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Foreign Policy

U.S.-China Relations: Tentative Signs of a Thaw?

Feb 26, 2024

While U.S.-China relations are still frosty, there have been some subtle signs of a thaw, though it’s far from reaching a full-blown spring. Watching CCTV’s evening news over the past year, it is a rare day when the U.S. isn’t subject to an editorial browbeating for its hegemonism, supply of weapons to Ukraine, fanning flames of war and the economic havoc wrought by sanctions against Russia and other countries. 

Add to that last year’s month-long campaign railing against of the alleged involvement of the White House in the Nord Stream pipeline bombing, as reported by Seymour Hersh, or Russian-sourced stories about secretive U.S. biolabs in Ukraine, or quoting various experts to demonstrate that U.S. policies are causing a global economic decline and you get a picture of the U.S. as a nefarious rival to rising China. 

Sometimes pure journalistic reporting suffices to do the job. One need only to tune into the seemingly almost daily carnage on America’s streets, sometimes even its schools, from gun violence, to get a very negative impression of the country as a whole. CCTV graphics illustrating the true, grueling statistics of U.S. gun deaths and depressing re-runs of journalistically accurate footage first aired on American networks are as effective as the best-crafted propaganda to knock the U.S. down a notch. 

Additionally, you can easily find American news coverage of our frequent industrial accidents, investigative specials into the U.S. epidemic of homelessness, what seems to be a never-ending series of train wrecks, and official neglect in the face of natural disasters. Consuming these stories could easily foster the impression, in keeping with general editorial aims, that the U.S. is truly in the throes of irreversible decline. And the beauty of this is that you don’t have to trust CCTV; America’s own news sources and commentary writers are saying so too! 

This is a significant contrast to China, where domestic news is generally good and any disasters covered are seen to be met with quick and effective humanitarian response. 

As for political reporting in China, few American faces make the news, not even President Biden. A shot of the White House as seen through a black wrought-iron fence is a stand-in for the U.S. presidency, the River Entrance of the Pentagon represents the U.S. military, and security barriers around the Capitol serve as a short-hand for a troubled democracy. 

However, Xi Jinping’s visit to San Francisco changed the tone of coverage, at least for a while. Instead of seeing homeless drifters on the streets of San Francisco, (Governor Gavin Newsome had the streets forcefully cleaned) viewers in China saw small, enthusiastic crowds waving red flags of welcome. The Xi-Biden summit was reported in great detail and President Biden was presented in courtly and respectful manner. In the footage of the gala reception for Xi at the Hyatt Hotel, the U.S. looked more like a land of can-do businessmen anxious to do business with China than a land in decline. 

Surprisingly, CCTV has also increasingly made use of press releases from U.S. military sources, such as Centcom and other Pentagon outlets, to summarize any news stories in question, specifically surrounding the Middle East, where one might expect the U.S. to be portrayed in a wholly negative light. This has become more noticeable as tensions have flared in the Red Sea. CCTV also has been using U.S. military footage on most days, to show everything from ships dispatched to the Eastern Mediterranean to scenes of U.S. bases in Iraq and elsewhere that have come under military attack. U.S. military footage, usually credited onscreen as such, is also used to show scenes of conflict beyond the reach of CCTV’s cameras, such as the shipboard launch of missiles aimed at the Houthi rebels in Yemen.  

These seemingly positive developments don’t mean that China is ready to believe everything the U.S. government says, and China protests neutrality for what it’s worth. But they do help indicate the degree of overlap in concern about certain issues, like keeping the sea lanes open, most especially in and around the Red Sea, which is an essential water bridge between Asia and Europe. China shipping has been setback by hostilities in the region which gives cause for anxiety as trade and shipping are among the few bright spots in China’s current economy, and the smooth transport of exports are a net positive at a time of economic woes. 

The Xinwen Lianbo news program on January 31 went so far as to show President Biden smiling, in the company of a friendly entourage, as it discussed the weighty topic of how the U.S. would respond to the bombing of a U.S. base on the tripartite border of Syria, Jordan and Iraq. The news quoted the White House as saying a decision had been made and posted English language statements on the screen. 

China news providers under state control have their reasons to keep the U.S. at bay editorially speaking, but both the U.S. and China recognize that the disruption of trade and a downward spiral of violence in the Mideast is not a winning scenario for either side. With this current trajectory, it’s better to find ways to work together in order to avoid further economic woes or more extensive conflict globally. 

The broadcasters’ browbeating of the U.S. for its domestic faults, while not absent, have been greatly reduced since San Francisco, which underscores the lasting importance that in-person, collegial meetings between leaders can have. Meeting face to face, and trying not to make the other side lose face, are factors that help to reduce the heat if not produce immediate results in other areas of bilateral concern. 

We also saw this in late January when Jake Sullivan and Wang Yi met in Bangkok, and while no big breakthroughs are thought to have been made, there appears to have been some concrete progress made on stemming the international sourcing of the fentanyl epidemic. 

No one’s expecting to see an instant switch from gloomy reports about the U.S. to sunny and reporting; each country has its reasons, and reasons of pride, not to give too much credit to the other side, or to bask in the glow of the other, but now and then there seems to be some daylight slipping in.

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