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Foreign Policy

Who is Misleading the United States?

Apr 25, 2024
  • Han Liqun

    Researcher, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

In his April 2 telephone conversation with U.S. President Joe Biden, Chinese President Xi Jinping emphasized the importance of perceptions in China-U.S. relations. Since Donald Trump took office in 2017, Washington’s strategic misunderstanding of China has been a crucial, if not primary, reason for the troubles in bilateral relations. Despite the many impressive foreign strategies it has developed, Washington has encountered setbacks as a result of its cognitive errors. Currently, at least five factors contributing to its strategic misunderstanding of China.

• First, ideological errors. The United States stubbornly adheres to ideological stances on many issues concerning China. Market issues are a prime example. During her visit to China that started on April 4, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen stated publicly many times that China does not act in accordance with market practices. This viewpoint is widely embraced in the United States and is often cited as justification for economic and trade restrictions on China.

However, the notion of the “market,” as discussed by U.S. politicians, no longer reflects a genuine free market but rather one dominated by monopoly capital. Behind the claim that China does not adhere to market practices lies an accusation that China does not allow the reckless use of capital, especially monopolies, thereby hindering capitalists’ attempts to harvest substantial profits.

Having been brought to heel by capital for years, American politicians find it difficult to break free from its grip. While they believe they are protecting the market, they are actually protecting capital interests at the expense of the market.

• Second, misjudgment of ongoing dramatic changes in the international landscape. In the strategic community in the United States, there is frequent contemplation about whether it was a mistake for Richard Nixon to establish ties with China and allow it to develop to the point where it poses a threat to the United States. This reflection has much to do with a misunderstanding of history by U.S. and British strategic professionals.

Over the past 400 years, the United States and the United Kingdom have manipulated geopolitical affairs and achieved a series of historic achievements, but they have also harbored serious historic conceit. Strategists, including Henry Kissinger, were proud of replicating classic geopolitical scenarios, influencing history and even making history. However, the world today is seeing a notable rise of the East and a decline of the West.

This trend is not determined by China or the United States, nor can it be altered by any particular strategy or individual. Washington now has to face this trend, instead of China alone, and it cannot change the arc of history by containing China. By opening the door to China-U.S. rapprochement, Nixon seemed to have made history. In fact, he seized the moment, but things evolved their own way over time.

• Third, a lack of confidence in the future of the United States. From the fall of the Iron Curtain to the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the United States remained alive to Soviet threats. Interestingly, it rarely worried about the possibility of being replaced, confident that the Soviet bloc was doomed. This confidence comes from Americans’ belief in their political system and economic strength, which reached its peak following the end of the Cold War.

This confidence was eroded over time, in particular because of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the collective rise of emerging and developing economies, Europe’s economic expansion and the continuous financial turmoil since 2008. Barack Obama campaigned for the U.S. presidency on a platform of change, while Donald Trump bluntly expressed his desire to “make America great again.” As China ascends rapidly, a United States without confidence can easily succumb to its own misperceptions — and even fears — thus resulting in strategic misjudgments.

• Fourth, constraints imposed by U.S. allies and partners. A considerable portion of American foreign policy is influenced by U.S. allies, partners or regional interests that may not always align with the best interests of the United States. While Washington is sober-minded about this reality, it pretends to be confused when it comes to its China policy.

For example, to safeguard its own interests, it has tried its best to avoid direct involvement in the Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Palestinian conflicts, disregarding the expectations of its allies and partners. But it continues to play with fire on issues related to China and readily responds to the demands of certain countries through a higher degree of intervention across the Asia-Pacific region.

At the same time, some countries capitalize on Washington’s objective of containing China and maintaining the overall stability of the international situation. They both provoke and benefit from tensions in China-U.S. relations, thus influencing Washington’s policy toward China.

• Fifth, inherent problems in the U.S. political system. American politics is replete with political maneuvering. The White House, government agencies and Congress all have their own ways of doing business. As the head of state, the president tries to leave room for maneuver and generally refrains from making absolute statements. But regardless of the president’s stance, the executive branch prioritizes hiding from its responsibilities and behaves in a rigid manner. Congress provides a window into the true nature of U.S. politics. When it comes to containing China, representatives and senators frequently make malicious remarks and engage in misconduct, which puts heavy pressure on the president and the executive branch.

The dynamics between the three elements add to the instability and uncertainty of U.S. foreign relations. In many cases, minor issues are blown out of proportion in ways that obscure America’s strategic understanding. A prime example is the chain reaction triggered by the balloon incident.

In addition, social changes and other factors affect Washington’s strategic perception of China. While some of these factors are new, many represent chronic issues in U.S. politics. To achieve strategic stability in China-U.S. relations, Washington needs to confront these issues head on, bring the design and implementation of its China policy back on track and foster healthy, stable and predictable interactions.

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