U.S.-China relations have been stormy, but to say things have gone back to the bad old days of the Cold War doesn’t adequately take into account the profound interconnectedness of the two nations.
As the number one and number two economies in the world, China and the U.S. are so deeply intertwined in terms of trade, educational exchange, investment and communication that a growing sense of existential dread is understandable: things can’t afford to get much worse without bringing everyone down.
Yet neither Beijing nor Washington have shown any great enthusiasm to mend relations at this critical juncture. In the U.S., both parties face strong domestic headwinds in any attempt to reach out. Meanwhile, China’s TV news is so down on Uncle Sam it daily airs segments on lurid crime, racial strife and industrial accidents in the U.S.
U.S. Defense chief Lloyd Austin couldn’t get a meeting with his Chinese counterpart Li Shangfu. The Chinese media was eerily quiet leading up to Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s planned visit which itself is a makeup for an earlier missed connection. Mutual recriminations ring out at every turn.
This dour mood is reflected in a provocativecommentary piece by Lanxin Xiang, published June 11, 2023, in the South China Morning Post.
“US-China war risks grow as Beijing sees little point in talking to Biden’s team”
I would argue the contrary; China wants to talk, and the U.S. does, too, not that anyone’s talking about being best friends or anything like that. It’s more about the business of doing state business, of advancing national self-interest by cooperating where cooperation is possible.
Both sides stand to benefit from better coordination, but neither can afford to get too far ahead of public perceptions shaped by the media.
For a historic angle on this underlying dynamic, it is instructive to look at Chinese diplomacy at the very outset of relations. Consider this unvarnished gem of hard wisdom is from a secret speech given by Geng Biao, then the head of the party’s international liaison office, in 1975.
“Nixon visited China because his policy of isolating China had become bankrupt, not at all because he had positive feelings toward China. He perceived pressure when contending with the Soviet revisionists. He wants to use the Sino-Soviet conflict; Chinese rapprochement is his trump card to overpower the Soviet revisionists. We allowed Nixon’s visit, not in the slightest due to positive feelings toward the US, let alone want to derive benefits from it…The American imperialists also want to take advantage of our conflict with the Soviet revisionists to cope with the Soviets. They are unable to use us. Rather, we can use them.”
A speech on tourism at the end of the Cultural Revolution sounds like a trite topic, if not an oxymoron, but Geng Biao spoke with considerable prescience and authority. A Long March veteran and battle-tested commander, Geng hints at the seriousness of the task with the following reminder: “So, take minutes for yourself, not for others. Losing the minutes is equivalent to disclosing it to our enemies.”
The speech was labeled “Top Secret· Tourism Material 5”
Not surprisingly, in Geng’s speech, it’s the candid remarks that count.
“We say we are in the Third World; this is not to degrade us to the level of a nationalist country. It promotes more efficient working conditions and unity with the Third World; the aim of which is to oppose the two hegemons.”
Then as now, there was a gap between what China was saying and what it meant. Then, as now, Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia were contested zones in the battle against hegemony.
Geng Biao describes the Zeitgeist of the day using the Mao phrase, “chaos under heaven.” Surveying a world of sorry conflict, economic crises, inflation, unemployment and budget deficits, he quotes Mao: “insert in a pin wherever there's a crack (jian feng cha zhen).”
Geng’s observation that Europe was wracked by strikes sounds like a contemporary news bulletin from CCTV, as does his view that “whomever wants to be the hegemon must hold Europe.”
As Zhou Yiwrites in “Less Revolution, More Realpolitik” Geng Biao’s message signaled a move away from the politics of ideology to the practical politics of checks and balances.
It is within this harsh, unsentimental frame of promoting national self-interest–regardless of which countries you have to deal with–that made it possible for China to simultaneously work closely with Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, but also U.S. Republicans such as Nixon and Ford.
“Do not think the United States is very powerful,” Geng advises. “They are all struggling for raw materials and struggling for the market.” He nails his vision of America in decline with a Mao quote: “Nothing can be done when flowers are falling away (wukenaihe hua luo qu).”
These days, CCTV regularly broadcasts wilting, withering images that ostensibly show the U.S. in decline.
Geng’s insider attitude towards Moscow in 1975, however, contrasts dramatically with the public declarations about the “no-limits” Sino-Russia relationship today: “As Chairman Mao, Premier Zhou and other comrade leaders in the central committee told the Europeans, “you should be careful; the polar bear will eat you; you should not be unwary.”
Some of Geng’s statements still ring true, if only because they touch on political truths widely acknowledged.“Theory predicts that the one who wants to occupy territory will instigate the conflict.”
Geng peppers his speech with pithy quotes from the paramount leader, a rhetorical flourish not without echoes in today’s political discourse.
- The Chairman advocates we fear neither hardship nor death
- As Chairman Mao said, the swallows are busy in the dusk
- Now the world is not peaceful, the wind and rain coming
- Eat your meal bit by bit; do not eat everything in one mouthful
- Dig deep shelters, store up grain reserves, and don’t claim (global) hegemony
Calls to struggle and vague poetic aphorisms remain in vogue today. As for digging shelters, that’s dated, but grain is being stored up and anti-hegemony claims still made.
Geng goes on to explain why diplomacy must be subordinate to the ruling ethos of the time. Things aren’t as bad as the media suggests, but things are not friendly, either.
In keeping with the Machiavellian gist of Geng’s “tourism” speech, a lesson for diplomacy today might be, “It’s not about friendship. It’s about mutual self-interest.”