By Shen Yi Source:Global Times
Professor Orville Schell, Arthur Ross Director of the Center on US-China Relations at Asia Society in New York, wrote in The Wire news magazine on June 7, 2020, to mourn the death of the US engagement strategy with China, with the following epitaph: Born in 1972, died tragically in 2020 due to neglect.
Born in 1940, Schell is a peer of the People’s Republic of China and the US over the past 70 years. In a sense, Schell is indeed right. The US engagement strategy with China, which originated during the Cold War, has indeed been unable to continue intact. But to mourn the death of engagement in this regard is somewhat pessimistic. As the Western proverb goes: The king is dead, long live the king. Instead of lamenting the fact that we cannot go back to the past, it is more constructive to look ahead on how to build a new strategy to ensure the steady and sustainable development of China-US relations.
Objectively speaking, unless the leaders of China and the US are serious about a full-scale nuclear exchange that would lead to apocalypse or by technological progress, move the whole country away from the earth, into space to find another planet to live on, engagement is a normal status between the two great powers on earth. As a national strategic option for the US in its treatment of the People’s Republic of China, Schell argues that it was born in 1972, beginning with President Nixon’s historic visit to China in the week that changed the world. But history tells us that engagement strategy could have been born earlier. When Edgar Parks Snow, an American journalist, went to Yan’an in Shaanxi province to write the Red Star Over China, when the Dixie Mission (The United States Army Observation Group) was stationed there, when Huang Hua, who later became PRC’s vice chairman of National People’s Congress, a Yenching University graduate joint PLA took olive branches from Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai to discuss with John Leighton Stuart, who was the first President of Yenching University and later US Ambassador to China, about his visit to Peking in May 1949, the engagement strategy had already come to the point where it can be born. At that time, the first generation of CPC leaders were still contemplating how to build a better New China, and the US was already one of the most powerful nations in the world. So the real question is what caused the engagement didn’t come until 1972? Schell surely couldn’t deny is that ideological stereotypes, elaborate calculations based on American national interests, misperceptions about the Chinese Communist Party and the real China, all of them conspired to prevent the US from engaging with the People’s Republic of China earlier and developing a better relationship earlier than 1972.
It should be noted that, although Schell does not spend much time on explaining the external environment of the change of American strategy towards China during the Nixon era, there is no denying that China-US relations, especially the US strategy towards China, has never lived in a vacuum. On an ice-breaking trip to China in 1972, of course the political willingness, courage and strategy wisdom of President Nixon and Dr. Kissinger played an important role, but the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union at that time while the US was in deep trouble in Vietnam and the anti-war movement was raging in the US, all played their parts and should not be underestimated. This brings us another crucial question, that is, how to view and understand the two elements that effects Sino-US relations, namely interests and emotions. There is indeed an element of idealism in the foreign strategy of the US. The missionary complex of the early US elite had a profound influence on the strategic choice of the US. In China, since ancient times, “a gentleman stresses righteousness, while a villain eyes profit.” But to be realistic, relations and strategies between countries are still based on tangible interests. Emotions, and even feelings, do play a catalytic role, but their role should not be overestimated.
Approaching China to seek the initiative of the Soviet Union strategy is objectively the real intention driving the US to start its ice-breaking journey. Easing the strategic threat from the north was also one of the key drivers of China’s detente with the US in the context of the Cultural Revolution. Anyone who has read the Shanghai Communique will be well aware of this. After all, the first two paragraphs of the communique are devoted entirely to differences. It was not until the third paragraph that a discussion of common threats which leads to the engagement between these two states begins. Though Premier Zhou Enlai’s proposal of framing the communique in this way shocked Dr. Kissinger at that time, this candidness also laid a solid foundation for the early development of China-US relations.
To make clear the importance of emotion and interests in the development of China-US relations, and its role in the US engagement strategy with China, it is more helpful to dispel the misperception that the US engagement strategy with China is a condescending gift, an asymmetrical arrangement from which China gains more but hurts the US. One of the hypothesis of US Vice President Mike Pence’s speech in the Hudson Institute in 2018 is clearly wrong. Not to mention that the US diplomats leveraged ties with Beijing in Moscow right after the ice broke in China-US relations. Today, in the controversial Sino-US economic and trade relations, there is also a clear question of whether US companies are losing money or making lots of profits but always hoping for more. One of the things that Beijing’s top leaders have always insisted on is that when China and the US work together, they both benefit from each other, and this is a real benefit to the US. It should be noted that it is not China’s obligation to see how the profits earned by US companies from Sino-US economic and trade relations are distributed among various social strata in the US. The idea that the US is at a disadvantage is, in China’s view, “asking for a skin twice from a cow”, which is clearly beyond the scope of normal bilateral relations.
It is also unfair for Schell to blame both sides equally when discussing the responsibilities of China and the US in the death of the so-called engagement strategy. So far, in terms of overall national strength, no one is denying the US’s significant advantage over China. In practice, China, a relatively weaker side, has always insisted on improving China-US relations through pragmatic cooperation. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Deng Xiaoping told the visiting US Presidential envoy General Brent Scowcroft that Sino-US relations should eventually be better. To improve the bilateral relationship, the US needs to be move active. In November 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping congratulated Trump on his wining of presidential election, saying that “the two countries share far more common interests than differences, and cooperation is the only right choice for both sides”. On April 6, 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping said during his summit meeting with President Trump that there are one thousand reasons to make Sino-US relations work well, and not one reason to spoil them. On the other hand, in practice, China’s sincerity, perhaps due to strategic cultural differences, seems to be interpreted by the US side as a signal that it can continue to press for more gains. In the process of imposing trade restrictions on China from 2018 to 2019, the US side used China’s goodwill to exert unilateral extreme pressure to an even greater extent than ever before. In this context, it is clear that the primary responsibility for the death of engagement strategy lies with the US, not with China.
Of course, from Schell’s article, it does point out an interesting question: It seems that the US side also attaches great importance to its engagement strategy with China. So why can’t this strategy continue in the end? Many people who pay close attention to Sino-US relations are reluctant to discuss this issue frankly. But to be honest, this is actually determined by three inherent flaws in the US engagement strategy with China. To put it simply, the first is to define the ultimate goal of the engagement strategy as to facilitate China to take the path of peaceful evolution like the Soviet Union and the Eastern European countries, and finally to be assimilated by the Western camp in an asymmetric way. Second, the relationship in the engagement strategy is defined as the US makes demands and China complies with them, which lacks respect for and understanding of China’s core interests. Third, the US demands both absolute and relative gains, and even believes that China’s development, especially its overall strength, must be recognized or even approved by the US.
The first flaw touches on China’s core interests. During the wave of democratization that took place worldwide in the 1980s and 1990s, in the absence of a convincing example, it is clear that China has no interest in embarking on a so-called path of modernization marked by “suicide”. The second flaw violates the basic principles of the international community and turns the reciprocal relationship between countries into a kind of hierarchical relationship that can be bossed around. China has no interest or obligation to please the US at the expense of its own core interests. The third defect violates the objective law of the development of things. The uneven pace of development among countries is determined mainly by the elements of each country itself, and in particular by the characteristics of its institutions and systems.
In this sense, if China and the US are an interconnected whole of interests, then the engagement strategy born in 1972 is a coat that no longer fits well as the distribution of power between China and the US changes. Daily experience has taught people that if clothes don’t fit or look smaller, get a bigger one instead of running around naked without your clothes on. So obviously, if the US really cares about China-US relations like China, what is needed now is not to write an epitaph for the engagement strategy, but to promote the rebirth of the engagement strategy with China. This revitalized engagement strategy should reflect concerns about the core interests of both sides, and should have sufficient space to accommodate differences and even divergences. It should be prudent enough to cope with various crises and risks. It should enable the US to view and understand China in a pragmatic and constructive way, and ultimately lead China-US relations and the world at large to a better future.
China is willing to make efforts to this end. In fact, such efforts have never ceased. I hope the US will have at least the same political courage, strategic will and wisdom to jointly facilitate the rebirth of the new strategy toward China.
The author is professor at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs of Fudan University. [email protected]