This is an opinion piece written by the author below, and does not reflect the position of YCW.
By Johanna Costigan
On 2 December in London, Former Prime Minister of Australia and current President of the Asia Society Policy Institute Kevin Rudd delivered a briefing to YCW London on the state of the U.S.-China relationship. Rudd, an expert on modern China and the CPC, is currently pursuing a DPhil on the worldview of Chinese President Xi Jinping (whom he had just met with in Beijing—an opportunity out of reach for most students).
In the talk, Rudd traced the primary sources of economic tension between the two nations, noting how they spill over into other socio-political realms, such as global development and the two-way flow of international students.
The first question Rudd took from the audience was a doozy. “Some people in China think of you as 亲华, or pro-China. Others say you are 反华, anti-China. So, which would you say you are?”
Rudd noted that the political climate towards China in the U.S. is one in which there is a bipartisan competition to be the most anti-China politician, “though it would probably take most candidates 15 seconds to exhaust all their knowledge on China.” It is in this environment, Rudd argued, that he gets labeled soft on China “just for asking questions.”
He emphasized that slight pushback in a politicized environment could be misconstrued as excessive sympathy toward China, even when asking questions as simple as, “Do you really want to bring on a cold war? Are you sure?”
Proffering skepticism towards classification, Rudd opened the door to a third—and in U.S. politics largely absent—attitude towards China: the middle ground. He did not label himself as either pro or anti. Instead, true to form in his analysis on China, Rudd paired his understanding of the complexities of the Chinese Party-state with an assessment of the facts at hand regarding current U.S.-China economic tensions. His middle-ground approach just might be the best path forward.
Both American and Chinese politicians have much to learn from Rudd’s measured rhetoric. There are many differences between each country’s perceptions of the other, but the glaringly obvious one is that while the CCP officials charged with foreign affairs, including Xi, seem to grasp the American system and its decision-making processes, it’s hard to say the same of their U.S. counterparts.
The hawks in the current U.S. administration—led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has made disparaging remarks on China—have shown little evidence of interest in improving the relationship. Instead, they describe it as a competition predicated on fundamental and unwavering differences between the two nations. Last May, the State Department’s former Director of Policy Planning Kiron Skinner described the relationship as “a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology, and the United States hasn’t had that before.”
Martin Wolf of the FT criticized this characterization, pointing out she must have “forgotten” the war with Japan and, more crucially, that this kind of ideological rivalry will sustain permanent competition, if not worse. Wolf also argued that any U.S. appointee who plans on pursuing a less ideologically aggressive strategy with China will not last long: “The aim is U.S. domination. The means is control over China, or separation from China. Anybody who believes a rules-based multilateral order, or globalized economy, or even harmonious international relations are likely to survive this conflict is deluded.”
While there has been increasingly hostile rhetoric on both sides, the United States has taken its “strategic competition” with China too far and it has created Cold-war era suspicions on a personal level. Instead of focusing on training and recruiting foreign policy analysts and experts on China affairs, the U.S. administration seems to be alienating them. Americans who study at prestigious exchange programs in Beijing have recently been subjected to questioning by the FBI. Chi Wang, president of the US-China Policy Foundation, has written: “Never before have I felt the way I do now—like my ‘Chineseness’ somehow makes me less American or less trustworthy.”
There are currently 24 vacant ambassadorships in the U.S. diplomatic corps, including a key post in Japan. Pompeo made an October 2019 speech on China, which emphatically characterized the CCP as the bogeyman and yet stated that the U.S. wants to see a prosperous and peaceful China, without outlining any supportive policy.
The next U.S. president will need to distance herself/himself from the over-generalized, hostile, and reductive rhetoric towards China that has dominated the primary campaigns and the Trump administration’s prescriptions and practices.
As Rudd noted, the future occupant of the White House will need people in the room who have a grip on the Chinese party-state, beginning with its unique existence as a Marxist-Leninist state, different from any system with which Westerners are familiar. From there, they will be charged with the task of undoing some of the Trump-inflicted damage and finding a way to salvage the relationship.
It might sound obvious that the U.S. should design policy based on a boots-on-the ground understanding of how China works, but at the moment it is not happening. Ignorance, willful or not, begets oversimplification. It allows individuals to take sides without making progress.
As Rudd said, whether you’re Washington or Beijing, “be careful of the binary.”