Chinese Perceptions of America’s Indo-Pacific Strategy
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Chinese Perceptions of America’s Indo-Pacific Strategy

How do Chinese foreign policy scholars view U.S. policy on China and the broader Indo-Pacific? Oxford University’s Rosemary Foot, CSIS scholars Ivan Kanapathy and Lily McElwee, and the Atlantic Council’s Chris Preble provide expert analysis of newly translated Chinese assessments.

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The newly translated Chinese assessments of U.S. strategy towards the Indo-Pacific discussed below include:

  1. Sino-European Relations: Awaiting the Next Spring While Riding a Roller Coaster,” by Xin Hua, Director of the Center for EU Studies at the Shanghai International Studies University
  2. Disputes About the ‘Indo-Pacific’ Regional Security Order and China’s Vision of Regional Order,” by Ge Tengfei, Professor in the School of International Relations at the National University of Defense Technology
  3. Understanding China’s Strategy towards the United States,” by Wang Honggang, the Assistant President and Director of the Institute of American Studies at China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR)
  4. The State and Dilemmas of the Biden Administration’s Strategic Competition with China,” by Zhu Feng, the Executive director and professor at the Institute of International Studies of Nanjing University, and Ni Guihua, a research assistant at the Collaborative Innovation Center of South China Sea Studies of Nanjing University

Jump to commentary from:
Rosemary Foot | Ivan Kanapathy | Christopher Preble | Lily McElwee

Rosemary Foot

Senior Research Fellow in International Relations, and Emeritus Fellow, St Antony’s College, University of Oxford

The four translated articles, dating from February 2021 to January 2022, are notable for their attention to economic reasoning as a way of gaining a deeper appreciation of the causes of the deterioration in China-U.S. relations, as well as for sourcing the larger implications of Beijing’s regional and global policies. However, though the economic dimension is linked closely with security consequences, economics is actually thought of and used in many different ways.

At the benign end of the spectrum, economic development is lauded as the solution to many of the world’s ills, and economic interdependence is seen as the basis for cooperative approaches to security. At the other end of the spectrum, economic development—particularly in areas of high technology—is shown to be at the heart of the breakdown in Sino-U.S. relations and the prime instigator of competitive rivalries. More troubling still for the China-U.S. relationship is the advancement of dual-use technologies that are perceived as central to the heightened military competition between the two states. Indeed, one article argues that China’s technological gains have advanced to the point where it is in a credible position to threaten U.S. hegemony in the Asia Pacific.

Zhu Feng and Ni Guihua, as well as Xin Hua, all argue that China’s dramatic economic resurgence, especially in high-tech areas, is behind the deterioration in China’s relations with the Western world—though Zhu and Ni highlight how the turbulence, division, and inflationary pressures inside the United States have elevated the threat that China’s relative economic gains appear to pose. These factors explain the recent U.S. turn to the Indo-Pacific—a turn that Zhu and Ni describe in alarmist terms as designed, through the establishment of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), to lead to the creation of an “Asian NATO.” The United States, in their view, is building a wall of encirclement around China and trying desperately to keep the country down, a perspective reminiscent of China’s views in the Cold War era. Xin Hua similarly sees European involvement in Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy as reflecting the region’s continuing dependence on the United States and its need to “counterbalance” China’s rise.

For Ge Tengfei, however, the economic angle of primary importance does not relate directly to Sino-U.S. relations, though it does have important implications for that relationship. What is of significance is the focus among states in the wider Indo-Pacific region on the central goal of building prosperity, the perception of development as the essence of security, and the role of the economic-security nexus in the creation of regional order. These beliefs, Ge argues, benefit China far more than the United States—the latter viewed as a power external to the region—and will allow Beijing to play a central and defining role in regional order creation. Not only has Beijing offered attractive economic public goods to Indo-Pacific states, but also the desire will grow among states of this region to emulate China’s successful development strategy. Indeed, even beyond the immediate region, these factors encourage states in Europe and elsewhere to hedge their policies where they can with respect to the U.S.-China contention, encouraging them to find ways to avoid having to align too closely with one or other of the two protagonists.

What do these articles have to say more broadly about the prospects for the China-U.S. relationship and with respect to the likely success of the two governments’ strategies to build coalitions of external support? Wang Honggang notes China’s advantages: its large and attractive market, its late-developer status, the benefits of scale that it offers, and the institutional advantages that come from its socialist system under the Party’s unified and centralized leadership. Ge focuses on the East Asian inheritance of “a cultural tradition of harmony guided by Chinese culture,” describing it as one that emphasizes “cooperation rather than confrontation.” This “shared cultural structure” stands in marked contrast to a United States that “emphasizes power politics” and an “exclusive” rather than an “open” regional security order. Once again, we see a general Chinese unwillingness to accept that many of its neighbors are fearful of its growing power and lack confidence that its power will be used in benign ways.

There is, however, some attention to moves China should make to improve its chances of prevailing in the “great powers game,” as Wang describes the current condition. In the domestic realm, Wang argues, China needs to remedy development imbalances including the urban-rural divide, improve its capacity for innovation, and enhance its protections against environmental harm. In addition, it is of “extreme importance” for China to become more self-reliant in scientific and technological areas and to be in a position to protect itself against any additional U.S. efforts to impose financial sanctions. The domestic and external realms are clearly connected in the exposition of these arguments but, with more explicit reference to external relations, Wang advocates that Beijing push forward with its application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), continue to promote the Belt and Road Initiative, deepen and advance Sino-Russian and Sino-European relations, and promote an “orderly turnaround in Sino-Japanese relations.” Unlike Ge, who devotes an unusual amount of time to discussing China’s relations with India and India’s perspectives on international affairs, other authors, including Wang, neglect this important relationship.

Zhu and Ni echo a number of these points in their recommendations for Beijing. For these scholars, China needs to strengthen its domestic legislative system in areas related to national security and build a complete production chain in order to guarantee independence in high-tech areas. But it should also stick to past successful policies associated with reform and opening, maintain the country’s attractiveness to foreign capital, and promote uses of green technology. This emphasis on green technologies can be valuable in other ways: it could be used to “achieve strategic mutual trust with the United States”—perhaps leading to the building of a “global green economic governance system.”

This represents a rare bright note in a set of readings that otherwise focus on the comprehensive and long-term nature of the strategic competition between China and the United States, and in which European states, as Xin states, often play an adjunct role. Whereas in the past the Sino-U.S. relationship has often been discussed in terms of cycles of decline and recovery that were subject to “tit-for-tat” responses before the next period of stabilization, the emphasis is now on the necessity for long-term strategic planning. The Biden administration, despite its political difficulties at home and abroad, is seen to be engaging in that planning. For many of these authors, China is also so engaged within an international environment that in large parts of the world is deemed to be receptive to its messages and approaches.

Ivan Kanapathy

Senior Associate (Non-resident), Freeman Chair in China Studies, CSIS

In Beijing’s depictions of international relations, the United States is a declining, hegemonic bully and China an ascendant, righteous martyr standing up for multilateralism and the developing world. This worldview is self-reinforced through the political guidance and constraints within which China’s media and scholars operate. Lacking the freedom to critique Beijing’s decisions, academics cannot meaningfully debate the root causes of friction in China’s foreign relations. Nonetheless, one can glean insights from various bureaucratic stovepipes and their researchers as they compete for policy relevance in an increasingly top-down, centralized system.

After Biden’s inauguration, Wang Honggang (from China’s intelligence community) accurately predicted that the United States would shift its attention from competing bilaterally to building alignment with allies and partners to further constrain China. Curiously, despite October 2020 Pew Research Center surveys indicating sharply rising disapproval among the entire Group of Seven and other developed nations over the preceding years, Wang claimed that China’s international appeal had “increased a great deal.” Perhaps this sanguine view was meant to reflect on the intelligence services, which work hand-in-glove with other united front actors as agents of overseas influence. Wang also identified four areas as China’s “shortcomings” in great power competition: science and technology, finance, data, and the bioeconomy—all principal targets of China’s espionage operations.

Two months later, Ge Tengfei (from China’s defense enterprise) published a survey of the Indo-Pacific strategies of the United States and its allies and partners. Ge quoted core U.S. assumptions about China without challenging them, including the assessment that Beijing seeks to “circumvent international rules and norms to gain advantage” and “challenge the liberal economic order” and that China’s technological dominance would “pose a fundamental challenge to free society.” But Ge was not implicitly criticizing China through these quotes, he was merely pointing out the zero-sum nature of the relationship. In a further display of candor, Ge advocated for an Indo-Pacific regional security order based on China’s historical imperial tributary system.

Ni Guihua, Zhu Feng, and Xin Hua (from China’s education apparatus) evaluated Sino-U.S. and Sino-EU relations through the first year of the Biden administration. Unlike Ge, these scholars, who interact with the West more directly, remained on script regarding Beijing’s intentions and preferred narratives. For example, China mistranslates President Joe Biden’s doctrinal framing of “democracy versus autocracy” as “democracy versus alternative,” wherein China and Russia represent alternative, rather than autocratic, governance models. (“异质” is better translated here as “alternative” or “other,” not “heterogenous.”)

Ni and Zhu astutely noted the development of Washington’s “comprehensive suppression” strategy and “cliques” designed to “contain” China across multiple fields of competition. In addition to several valid critiques of U.S. policies, they make the questionable claim that a Republican-controlled Congress in 2023 would hinder tougher China policies­—wishful thinking stemming from the belief that U.S. domestic turmoil is the root cause of the downturn in relations. Tellingly, Ni and Zhu interpreted Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman’s July 2021 visit to China and U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai’s October 2021 CSIS speech as a U.S. climbdown (“helpless acquiescence”) in the face of China’s strength and resolve. As with Vladimir Putin, any hint of a U.S. olive branch, intended or not, is viewed with suspicion and as weakness by the Xi Jinping regime.

Despite his professional expertise on European affairs, Xin Hua betrays Beijing’s singular focus on the United States as an existential threat, with all other countries cast in supporting roles. In his telling, Europe makes no independent assessments of China; instead, it “blindly follow[s]” the United States’ lead. Xin’s article covers 2021, but events of early 2022 threaten his prediction that Sino-EU relations will recover. China’s economic coercion of Lithuania and Beijing’s rhetorical alignment against NATO over Ukraine contributed to EU High Representative Josep Borrell’s candid readout of the April 2022 virtual EU-China summit as a “dialogue of the deaf.” Between the ongoing war in Europe, the possible recessions facing the United States, the European Union, and China, and the political leadership campaigns culminating in Washington and Beijing, 2022 will surely be an eventful year for China’s relations with the world.

Christopher Preble

Co-Director, New American Engagement Initiative, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, Atlantic Council

Having not previously read many Chinese scholars’ views of the United States, I anticipated encountering some combination of misinterpretation and half-truth to push the best possible narrative from a Chinese perspective. However, I was more struck by the overall tone among these four authors: a clear sense that China has been routinely wronged, by the United States in particular. In this telling, China has mostly been a victim of others’ transgressions—though no longer a passive one, as several of the articles celebrate the steps that China has taken to go on the offensive. This aggrieved tone is mostly off-putting, but the sense of routinely being wronged by others also has worrisome strategic effects.

A related phenomenon is the tendency to exaggerate Chinese strengths and downplay Chinese weaknesses (and vice versa for the United States), highlighting challenges but ignoring advantages. This is not particularly effective, and at times comes off as blatantly absurd. For example, Wang Honggang points to “a strong contrast…, with one of the two countries flourishing economically while the other declines, one is governed well politically while the other is chaotically, and one has bright prospects while the other has dim prospects.” Similarly, claims that China has routinely bested the United States in tackling Covid-19 seem incomplete at best. To be sure, the United States was slow to address the pandemic and failed to adopt a series of measures that might have mitigated its effects. But the draconian measures that China instituted immediately after the pandemic was discovered have not prevented the disease, and the even-more-draconian measures being implemented today—most infamously in Shanghai—signal that Beijing did not so much solve the problem as postpone it.

That said, the authors do raise several valid points. Wang Honggang claims that the United States is “eagerly decoupling” economically from China—and elsewhere—as part of a pattern of “Western protectionism.” In fact, U.S. trade flows with China remain near all-time highs; nevertheless, allegations of looming decoupling are a recurring theme. China, according to several of these authors, is a champion of globalization in the face of Western anti-globalism. While this argument is not fully convincing, neither is it completely false. With the important caveat that Beijing’s behavior with respect to trade liberalism does not match its rhetoric, these authors have a point about rising anti-globalist sentiment, which the United States has not successfully contained – and sometimes fueled.

Another valid observation has to do with regional security orders. As Ge Tengfei argues, the U.S. bid to create an entirely new regional security complex in the Indo-Pacific was fraught with contradictions. The author may go too far in alleging that “the United States, a force from outside the region, cannot function as an endogenous driving force for regional security construction” (emphasis added), but it is certainly true that the countries in the region have many interests at stake and might not take kindly to an outside power’s effort to realign these interests.

Lastly, these authors tend to confuse intentions with capabilities. For example, Ni Guihua and Zhu Feng explain that the “Biden administration has… defined China’s policy of economic and trade openness as ‘aggressive and coercive abuse of economic power’” and assert that “the comprehensive containment of China in the high-tech field has become the focus of the Biden administration’s China policy.” However, the authors do not adequately engage with two more relevant questions: Is it working? Can it work? There is reason for doubt.

Overall, these articles call to mind the late Robert Jervis’s musings on perception and misperception, the security dilemma, and the tendency to dismiss legitimate security concerns. It is entirely possible that both sides are taking what they see as reasonable steps to strengthen themselves—both economically and militarily—but not always appreciating how those very measures are invoking a tit-for-tat response.

Lily McElwee

Fellow, CSIS-Chumir Global Dialogue

While accusing Washington of having a Cold War mentality, Beijing has embraced great-power competition as an animating force in world affairs. Chinese President Xi Jinping now frequently warns that the United States and China are locked in a protracted struggle in which the power structure and principles of the international order are at stake. Chinese analysts assess the long-term outcome will be in China’s favor because they believe the United States is descending into systemic economic decline and political chaos. But they also see U.S. China policy, as pursued by the Biden administration, as temporarily slowing this transition by making the geopolitical environment more hostile for China.

Beijing now perceives the overarching goal of U.S. China policy, at least since the Trump administration, as containing China’s economic, technological, and military development and limiting its global influence. For Chinese analysts, this policy is rooted in Washington’s strategic culture, which prioritizes U.S. hegemony in a unipolar international system and holds what they see as a misguided belief in the superiority and universality of open societies. U.S. China policy is understood to have hardened under the Trump and Biden administrations due to insecurities emanating from China’s relative strength and social and political turmoil within the United States. While Chinese analysts correctly diagnose the timeline of Washington’s toughened China approach and its origin in U.S. policymakers’ shifting perceptions of China, they fail to acknowledge the significant role Chinese behavior has played in this perceptual change.

The documents made available through Interpret: China reveal consensus that U.S. China policy has become tactically smarter and strategically more comprehensive under Biden. One year into the administration, Zhu Feng and Ni Guihua of Nanjing University argue Biden’s China policy aims at “suppressing and containing China in the economic and security fields across multiple dimensions.” Wang Honggang of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), a top Chinese think tank under the Ministry of State Security, correctly observes that while Trump pursued unilateralism and “quick wins,” Biden has opted for a multi-pronged, “long-term” strategic posture vis-à-vis China that involves strengthening domestic fundamentals, reinvesting in alliances, and contending for influence in third nations. A common theme linking the analyses is implicit concern that this new toolkit is successfully souring an already challenging international diplomatic, security, and economic environment for China.

The international outlook revealed is strikingly U.S.-centric. When assessing growing global skepticism of China’s initiatives, Chinese analysts give U.S. China policy much of the credit. For example, Xin Hua, executive director of the Center for EU Studies at the Shanghai International Studies University, suggests that since March 2021, the European Union has “drawn closer to the United States” by adopting “protectionist and economic nationalist strategies directed at China” (by which he means enhanced export controls, new anti-subsidy and anti-coercion tools, and interest in forums such as the EU-U.S. Trade and Technology Council). Such moves, Xin incorrectly diagnoses, stem from U.S. efforts to push “novel” American assessments of China on partners and allies, as well as Europe’s own economic insecurities vis-à-vis China, rather than frustration with China’s unfair and coercive economic practices. For Ni and Zhu, proposals such as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework show the United States is “not only winning over Europe, but also stirring up trouble in [the] Asia-Pacific.” This narrative of ideational dependence underestimates both the damage Chinese initiatives have wrought on perspectives of Beijing from Brussels to Tokyo and the agency of major powers other than the United States in the international system. Now a recurring theme in official statements, it is proving counterproductive for Beijing’s efforts to improve relations with regions, such as the European Union, that it views as “swing votes” in the U.S.-China rivalry.

The documents simultaneously suggest heightened threat perceptions of China’s external environment and confidence that since long-term trends remain in its favor, China should continue “daring to face challenges head-on,” as Wang Honggang puts it. Moves to improve economic self-reliance, leverage China’s market for global influence, and securitize a growing number of domestic and foreign policy areas show Beijing is determined to limit the reach and impact of what it sees as U.S.-led geopolitical encirclement. As a result, the drivers of a shifting U.S. China policy—Beijing’s more confrontational foreign policy behavior and authoritarian turn at home—are unlikely to be revisited.

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