Responding to He Yafei: Who’s to blame for the downturn in U.S.-Chinese relations?

Responding to He Yafei: Who’s to blame for the downturn in U.S.-Chinese relations?

Just how bad are U.S.-Chinese relations these days, and who’s to blame for the downturn? China’s former Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei has published an essay in Foreign Policy today on the worrying state of the world’s most important relationship. The Obama administration’s pivor to Asia, he writes, has "aroused a great deal of suspicion in China."

High-ranking Chinese officials rarely speak so directly about China’s concerns, and He’s essay is one of the most comprehensive explanations of Beijing’s views published in U.S. media since China’s new president Xi Jinping was appointed in November.

He, who’s currently deputy director of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office in the powerful State Council, is known to be outspoken. During a 2009 U.N. climate change conference in Copenhagen, for instance, he told reporters that the top U.S. negotiator "lacks common sense or is extremely irresponsible."

In what may be the most alarming section of his FP essay, He writes:

[S]uspicions deepen when the United States gets itself entangled in China’s dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu Islands and in the debates over maritime issues in the South China Sea. Should this ill-thought-out policy of rebalancing continue and the security environment worsen, an arms race would be inevitable. China, despite its intention to pursue a strategy of peaceful development, might be forced to revisit some aspects of its policy for the region.

I sent He’s article to several scholars who closely follow the U.S.-China relationship to get their take on his argument, and I’ve summarized their reactions below.

Orville Schell, Arthur Ross director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, called He "one of China’s most experienced, smartest and most articulate diplomats" but said that Beijing "often has a difficult time realizing that China has, in effect, become a Great Power." That newfound status, he explained, makes the country’s aggressive behavior more worrying than before.

Trust is also a major concern in the U.S.-China relationship, and Beijing seems unaware of the mistrust with which other countries view its foreign policy. In his essay, He writes that the "United States has nothing to fear or worry about, and everything to gain, from a strong, peace-loving, and prosperous China," and that the threat of China revisiting its regional policy won’t materialize if the United States and China can work through their issues.

Meanwhile, however, China has disputes with Japan over the Diaoyu (which the Japanese call the Senkakus), with several Southeast Asian nations over territory in the South China Sea, and with India over the border between the two countries. China "will be unable to reassure neighbors and the United States of its commitment to a ‘peaceful rise’ as long as China is presenting such a pugnacious and intractable face to its neighbors," Schell wrote.

Shen Dingli, associate dean of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, also noted the importance of mutual trust — as He writes, "trust will not just fall out of the sky." An arms race, Shen said, "would be ridiculous." Instead, he added, both sides should build trust by taking a "criticism and self-criticism" approach, welcoming criticism from the other party with "enhanced humility and confidence."

Perry Link, a professor at the University of California Riverside who recently wrote a book on language in Chinese politics, had a more negative opinion of He’s essay:  "In their 2011 book Mao’s Invisible Hand, Sebastian Heilmann and Elizabeth Perry write that today’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP) policy-making inherits Mao Zedong’s ‘guerrilla policy style,’ which they summarize as fundamentally dictatorial, opportunistic, and merciless," Link noted. He’s essay "is but a tool in this policy style. Its purpose is to maximize the power of the CCP. Period."

Link noted how the Communist Party, in He’s essay and elsewhere, has tried to equate itself with China. "Rule 1 for U.S. policy should be to recognize that the China = CCP claim is far from true. No one is clearer about its falsity than the CCP itself, whose overwhelming concern in recent times has been how to stay on top of a rising, ever-better-informed, and, thanks to cyber-assembly on the Internet, ever-better-organized populace who resent CCP bullying and corruption."

The Party’s rule will "not last," Link wrote. "The big questions are how bloody the transition will be and what kind of regime will come next. A wise U.S. policy would be crafted with these questions in mind, and with the whole Chinese population in mind — and that would mean seeing the He essay as only a grain of irritation on a vastly broader canvas."

What do you think about He’s essay? Let me know in the comments.