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There's no such thing as (good) China-US relations
Many think the errant hot air balloon has derailed a rekindling of China-US relations. But was China ever really interested in seeking peace and prosperity with America?
In my last newsletter, I made a prediction about China’s foreign relations in 2023, namely that China will continue to hate the US and instead seek to improve relations with smaller, poorer allies on the global stage. So far, so good.
As I’m sure you’ve seen by now, on February 2nd the US Department of Defense spotted an unmanned Chinese balloon floating over the States. On the 3rd, China confirmed that the balloon did, indeed, belong to them, and that it was a civilian airship used for research that was blown off course. The US accused them of spying, and a media frenzy was soon whipped up that was to last several days and take over every China-watcher’s Twitter timeline.
The incident came at a particularly inauspicious time, as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was due to visit China, the first visit by a US Secretary of State since 2018. The situation quickly escalated from ‘roiling of relations’ to ‘cancelling of the trip’ within the space of a few days.
China is, of course, completely outraged at the claims made by the US, as well as the fact that they shot down the balloon. They claim that the US is blowing everything out of proportion, which isn’t necessarily wrong, but it is somewhat conveniently shifting the spotlight off of China’s attitude towards the US. While China claims that the US is ruining the potential “high-level communication [conducive] to improving bilateral relations,” China has not exactly been friendly in its regular communications. In fact, it's usually been downright insulting, and not a little bit threatening, with Senior Colonel Tan Kefei, a spokesperson at China's Ministry of National Defense, stating that: “China will reserve the right to take necessary measures in dealing with similar situations.” Oh.
All the way back in November 2020, I wrote a newsletter discussing the superficial relationship between the US and China, and how not only were relations between the two countries not deteriorating, but in fact they were natural enemies whose opposing political systems meant they could never be allies. Well, here we are again. Explaining the same thing. Again.
I’m really sorry if you were hoping that the Blinken visit was going to lead to world peace, and that one errant balloon brought the whole thing crashing down, but I’m afraid it was never going to be the case. If Deng couldn’t do it, there’s no way Blinken could. China-US relations have simply always been a lost cause.
Let’s check the weather vane of Chinese political attitudes - the national press - to refresh ourselves on why that is.
China thinks the US are paranoid bullies
It’s no secret that China sees itself as a victim in the international arena when it wants to, claiming that the US and its allies gang up on China. CCP papers constantly recycle the same tropes of Japanese war crimes and Cold War bloc mentality to maintain the shallow illusion that they are constantly trodden down and oppressed by the heel of Western imperialism. This is not to say that these things did not happen, but it misses the point that while the balance of power may be similar in the Western world, it has shifted significantly in the East. Japan is no longer the preeminent power, China is.
This is all, of course, extremely jarring when contrasted with reports about how China’s economy is thriving, its people are prosperous and united, while the US is decaying and its people are about to start another civil war. It claims that the “Asia-Pacific is not a geopolitical arena” while simultaneously gobbling up developing nations with sympathetic totalitarian regimes as allies.
Even if China’s attempts to deflect the attention and suspicions from their own behaviour by shouting ‘No, you!’ were sincere, they still reflect how China views the US as both enemy and aspiration, and as such projects their own self-perceptions and worst fears directly on them. They even parrot the US’ own lines, almost mimicking them in a weird pastiche of Western self-righteousness. If the countries were swapped, these passages from the People’s Daily could easily have come from The Diplomat or The Economist:
“More and more countries realize that it is not feasible to follow the United States to blindly oppose China. It is in their own interests to keep a distance from the United States' China policy and strengthen strategic autonomy. It is the right way to adopt a rational and pragmatic China policy.”
“The United States talks about "allies," "values," and "international rules," but it always thinks about "American interests," "America first," and "American hegemony."
Every time China is accused of creeping just a little too close to Taiwan, or pushing the boundaries in the South China Sea, they hit back at critics saying they should stay out of internal affairs, but they poke and prod at the inner workings of the US like it’s their full time job. In reality, the problem is not power-creep, as the US has always had allies in China’s backyard. The problem is that China now wants those allies for themselves, they want to woo the world, but the US just keeps getting in the way.
China thinks the US is a coloniser
An auspiciously timed document released by the Chinese Foreign Ministry discusses how the US misuses its powers as the world’s preeminent superpower to strong-arm allies and impose sanctions against enemies. Entitled The US Willful Practice of Long-arm Jurisdiction and its Perils, this document reveals the true nature of China’s view of the US: a global tyrant that needs to be curbed by the benevolent CCP. (I’m so sorry, but I find it hilarious that this document was released on the same day that China was claiming that the US had ruined EVERYTHING and they didn’t want to be friends anymore because of a balloon. Like. C’mon guys.)
“The US has been expanding the scope of its long-arm jurisdiction to exert disproportionate and unwarranted influence over extraterritorial persons or entities, enforcing US domestic laws on extraterritorial non-US persons or entities, and wantonly penalizing or threatening foreign companies by exploiting their reliance on dollar-denominated businesses, the US market or US technologies” - Global Times
Even when they aren’t trying to indirectly colonise countries, they are constantly working to bring nations into their sphere of influence, or use them as ‘geopolitical cannon fodder’ for the US’ military struggle. It wasn’t that long ago that everyone was up in arms about Nancy Pelosi’s prospective visit to Taiwan, and how it might cause the true outbreak of WWIII. The Russia-Ukraine war is just a vehicle for US weapons manufacturers to make billions in profits. Japan is just a pawn in the US’ bid to expand NATO into Asia. Peace and harmony would be absolutely disastrous for American hegemony.
America's worst, Shanghai observer (Cartoon about how US fears world peace)
This also includes Australia and, to an extent, the UK. I know it was kind of a meme and everyone has basically forgotten about it, but AUKUS is still a thing. The pact between the UK, US, and Australia to “protect and defend our shared interests in the Indo-Pacific” has been widely understood to be a deterrent against Chinese expansion in the South China sea and wider Indo-Pacific region. As of September 2022, “the AUKUS agreement has continued to evolve against the backdrop of the worsening strategic environment,” and though most moves so far have been strategic/discussions/think tanky things, it’s still very much a developing, looming threat as far as China is concerned.
China thinks the US is trash
As we discussed in a previous newsletter, China is never hesitant to jump on the US’ misfortunes, whether it be political chaos, economic woes, mass shootings, or other drama. Just this week, the People’s Daily published a piece claiming that the current level of debt in the US is “unsustainable”, and that by mid-century “the market may seriously question the sustainability of US government debt and the real purchasing power of the US dollar.” This is blamed partially on the US political system, particularly the “increasingly fierce partisanship” between Republicans and Democrats, which China uses as an example of a flawed and broken political system even in its own school teaching materials.
The political system is being further degraded by pundits and those that would potentially profit from bad relations between the two countries. According to one Chinese expert on the US, “At a time when Sino-US diplomatic exchanges are being arranged, Washington hawks are getting in the way. For those who profit from Sino-US problems, the prospect of improving bilateral relations is definitely not a good sign.” This would never happen in China, of course, as media outlets are tightly controlled by the state-party apparatus. Which makes them so reliable as a source of the prevailing ideological line coming from the centre. Which is why we know that the CCP doesn’t like the US, doesn’t respect the US, and doesn’t want to make up with the US at any meaningful level.
China thinks the US era is over, and the China era is just beginning
Even if these papers are representative of how the majority of Chinese people feel, it is always important to remember that the Chinese press represents views from the top, and nothing gets published without approval (or if it does it is very quickly retracted). Even opinion pieces can be considered in-line with at least the reigning opinions at the top levels of the CCP, if not the exact views of Xi Jinping and other policymakers themselves. I think we can safely trust that these pieces are evidence of a continued cold and somewhat snide and derisive attitude towards the US. There’s nothing in the past that we’ve seen to suggest the contrary either.
China still sees the US as its main adversary, even though they have to cooperate on certain global issues for now. Just like the US and USSR stood as the two major world powers mediating between smaller players during the Cold War, now China and the US have to come together to discuss, strategise, and compromise, probably a lot more that either side would really like.
This will be the status quo until one or other superpower is pushed off its pedestal. China clearly thinks it will be the US. The US prays every day that it will be China. Hopes for a loving reconciliation between two lost brothers is a pipe dream. Wow, I am really making a lot of predictions this year. Talk about new year new me.
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Previous Sinobabble newsletters on China-US Relations
Can everyone please CALM DOWN about Taiwan, August 2022
I was gone for 5 minutes…, September 2021
China-US Diplomacy: New dogs, old tricks, November 2020