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Foreign Policy

Slippery Slope: From Strategic to Perilous

May 23, 2024
  • Han Liqun

    Researcher, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations


In his recent visit to China, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken conveyed a message in support of continuing dialogues with China on a swath of issues such as fentanyl, the Ukraine crisis, the South China Sea, the situation with Taiwan and the so-called “overcapacity” issue — all with the aim of maintaining a stable U.S.-China relationship.

Both sides released detailed readouts about the discussions. China, for example, underscored its position that the so called “overcapacity” issue raised by the U.S. was by no means based on market-based definitions but rather on a false, artificial narrative.

As a matter of fact, the U.S. has tossed out one strategic narrative after another to advance its China strategies. But over time, these narratives have evolved into sheer falsehood, including not only the one on production capacity but even more outrageous ones regarding China-Russian relations and the South China Sea.

Both Blinken and U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen raised the “overcapacity” issue while in China — an obvious reaction to the rapid development of China’s new-energy industry. A predictable pattern has emerged in which the United States will try to undermine China every time China performs well in a particular sector. But compared with the narratives on national security, intellectual property rights and unfair trade, the case for “overcapacity” seems in particular untenable. Nor is it even professional. By any measure, it is far-fetched to label China’s new-energy industry as being in a state of “overcapacity.” It is also unclear what the U.S. wants to discuss, how to structure the discussions or what specific purpose to aim for. Simply put, it is difficult for other countries to respond to America’s concerns.

To any fair mind, China does not dump low-end electric vehicles in overseas markets. Rather, China exports advanced models based on configuration and performance. In some cases, exported models are sold at a premium compared with prices in China. The popularity of Chinese EVs is a manifestation of their inherent competitiveness under market conditions, as opposed to something that undermines competition.

The so-called “overcapacity” complaint is a false narrative that makes little headway in working level discussions. If anything, it serves the purpose of smearing China, but it is irresponsible to the American public as well. All in all, it has no practical significance other than creating trouble in China-U.S. relations.

It is no easy task to pressure China to bow. If the United States were to adopt restrictive measures unilaterally, that would amount to real non-market behavior.

During his trip, Blinken also discussed the Ukraine crisis and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, implying that China has some role to play even though it is not a direct party to either of the conflicts. In addition, the U.S. has distorted the narrative of normal trade between China and Russia as China supporting Russia’s wartime economy and threatening to take action against China.

The U.S. also claims that China failed to live up to its obligations by not using its influence to rein in Iran in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is a clear attempt to impose undue responsibility on China, overstretch the negative spillover effects of the two conflicts and disrupt China’s normal engagement with other countries. This is a more perilous narrative than the false claim of overcapacity.

It has become an established pattern that the United States frames a strategic narrative to shape the image of its rival. This, in turn, s other specific strategies and channels resources to that end. A given narrative can gradually gain traction through political discourse, academic research findings and shuttle diplomacy at multilateral forums.

As a matter of fact, the U.S. has undertaken a raft of intense measures to produce across-the-board narratives against China involving more actors and topics under this strategic narrative umbrella. For instance, the U.S. had been peddling the idea of China as a non-market economy, with the aim of blocking market economy status and pressuring China to further open up its capital market.

In recent years, the United States has carved out many narratives, from the previous economic, financial and human rights issues to the more consequential political, security and diplomatic issues currently, including Xinjiang and Hong Kong — as well as the more recent “overcapacity” and “major country responsibility” narratives. Not only is the U.S. government talking up these narratives but its allies and partners are also singing from the same sheet of music.

On the whole, America’s strategic narratives on China are becoming increasingly offensive. They are used as instruments to serve specific purposes. What’s more, the narratives have become more perilous and confrontational in nature. The shift in tone is detrimental to maintaining normal dialogue between China and the United States.

In diplomatic back-and-forth, it is understandable that one party wants to seize the initiative by framing the discourse, or even making up stories. That said, as China-U.S. relations are at a crucial juncture, too much is at stake for a major country such as the United States to brandish false narratives against China. We expect the U.S. to stay on the side of history by earnestly formulating a strategic design for China-U.S. relations and engaging in pragmatic dialogue.  

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