China as a Diplomatic Actor

Remarks to the American Academy of Diplomacy

I became interested in China a bit over five decades ago. Back then, with the notable exception of Zhou Enlai and a few people he’d mentored, China’s diplomacy was all revolutionary bluster and bellyaching with no bottom line. Since then the country has changed so often and so much that our view of it has always lagged behind its realities. Frequently it’s had more to do with our own head trips than with China itself. When China didn’t make much difference in world affairs, imputing politically correct but factually dubious characteristics to it and its diplomacy didn’t make much difference. Now it does. So I’d like to spend a few minutes talking about the remarkable evolution of China as a diplomatic actor.

When I first encountered it, China’s diplomacy reminded me of the “forlorn hope.” The forlorn hope is a military maneuver in which a group of soldiers, usually volunteers, is assigned to sacrifice themselves in an almost certainly fatal assault on a heavily defended position so that a larger battle plan can go forward. As a diplomatic version of it, consider Sino-British interactions in August 1967.

Beijing was then in the midst of the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.” The office of the British chargé there had just been sacked and its staff beaten by a mob of Red Guards. Her Majesty’s Government responded by imposing restrictions on the movement of China’s diplomats in London. China’s diplomats there naturally reacted to this by taking up baseball bats and having at the police outside their embassy.

In the ensuing scuffle, at least one Chinese official — along with a bobby or two — was injured. True to the revolutionary spirit of the times, Beijing immediately instructed its chargé in London to lodge a fiery protest against British policy brutality. He was sent an eight-page screed and told to declaim it in its entirety, come hell or high water. Both his instructions and the text were transmitted to him en clair, enabling the Brits to read them in advance.

And so it was that China’s Chargé and an interpreter-colleague went to call on the Foreign Office’s Far Eastern Department. In a change from usual practice, they were not greeted as they arrived. Instead, a building guard ushered them to an office from which all furniture other than a desk and chair had been removed. A relatively junior British official sat behind the desk as the two Chinese diplomats stood before it to make their démarche.

After listening impassively for a few minutes, the Brit got up, ducked through a door behind him, and disappeared into a private office, leaving the Chinese chargé to read his script to an empty chair — which he did without missing an ideogram as his colleague put his rant into English. When they’d got through about three-fifths of their text, a janitor with a bucket and mop entered the room and began to mop the floor around them. As they finished, he suggested to the Chinese that they leave and, bucket in hand and mop over shoulder, escorted them out of the building.

Diplomacy is, of course, a political performing art. In this farce, both parties played their parts with consummate skill. By doing so, they accomplished what is so often the real rather than the ostensible purpose of diplomatic démarches — staging a show of resolve to impress domestic politicians and pundits. British and Chinese decision-makers and opinion-molders are not alone in their overriding interest in convincing their compatriots of their toughness. Nor are they in any respect unique in their lack of concern about the equally tough reactions their posturing is bound to evoke from the foreigners against whom it is directed.

A dozen years after the face-off I just described, I spoke separately with British and Chinese participants in it — both diplomatic professionals I had come to know well. Each confessed that he had seen both his own and his counterpart’s behavior as a waste of time. But the Brit confided that he’d been impressed by the imperturbable discipline with which the Chinese had executed their idiotic instructions. And, for their part, the Chinese said they’d secretly admired the exquisite one-upmanship with which the Brits had greeted them on a mission whose absurdity and futility they fully appreciated.

Chinese diplomats have not lost their self-possession, but they are now well-trained professionals who represent a country that is very different from the China of the 1960s. That China was isolated, angry, poor, and weak. Despite its impotence — or perhaps because of it — it was vociferously determined to overthrow the liberal international order we Americans had created. Ironically, of course, American-sponsored admission to that order proved to be the key to the rapid restoration of China’s wealth and power. China today is globally engaged, self-satisfied, prosperous, and regionally powerful. It has become an anything-but-revolutionary and increasingly influential participant in the institutions of global and regional governance. It is now the world’s biggest industrial power and, by some measures, already its largest overall economy. And, while its growth is slowing, it’s living standards are still rising at rates the whole world envies.

As it grows, China continues to change. It is becoming notably less passive in the face of regional challenges to its territorial integrity and security. China’s neighbors have reacted to this with legitimate alarm. Still, a bit of perspective seems in order. So far, Chinese have been considerably more deferential to international law and opinion than we Americans were at a similar stage of national development.

Around 1875, the United States passed the U.K. to became the world’s biggest economy. Soon thereafter, we pressed the ethnic cleansing of our country to a conclusion, engineered regime change in Hawaii and annexed it, seized the Philippines and Puerto Rico from the Spanish Empire, forced Cuba to grant us Guantánamo in perpetuity, detached Panama from Colombia, and launched repeated military interventions in Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. To date, by contrast, China has leveraged the upsurge in its power to step up its contributions to U.N. peacekeeping and use its coast guard, construction companies, and other nonlethal means to buttress century-old claims to islands, rocks, and reefs in its near seas against more recent counterclaims by neighbors.

It says more about us than about China that we have chosen to treat its rise almost entirely as a military challenge and that we have made countering Chinese power and perpetuating our quasi-imperial, post-1945 dominance of the Western Pacific the organizing principles of our Asia policy. China’s capacity to defend its periphery is indeed growing apace with its economy. The military balance off the China coast is therefore inevitably shifting against us. This is certainly a threat to our long-established dominance of China’s periphery. It promises to deprive us of the ability to attack the Chinese homeland from there at will, as Air-Sea Battle envisages. But greater security from foreign attack for China does not imply a greater risk of Chinese or other foreign attack on the United States.

Even more important, the notion that Americans can indefinitely sustain military supremacy along the frontiers of a steadily modernizing and strengthening China is a bad bet no sober analyst would accept. Extrapolating policy from that bet, as we do in the so-called “pivot to Asia,” just invites China to call or raise it. We would be wiser and on safer ground, I think, to study how Britain finessed the challenge of America’s emergence as a counter to its global hegemony. It viewed us with realistic apprehension but accepted, accommodated, and co-opted us.

There may be more to the analogy between China and the United States as rising powers than is immediately apparent. Post-Maoist China, like pre-World War II America, avoids entangling alliances. Like the United States then, it is unresponsive to demands that it exercise global leadership commensurate with its economic heft or that it join in foreign wars. And, like Americans then, Chinese do not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. They do so to make money or for purposes of tourism.

Like the United States, China refuses to compromise its sovereignty or sacrifice its ideological identity. Unlike us, however, the Chinese still insist on the strict respect for the sovereignty of other states enshrined in the U.N. Charter. Like most non-Americans, they are intrigued by democracy but do not see history as driven by a struggle between it and autocracy. They are not into armed evangelism or regime change. Chinese find foreigners peculiar but are content to let them remain unChinese. They are notoriously indifferent to their foreign partners’ ideologies, politics, and social systems. A world in which the United States shares influence with China, India, and other great civilization-states is likely to be safer for political diversity because it should be less roiled by moral supremacism, ideological expansionism, and cultural imperialism. 

China is finally becoming more active in global governance but it still shows no desire to displace American leadership.  Quite the contrary. It says it’s ready to follow our lead in global governance. Just five weeks ago, Vice Premier Wang Yang declared that “China and the United States are global economic partners, but America is the guide of the world. America already has the leading system and its rules; China is willing to join the system and respect those rules and hopes to play a constructive role.” This remarkable declaration by Beijing deserves to be tested. So far, however, there has been no audible response to it from Washington.

Perhaps that’s because to be followed the United States must be prepared to lead. That means reforming existing institutions and providing funding that can meet the very real needs of the day. American domestic dysfunction continues to prevent us from doing this and leaves others no choice but to step forward where we cannot. China has the money and is building the self-confidence to do this. It has recently begun to sponsor new multilateral arrangements to fund infrastructure projects and currency swaps that are beyond the current capacity of the World Bank, the IMF, the Asian Development Bank, and other legacy institutions.

Sadly, instead of treating these initiatives as a compelling reason to get our own act together and reassert international leadership, we have reacted to them peevishly, with carping comments and attempts to persuade others to boycott them because they don’t enforce the kinds of conditionalities we have traditionally favored. But staying outside these Chinese-sponsored institutions will reduce rather than reinforce our role in global governance and erode, not promote, the prevalence of our values internationally. As all in this room know, Americans are not universally admired these days. And if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.

Our dilemma is a reminder of the purpose of politics, including diplomacy. As every diplomat knows, this is to add the power of others to one’s own to promote shared interests — or at least interests you’ve persuaded others are shared. To get others to see their interests the way you want them to, you must understand their world view. For this to happen, empathy must at least temporarily eclipse egotism while realism prevails over the prescriptions of political correctness. It’s pointless to try to enlist others in support of projects whose premises contradict their fundamental conceptions of what’s right.

Chinese do not share the interest of Americans in promoting multiparty democracy, Wall Street financial practices, regime change in autocracies, church attendance, post-pious sexual freedoms, or uncensored access to dissident perspectives on the news, among other things. China rejects the concept of humanitarian intervention. It disapproves of our frequent resort to punitive diplomacy through sanctions, drone warfare, and military interventions, all of which it considers both inappropriate and counterproductive. It is privately aghast at the amateurism of many of our decision-makers and diplomats and our lack of institutional memory.

But China does share our interest in preserving and enhancing effective global governance; in promoting worldwide economic prosperity through liberalized terms of trade and investment; in retarding and ultimately reversing climate change, nuclear proliferation, and the spread of Islamist extremism; in combating terrorism and piracy; and in assuring a peaceful international environment in which to enjoy domestic tranquility and pursue national reconstruction. And Chinese are coming to agree with us about a growing list of other matters, including the need to safeguard intellectual property, manage rather than deny the military rivalry between us, develop non-polluting sources of energy, and save the whales. Like Americans, Chinese want relations between our two countries to embody peaceful cooperation and competition rather than antagonism and military hostility. Given serious and skillful diplomacy by both sides, that should be doable.

But a constantly changing China will continue to affront American complacency in many ways. It defies our doctrinaire denigration of industrial policy by outperforming us economically. Despite multiple problems and a system of government that is a big turn-off to foreigners, China belies our disdain for autocracy with a government that enjoys very much higher levels of approval from those it governs than ours does. (65 percent of Americans are now dissatisfied with our system of government. 70 percent of Chinese express satisfaction with theirs, with approval of the Chinese central government at much higher levels than that.) Contrary to our orthodoxy, despite restrictions on freedom of speech, China’s huge private sector is becoming increasingly innovative. In a challenge to our self-image, China now seems in many ways much more devoted to the United Nations and the rules of international law we helped craft than we are. Far from the monolith we imagine, China encompasses exceptional diversity within its borders. It includes the spectacularly futuristic city of Shanghai and the gambling paradise of Macau — now with the world’s highest GDP per capita (according to the World Bank). But it also embraces many backward and impoverished areas, like Tibet, where GDP per capita is still on a par with that in Congo-Brazzaville.

China’s rise is an unprecedented challenge to our country. It should provoke us to get our act together at home, ramp up our competitiveness, make common cause with Europeans and others who share our values, live up to our libertarian ideals, strive once again to be an inspiring example to other societies, and address the many deficiencies of our diplomacy. All this could yet happen. If it does, China will inadvertently have done us and the world a great service.

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr.  (USFS, Ret.)

DACOR Bacon House, Washington, DC,

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