China’s highest level leadership has chosen to openly air serious suspicions about the United States just as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) prepares for the transfer of power at top echelons this October. The US is viewed as persisting with its ‘Cold War mentality’, trying to ‘contain China’s rise’ and ‘meddling’ in the South China Sea. This heightens tension in the bilateral relationship.
The positive collaborative aspects of Sino-US relations have simultaneously been sought to be highlighted. China’s official news-agency Xinhua, for example, while reporting the meeting in Beijing between Chinese President Hu Jintao and visiting US national security advisor Tom Donilon on July 24, observed that both had described Sino-US relations as “the most important relationship in the world”.
At least three authoritative articles by ministerial-level officials published in the official Chinese media in the span of a week reflect the leadership’s concerns. These bluntly articulate the suspicion that the US is attempting to clandestinely bring about the collapse of China from within. They also lay bare Beijing’s frustration at apparent US unwillingness to dispel the ambiguity surrounding its policy of re-entering the Asia-Pacific.
A lengthy article by Cui Tiankai, China’s vice foreign minister and expert on American affairs, was published coinciding with Donilon’s visit (July 24-25) to Beijing. This while Donilon was accorded a red carpet reception by Beijing, no doubt because he is mentioned as a possible successor to US secretary of state Hillary Clinton.
Cui Tiankai’s article revived memories of the period immediately after the collapse of the erstwhile Soviet Union in 1989, when suspicion about the US was at its height within the CCP’s top echelons. He used the term ‘peaceful evolution’ twice in his article. ‘Peaceful evolution’ is a descriptive short-hand the Chinese used to refer to USA’s perceived clandestine actions intended to: dismantle the CCP; introduce multi-party democracy; and replace the socialist economy with free-wheeling capitalism. Cui Tiankai used it in the context of US interference on the issues of Tibet, Xinjiang, democracy and human rights. Acknowledging that in a multi-ethnic country with a huge population it is not difficult to find dissatisfaction, he cautioned that if those ‘obsessed’ with ‘peaceful evolution’ perceived this as an opportunity to engage in ‘colour revolution’, then they are committing a major strategic error. There is speculation, incidentally, that Cui Tiankai is possibly China’s next ambassador to the US.
Describing China and US as ‘self-confident’, Cui Tiankai emphasised that ‘the road of peaceful development is a strategic choice made by the Chinese collective leadership, the ruling party and the overwhelming majority of the masses’. The two have ‘no territorial claims against each other, therefore there is no important source of antagonistic conflict between the traditional powers’.
He emphasised their mutual economic inter-dependence and benefits accruing to the US. Bilateral trade volume was $446.6 billion in 2011 and, together with rising Chinese imports, directly supported between 4 and 8 million jobs in each country. Imports of low cost Chinese goods over a 10 year period had saved US consumers $600 billion. He reminded that ‘China is a huge market with over 1.3 billion consumers and the next five years will create $10 trillion worth of demand for imports’.
Assuring that China has ‘no intention of challenging the status of the United States and no intention of competing with US hegemony’, the Chinese vice foreign minister warned that ‘the strategic long-term cost of any mis-judgment of each other’s strategic intentions may be bigger than a war’. He regretted that in ‘recent years the United States had chosen not to solve certain problems with a pragmatic attitude, but instead exaggerate them and, worse still, speculate about China’s intent’. Questioning the ‘true intentions’ behind the US policy of ‘return’ to Asia-Pacific and ‘intervening in differences between China and its neighbors’, he insisted the US clarify its position as China and other countries in the region were uneasy. He asked US to ensure that the ‘core interests’ of both countries are safeguarded, pointing out that China ‘has always respected the reasonable interests and concerns of the United States’ in the Asia-Pacific. In the South China Sea dispute, China was ‘not the initiator, but the victim’.
Yuan Peng, director of the Institute for American Studies at the China Institute for Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), which is directly subordinate to the powerful ministry of state security, wrote the second article, which was published in the party mouthpiece People’s Daily on July 31. He assessed that China’s real strategic contest with the US and West will start only after 5-10 years and will be non-military. The article indicated that China intended to settle all issues of sovereignty and territorial integrity by military force.
Yuan Peng said the US strategic community is already debating three fundamental questions regarding China: how to respond to the resource, energy and economic demands of a great power with 1.3-1.5 billion people; how to respond to the successful alternate political system, developmental model and cultural values of a socialist great power; and, ‘how to respond to the military challenge posed by a socialist great power that has not yet settled all its issues of sovereignty and territorial integrity’.
Once the US and Europe tide over current difficulties they will close China’s window of strategic opportunity and the US will endeavour to ‘disrupt China’s rise’ and contain it. It will strive to penetrate China’s economy ‘to control the lifeblood of China’s development’ and introduce ‘liberal democracy’. Human rights lawyers, ‘underground’ religion, dissidents, ‘internet heroes’ etc, will be used to push for a ‘bottom-up’ approach to change governance in China. The US will attempt to weaken and split China’s ties with North Korea, Pakistan and Myanmar and re-build US-Russia relations to isolate China and constrict its diplomatic space. Subjects like ‘global commons’ of sea, air, space and cyber would be used to diminish China’s ability to strategically challenge the US.
The third article was by Ye Xiaowen, a ministerial-level cadre and vice president of the Central Institute of Socialism. Published by People’s Daily on July 24, this cautioned the US against making strategic mis-judgements, prompted by strategic anxiety, in attempts to ‘contain China’.
The appearance of these articles signed by high-ranking cadres is unusual. They unmistakably convey the views of China’s top leadership, signalling their serious suspicion that the US is trying to engineer the collapse of the CCP and ‘contain China’. They additionally reveal that the Chinese leadership is feeling vulnerable. The views would appear to be shared by the incoming top leadership as well.
Jayadeva Ranade is a former additional secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat,
Government of India