively short and platitudinous portion of the editorial.

Far richer is what comes next: “The Sino-Russian relationship is the world’s most important bilateral relationship, and is the best relationship between large countries.” These words, unattributed in the editorial, are a direct quotation of a speech that Xi gave in Moscow in March during his first international visit.

The Moscow statement generated chatter on China’s Internet at the time, especially among those accustomed to hearing the “most important bilateral relationship” tag attached to the Sino-U.S. relationship; it was largely overlooked both inside and outside of China. That’s too bad, because what came next in the speech provided Xi’s justification for upgrading his relationship with Russia while tacitly downgrading ties with the U.S. That explanation, too, found its way -- word-for-word and unattributed -- into the People’s Daily editorial: “The high-level, strongly powerful Sino-Russian relationship not only benefits both China and Russia but is also an important guarantor of protecting the international strategic balance and the stability of world peace.”

The U.S. isn’t mentioned, but it’s clearly cast on the opposite side of the balance, across from Russia and China, which are both undergoing “revivals,” according to how the editorial labels them. None of this is news, but it’s notable that People’s Daily and its masters felt the need to insert a reminder of which really is China’s most important bilateral relation in advance of a visit to the country that most of the world believes should hold that mantle.

Perhaps Xi and his team were sending a message to their Russian partners. Just as likely, they were sending a reminder to their Chinese audience of where they envision themselves standing. Whatever the meaning, one thing is certain: Xi and Obama might become better friends during the informal meetings at Sunnylands, but it’s unlikely that their respective governments will follow suit.

(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing “Junkyard Planet,” a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the author of this article: Adam Minter at ShanghaiScrap@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net.

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