China’s Collision Course with Itself

Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Beijing’s Renmin University, has just issued a warning that Chinese leaders will not be deterred from engaging in increasingly provocative conduct. “There could be some tactical change in the direction of moderation but I cannot see any fundamental change in strategic orientation,” he told John Garnaut of the Sydney Morning Herald.

As Garnaut noted in messages to me this month, Beijing tells the world that “we will keep going and we will win.” Shi, however, has been saying that what the Chinese really mean is, in Garnaut’s words, that “we will keep going even though we cannot succeed.”

“How many times have you heard the Chinese described as pragmatists?” Arthur Waldron asked me this week. “They’re not.” At this moment, the University of Pennsylvania historian of China has put his finger on something especially distressing. Chinese policymakers work under a political system that now does not permit them to act pragmatically, cooperatively, or sensibly.

Why not? The widely followed Shi identified three reasons for the inability of Beijing to change course: the nationalism promoted by the Communist Party, the beliefs of senior leaders, and the dynamics inside the People’s Liberation Army. China, in short, is trapped in dangerous currents, almost all of them attributable to the flaws inherent in its particular brand of authoritarianism.

We often forget that the form of a country’s government matters. There is an almost unshakeable belief in America that China, under Communist Party rule, can be talked into becoming a responsible member of the international community. As a result of this hopeful perception, Washington has promoted dialogue, and as Beijing’s behavior has deteriorated this decade, American policymakers have urged even more of it. During the previous administration, the number of ongoing bilateral forums reached 50. In the Obama years, these exchanges hit 90.

We talk to Chinese officials in every conceivable format. This week’s forum is the sixth US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue. Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew headed a delegation of hundreds of American officials that traveled across the Pacific to Beijing. Never have expectations been lower for one of these sessions, which in various forms has been held since 2006. As Kerry and Lew tried to downplay hopes, some analysts blamed the US for a deterioration of the relationship by not paying enough attention to China.

That’s a misdiagnosis. China’s relations with many states, especially those to its south and to its east, have spiraled downward in recent years. By now we should realize that Beijing’s troubles with the international community have little or nothing to do with others.

In any event, Shi does not see much hope that ties will get better. “This kind of tension between China and the US and US allies will deteriorate rather than improve,” he notes. China, unfortunately, is on a collision course with the world. 

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