As European diplomats race to avert war between Russia and Ukraine, one country stands out for its refusal to condemn the Kremlin’s military threats against Russia’s neighbor: China.
In fact, the Chinese government views the United States and its NATO partners as “provocateurs in a hybrid war against Russia,” reports the New York Times, citing state media in a Feb. 15 analysis on how far Xi Jinping is willing to go to help Vladimir Putin in the current crisis.
And this says a lot about how badly bilateral ties have become in recent years, suggests David M. Lampton, professor emeritus of China studies at Johns Hopkins SAIS.
“The current state of US-China relations is the worst since before Nixon and Kissinger went to China in the early 1970s,” he said. “Even during the June 1989 tragedy’s aftermath, we had both George Herbert Walker Bush and Deng Xiaoping pushing to keep things on the rails, because both of them viewed Sino-American ties as strategically critical. To put it mildly, neither national leadership is today in even remotely the same frame of mind.”
Lampton, who’s also a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute, made his comments during a Feb. 14 online panel that kicked off the 2nd Annual Wilson China Fellowship Conference—an academic event featuring groundbreaking policy research taken by the 2021-22 class of Wilson China Fellows.
“Over the past year, our 25 fellows have conducted groundbreaking research into the rise of China and US-China relations,” said Mark Green, president and CEO of the Wilson Center. “China has emerged as the primary rival to the US and perhaps our greatest foreign policy challenge for the 21st century. Everybody understands that.”
But that’s the easy part, said Green.
“The rest—understanding China itself, its interests and ambitions—is harder, and that’s where we’re still lacking,” he said. “Veritable armies of American scholars devoted their careers to understanding the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and translating that knowledge into actionable ideas for policymakers. The size of American scholarship on China, on the other hand, is relatively limited, and too often isolated from the policymaking process.”
China research presents enormous challenges
That’s why this fellowship is so important, said Green, who was US ambassador to Tanzania from 2007 to 2009 and later served four terms in the House of Representatives for Wisconsin’s 8th District. Green led the International Republican Institute from 2014 to 2017 and took over leadership of the Wilson Center in January 2021.
Lampton, author of the 2008 book “The Three Faces of Chinese power: Might, Money, and Minds,” said research today is certainly different than when he entered the China field in 1969.
“There was considerable interaction among scholars and the intelligence community in those days. And that raised its own issues about intellectual integrity,” Lampton said. “I had no expectation of ever going to mainland China, let alone build a career based on field research, interviews and archival research in the People’s Republic.”
Yet China’s view toward the West has changed considerably in the last half-century.
“Today, in the context of the Ukraine crisis, both China and Russia are saying there are no limits to their strategic partnership. By way of contrast, in 2008, with respect to Moscow to dismembering Georgia, China leaned toward the West to discourage Moscow from violating a sovereign border. Today we see quite different behavior by Beijing,” said Lampton, adding that the Chinese and Russians seem to be reinforcing each other in the UN Security Council—not on the Ukraine issue but on North Korea as well.
The panel, moderated by Abraham Denmark, Wilson’s vice-president of programs and director of studies, also featured Stephen Del Rosso, program director for international peace and security at New York-based Carnegie Corp.
“Even as many of us have been hunkered down in our homes in the age of COVID, Sino-American tensions have only increased during this period, as war drums are sounding in Eastern Europe and relations between China and Russia grow closer, with implications that are still unfolding,” said Del Rosso, noting that Carnegie remains the largest private funder of China studies in the United States.
The future of US-China relations
In fact, Carnegie’s latest report, China’s New Direction: Challenges and Opportunities for US Policy, reaffirmed the continued relevance as well as the urgent need for more research on the role of emerging technology in China, human rights issues among China’s ethnic minorities, and non-traditional topics such as the environment, public health and relations with third countries.
“The study also bemoans the increasingly restrictive political environment in China under President Xi that has limited the ability of US and other researchers and journalists to work in the country and interact safely with their Chinese sources,” Del Rosso said.
“All this, of course, has been exacerbated by visa and COVID restrictions and a security-heavy discourse in China and the US that has politicized research and contributed to an environment of mutual mistrust and suspicion,” he added. “We are painfully aware of these new challenges, but also believe that now, more than ever, there’s a need for nuanced understanding of this rising power, despite the headwinds.”
Laura Rosenberger, senior director for China and Taiwan at the National Security Council, suggested that the Washington-Beijing rivalry is only beginning.
“We are in the early stages of a long-term and intense competition between the United States and China, one that really crosses the military, economic and political domains. It’s playing out in pretty much every region across the world, especially in the Indo-Pacific region, where the US has deep and abiding interests. This competition will in many ways determine the rules of the road of the 21st century. The next decade will be decisive.”
Yet the Biden administration also realizes it is limited in its ability to change China, she said.
“Therefore, the thrust of our policy is on shaping the environment around China” to the benefit of the United States and its allies,” said Rosenberger. She added that sometimes, when Americans talk this way, “people think we’re assembling an anti-China coalition. I would argue that misses the point. So much of the work we’re doing is really about putting forward our shared vision for the future.”