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Foreign Policy

China and America Are Locked in A Threat Perception Spiral

May 31, 2023
  • Brian Wong

    Assistant Professor in Philosophy, HKU and Rhodes Scholar

There is much going for increasing de-linkage between China and America, couched in euphemistic terms such as “de-risking,” “managing confrontation,” and buttressed with caveats such as “We don’t want to return to a Cold War. 

From the balloon-gate saga to China’s explicitly naming America as partaking in “containment” and “encirclement” of China, it is apparent that Sino-American relations have reached new nadirs after a brief respite following the Biden-Xi summit in Bali last November. The looming possibility of escalation over Ukraine, despite Beijing’s expressed efforts at mediating for peace, has only further complicated relations as the world becomes increasingly bifurcated. 

The crux of the matter is more complex than this string of unfortunate incidents. The truth is, as I have written elsewhere, Beijing and Washington are locked in a mutual threat perception spiral, and this spiral has effectively granted maximal oxygen and room to the ‘Confront’ or ‘Contain’ option out of the ‘Confront, compete, and cooperate’ trifecta proposed previously by Blinken at the 2021 Alaskan summit

Decisionmakers in Beijing are progressively convinced that the United States is bent on systemically curtailing the country’s economic, technological, and strategic advances on a global scale, through conjoining with ‘like-minded’ geopolitical allies in devising a new cordon sanitaire over the Indo-Pacific. Prominent economist Stephen Roach noted, after a trip back from China, that “The China consensus now believes that there is very little that can be done to arrest this worrisome downward spiral in the world’s most important bilateral relationship.” 

The myriad of platforms and initiatives, such as AUKUS, the Quad, or the U.S.-Japan-ROK Defense Trilateral Talks - claimed by some in Washington to be effective tools of deterrence against unilateral revisionism against the status quo - are widely viewed by Chinese leaders, bureaucrats, and academics as conspicuous acts of provocation meriting trenchant, unflinching responses. 

Indeed, Beijing’s default reaction to the precipitous strengthening of military ties between American allies has thus been to refrain from any act or gesture that could be read as capitulation against the U.S. and perceived U.S. allies, even whilst moderating its rhetoric and advancing a softer charm offensive outreach in relation to Europe, the UK, and Southeast Asia. Thus far the responses have fortunately comprised largely performative posturing or pre-emptive strengthening (i.e. centred around capacity-building), as author James Borton noted. Yet there is no guarantee that such relative restraint would continue going forward, especially if the Chinese leadership perceived themselves to be at risk of being expunged from the Indo-Pacific order that America has framed in starkly Manichean terms. 

The Chinese leadership’s threat perception is mirrored by Washington’s appraisal of China.  The TikTok hearings featured a roster of illustrious senators sinking their teeth into a convenient and easy target for allegations of purported Chinese interference in America. Questionable claims and dubious questions from some of them aside, the episode aptly exemplified the extent to which American attitudes on China have soured. Some view the country as a military and security threat in relation to its claims over the Taiwan Straits and South China Seas. Others accuse Beijing of partaking in expansive domestic interference. One way or another, there is a clearly emerging consensus amongst politicians, lobbyists, think-tanks, certain academics, and perhaps White House itself, that China poses more of a threat to American hegemony than Russia ever will. By framing the Sino-American rivalry as one revolving around values, those who tout the ‘China Threat’ narrative thus acquire substantially more salience and moral legitimacy, in setting up a conflict between the purportedly ‘good’ and the purportedly ‘evil’.  

Scholar Susan Shirk is right in noting that the level of fatalism in Sino-American relations today is deeply dangerous. The adamant belief that the other side is bent on stifling one’s growth, or poses fundamental threat to one’s political interests, is fundamentally dangerous. It causes politicians on both sides to frame any and all attempts at cooperation, communication, or engagement as naïve at best, defeatist at worst. It also encourages policymakers to amplify and see the worst in their counterparts across the Pacific. For one, more pessimistic Chinese voices believe the U.S. is ostensibly bent on recreating a “Ukraine crisis” over the Straits, whilst more sceptical voices in Washington charge that Beijing is bent on reunification at any cost within the next five years. 

Neither of these narratives need be true, but plausible truthfulness is clearly not the criterion for mass uptake at this day and age. 

With that said, we must avoid overstating the extent by which both Chinese and American leadership are genuinely ensnared by the groupthink that excellent thinkers such as Jessica Chen Weiss or Fareed Zakaria have duly called out. Openly expressed and adopted rhetoric may not reflect actual judgments and underlying beliefs - for one, China had sought to play down its reaction towards Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s meeting with Tsai Ing-wen as the latter transited through the U.S., and talk of an imminent visit to China by a senior cabinet-level official from Washington certainly suggests a more temperate shift in tactics, if not strategy, from the U.S. for the next couple of months. 

Additionally, there are some signs that some in Biden’s administration harbor unease with an increasingly bellicose approach to China. Secretary Janet Yellen, in a deftly hedged speech advocating both “national security first” and U.S. and China being able “to find a way to live together,” sought to lower the temperature in the room whilst adhering firmly to the basket of economic and financial measures designed to progressively reduce Chinese access to American capital, and American exposure to the Chinese economy. Elsewhere, Ambassador Nicholas Burns has called for more dialogue at high levels between Beijing and Washington. 

Yet dialogue alone is insufficient. More precisely, dialogue without a modicum of consensus over its fundamental purpose (as opposed to “dialogue for dialogue’s sake,” which has become a favourite bogeyman for jaded critics on both sides), is unlikely to deliver much value. Interpersonal relations and ties of trust have been severely fractured by the ascent of acute geopolitical disagreements and struggles between China and America - more talking alone will do little to ameliorate these points of divergence. 

Those who have followed my writings will know that I have been a firm and consistent advocate of constructive, critical dialogue across both tracks I and II between China and the U.S. However, I am by no means pollyannish about the merits of dialogue. Without clearly stipulated objectives, without a clear and shared push for breaking new grounds in dimensions of cooperation, and without stop-gap measures that tackle the mutual threat perceptions shaping policy calculus, dialogue’s effects will be muted at best, and a waste of effort at worst.


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