The US-China Relationship and its Future

The US-China Relationship and its Future

Interview by Andrea Turi

Q: Mr Freeman, good morning, by thanking you for your willingness to answer my questions, I ask you the first question: In 1972, you were part of the US delegation following President Nixon who went to Beijing for the first time. How important was that event for your country, for the People’s Republic of China and for the whole world?

A: It changed the world geopolitically at once. In the longer term, it facilitated the restoration of China to wealth and power, helped bring down the Soviet Union and opened the way to a different international order.

Q: What kind of men were the two Presidents Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong, and what relationship was established between the two after they shook hands?

A: Both were politicians who had come to power through ideological maneuver but both were also statesmen who had thought long and hard about geopolitics. The meeting between them extended American protection to China against a predatory USSR, which was threatening to act against China under the “Brezhnev Doctrine.” This represented American recognition of China’s importance in global geopolitics and Chinese recognition of its vulnerability to Soviet attack.

Q: That was undoubtedly an incredible diplomatic success for both sides. Was this more due to Nixon’s courage, Kissinger’s lucid political analysis or the will of the People’s Republic of China to emerge from international isolation?

A: The initiative was Nixon’s, embraced after initial skepticism by Kissinger. It was highly controversial in China and would have been widely opposed had it been known to the Chinese political elite. For the same reason, Nixon kept it secret in the United States.

Q: Relations between the two powers are increasingly tense. Is there anything about that historical event that could teach something to those who today have to manage an increasingly hot situation? 

A: The basic lesson of the Nixon opening to China is the importance of both strategic vision and pragmatic communication even with presumed enemies.  But the circumstances were completely different. In the seventh decade of the 20th century, the United States and China discovered a common interest in opposing a shared enemy sufficient to permit them to finesse the major political obstacle dividing them – the Taiwan issue. 

China then, as now, regarded Taiwan as an American-backed bastion of the losing, anti-communist side in a civil war suspended by U.S. intervention but not ended. Today, there is no shared enemy comparable to the USSR. The common interests of the two sides are less obvious and more abstract. There is no strategic pressure to set aside differences to pursue entente. And the finesse of the Taiwan issue is no more.

Q: In the wake of that, I ask you what role diplomacy has today in the world of international relations and what definition would you give, who knows that world well, of the “art of diplomacy”?

A: Diplomacy is the management of international relations by measures short of war. The two sides in the Sino-American split are not currently on speaking terms. They need to rediscover the value of polite communication and attention to the views of the other side and their rationale. In many ways, each is projecting domestic hysteria about the other beyond its borders.

Q: We talked about Nixon, Mao, Kissinger. Are there any leaders today who would be able to make a historic turn of events? Or has the level of personalities called to lead the country dropped down considerably?

A: If there are such leaders, it is not apparent who they are. But, in all fairness to the current, apparently mediocre leadership of most of the world’s great powers, it was not apparent at the end of the 1960s that either Nixon or Mao were statesmen of the calibre they turned out to be.

Q: During his diplomatic career, you met, interacted and worked closely with leaders who have left their mark in the course of more or less recent history. Do you remember anyone with particular affection? Did you find any recurring characteristics in men of power?

A: Henry Kissinger certainly stands out for his knowledge of history, realism, and diplomatic skill. He met a worthy counterpart in Zhou Enlai. Unlike Kissinger, Zhou took pains to mentor a group of subordinates who could carry the style and substance of his diplomacy. Both men are now revered for their brilliance but neither’s diplomatic legacy is being honoured in practice.

Q: Time changes everything, this is known. How would you define the United States back then compared to those of today?

A: A different country in a different world. In 1971, the United States was locked in an ideological and geopolitical contest with the USSR, beginning to try to find an exit strategy from its wars in Indochina but not yet traumatized by the experience, with a government that enjoyed the credibility of the pre-Watergate period, and unchallenged financial and economic leadership of the world minus the Soviet empire and China. 
Today, despite American efforts to find an ideological basis for contention with China, the only threat to constitutional democracy is internal – from those resentful of their denigration and neglect by their countries’ political and financial elites. The world is off the gold standard and the U.S. abuse of dollar hegemony to impose unilateral sanctions on other nations is generating a degree of resistance that threatens the dollar’s near-monopoly on trade settlement. 
The American people have been sliced, diced, and sorted into sub-communities by social and niche media and no longer enjoy a consensus about much of anything. And America is no longer the standard of governance to which most other countries aspire.

Q: Quoting Heraclitus, in an interview you said that one cannot visit the same China twice. How would you define China today compared to that of then?

A: When I first encountered China, it was backward, drab, poor, and isolated. The primary American concern about it was its apparent vulnerability to subjugation or humiliation by the Soviet Union.  I have watched China modernize, burst into the boisterous enjoyment of life, replace poverty with wealth (including its own cadre of billionaires) and grow the world’s largest middle class. China is now as connected — maybe more connected — to other countries as the United States, with huge numbers of students abroad and, until the pandemic inhibited international travel, its largest tourist class.

Q: Thus we come to our days. For some time now, it has been argued by many that the pandemic has changed our daily lives, lifestyles and interpersonal relationships. This argument would seem to be valid also for international relations. I ask you, therefore, how Covid19 has changed relations between states – in general – and between the US and China – in particular. Has there been a drastic change of scenery or has the pandemic only accelerated processes and dynamics already present previously?

A: The pandemic should have stimulated international cooperation to control and counter it. Instead, it became a propaganda argument, most consequently between the United States and China. It is not yet over or under control. Nor has the world mounted an effective counter to it. So far, it stands as a failure of multilateralism rather than a vindication of it.

Q: As analyst Parag Khanna argues, is the world’s center of gravity shifting east? Will this be the Asian century?

A: Historically, the bulk of the world’s economic activity and wealth were in China, India, and the Islamic world.  The world is returning to the situation before the European Renaissance and Enlightenment, together with the industrial revolution, enabled the Atlantic world to dominate the rest.  The preeminent powers of the future are in East and South Asia, though Europe and North America will continue to exercise important influence.

Q: In Washington they seem eager to fight China. What is it that pushes the United States to want to confront Beijing in what appears to be a game destined for defeat? How important is the psychological factor of superpower in evident and undeniable decline which does not want to share the scene with a new emerging power? Or is it the economic-political factors that direct the West in this competition with the Dragon?

A: The Cold War and the unipolar moment that followed it militarized American foreign policy. The United States default position is now to analyze and answer any and all challenges with coercive measures, threats to use force, and military confrontations.  Psychologically, the United States is finding it hard to adapt to a world in which, for the first time in a century and a half, it is not necessarily primus inter pares internationally. Meanwhile, the decadence of American democracy, the effects of the rise of a plutocracy in the United States, and political gridlock born of intense partisanship have created popular disillusionment within the country.  It is psychologically easier and more politically convenient to blame America’s ills on China, Russia, and other foreign nations than it is to engage in introspection and accept responsibility for the national condition.

Q: “The political strategies of the US administration to address and prevent Chinese hegemony in the world must focus on peaceful coexistence between the two nations.” This is one of the key concepts that Henry Kissinger illustrated in a recent interview with the German newspaper Die Welt. Is it still possible to rebuild Washington-Beijing relations on the basis of peaceful coexistence and cooperation, or, to quote Caesar, is the die-cast and the Rubicon crossed, marking a point of no return?

A: Of course, it is possible. But we are not currently trying to do this. At some point, it may be too late.

Q: In the global context, today, how does the United States stand today and how does China stand instead?

A: Neither country is behaving in such a way as to attract support. Both are uncouth and uncivil. Neither is practising diplomacy aimed at persuading foreign governments and the public of the justice of their positions on international issues.  Both are alienating previous partners and friends. Neither is attempting to lead the world in addressing planetwide challenges.

Q: The West sees its own faults in others and, for this reason, is afraid of the strong Chinese rise because in this it sees a desire for global hegemony. In reality, Beijing has never made such a wish, China has never tried to colonize the rest of the world. China seems to want to regain her rightful place in a world she would like with a shared destiny. Do you agree with this statement?

A: There is a strong tendency to “mirror imaging” in both the United States and China. Each seems to imagine that the other reasons as it does. The United States is being displaced from global and regional primacy by China. But displacement is not the same as replacement. Most nations do not want to be subordinated to either the United States or China. There is no evidence that China intends to subordinate them, though it has raised doubts about this by its bullying treatment of countries like South Korea and Australia. China has shown no aptitude for world leadership. I do not expect China to succeed the United States as the global hegemon.

Q: What are, in your opinion, the main reasons for China’s strong rise and how far is the United States willing to go to try to contain its expansion?

A: China is recovering the wealth, power, and prestige that European, Japanese, and American imperialism earlier stripped from it. The United States cannot prevent this but is foolishly trying to do so rather than concentrating on improving its own competitiveness.

Q: The change of administration in the White House seems not to have brought about substantial changes in the US attitude towards China. On what basis is Washington’s actual strategy based?

A: Washington has an attitude, not a strategy. The attitude is a national consensus that transcends party affiliations.

Q: On the other hand,  what are the pillars of the Chinese strategy towards Washington?

A: Fend off regime change, maintain domestic tranquility, continue to restore China’s wealth and power, remove the active American military threat from its periphery, break the dependencies on the United States that make China vulnerable, build a multipolar world in which no country can threaten the ideological complexion or dictate the political order of any other.

Q: Do you see Biden as the right man to lead the country – and the western world – in this difficult historical passage?

A: Biden’s views were formed in a bygone age. He is a restorationist, not an innovator. He is a useful corrective to Trump (of whom we may not have seen the last) but is devoted, in his own way, to making America great again, this time by reference to its past status. Biden’s key subordinates are not strategic thinkers, have limited experience at statecraft, and do not appear to have fully understood and assimilated the degree to which both the world and America’s place in it have changed. I suspect Biden will come to be seen in time as a transitional figure, not a reshaper or restorer of the world order.

Q: And what about Xi Jinping? Do you see in him the right personality to guide China towards its new role in the world?

A: Xi is too concerned about control of China domestically to do that. He will be succeeded in time, as Biden will be, by a new generation with different and perhaps more effective ideas about both foreign and domestic affairs.

Q: At the last annual NATO summit in Brussels, China ended up on the list of security “risks” for the first time together with Putin’s Russia. Is China a real threat or just a mental spectre to the West?

A: The West and China are in a contest to see which can deliver prosperity, security, and domestic tranquillity to their people. This contest cannot and will not be determined by military strategies or orientations. It will be decided by how well the various parties do economically, technologically, and culturally. It is politically appealing to simplify everything to the level of a contest between democracy and authoritarianism but this is a false construct. The outcome will be determined by performance, not posturing or military shows of force, still less by ideological diatribe.

Q: In an interview, you argued that the biggest fault of the Chinese in Western eyes is that they continue to be stubbornly Chinese. What is it that you just can’t understand the West of China? What is the biggest mistake we are making?

A: The West invented the idea of national sovereignty and enshrined it in the Westphalian peace. We are now in some ways contradicting that heritage as well as the notion of an international rule of law governed by a consensus between nominally equal sovereign states. China is not insisting that anyone abroad emulate its system. That is both realistic and wise. It is both unrealistic and foolish for us to imagine that we can impose our preferred political culture on China. China may modernize but it will not cease to be Chinese any more than other countries that have modernized have ceased to be true to their national essences.

Q: How much of the Cold War mentality is still present in the political-military elite? Granted and not granted that we are experiencing a new cold war, with what weapons will it be fought?

A: This is not a new Cold War despite the U.S. effort to portray it as such. The world is not divided meaningfully between ideologies, nor is it divided into contending blocs of nations. The notion that the world can be understood and organized in terms of “great power rivalry” denies middle-ranking and smaller countries any role in determining their own destiny or in shaping the world order. This is not an idea with much appeal beyond American domestic politics. The idea that there is a great Manichean struggle between democracy and authoritarianism presumes that authoritarians share an ideology. In reality, they are universally only concerned to maintain themselves in power and do not see themselves as sharing a value system. Democracies are in difficulty, but the difficulties are homemade. This is a new situation. The challenges it presents are real but require a new vision and strategy. Applying the reasoning of the Cold War, as many do, is a recipe for irrelevance and/or failure.

Q: Lately this study centre has been dealing with Xinjiang. What do Washington’s accusations of genocide of the Uighur people against Beijing hide, what aims?

A: I do not believe that they have any coherent objective other than striking a moral and self-righteous pose. China has paid a reputational price for its misguided policies in Xinjiang. If abstracted from the American campaign to vilify China, that reputational price might cause the Chinese to alter their behaviour. Washington’s sanctions and exaggerated denunciations just cause China to resist desirable policy changes lest it appears to be giving in to foreign pressure while depriving [those] these measures purport to be supporting of their livelihoods and discrediting their causes by appearing to make them part of America’s broad anti-China campaign.

Q: What is Beijing talking about when it talks about Xinjiang and what is Washington – and consequently its allies – talking about when they refer to this region of China?

A: China is concerned about Islamist terrorism. The United States, despite its own counterproductive campaign against such terrorism, will not acknowledge the Chinese concern. China’s policies are both brutal and unlikely to work. But the two sides are talking past each other. Neither side is interested in the other’s views.

Q: Tibet, Hong Kong, Xinjiang. Three pawns in the containment, encirclement and destabilization strategy conducted by Western forces against Beijing? Forgive me for the brutality in the question, but to what extent is the West directly involved on the ground in these actions?

A: Not much.  Hong Kong activists became leaderless mobs that had no coherent agenda related to “two systems” but were actively attacking “one China.”  The Hong Kong legislative council was unable to pass the national security legislation the handover agreement and Basic Law required it to pass. In the end, China was goaded into direct action, with tragic results for the political freedoms of the people of Hong Kong. I note, however, that there was never “democracy” in Hong Kong. What was destroyed was not democracy but the best prospect and possibility for it.

In Tibet and Xinjiang, as in Hong Kong, well-meaning foreign support has encouraged levels of dissent and resistance to Chinese rule that cannot succeed or be sustained. One thinks of Western encouragement of Hungarians and Czechs to rebel against Soviet control. These were cheap shots that ended up badly. No one will go to war or take effective action to support self-determination or secession from China by Xinjiang, Tibet, or Hong Kong. Leading their inhabitants to expect such support is morally reprehensible.

Q: Since we have made a small digression on Xinjiang, I also ask you what opportunities the Belt and Road Initiative offers for the world.

A: Connectivity is not any nation’s exclusive means of conducting trade, facilitating development, or building influence. A road or a port can be used by anyone the host country desires or permits. The Belt and Road Initiative is one guided bilaterally by governments, companies, and individuals in China and other participants, not China alone. It should be welcomed, not feared. If the West is concerned that connectivity will gain undue influence in participating countries for China, it should compete to gain influence for itself, not try to obstruct projects that other countries find useful and that China is prepared to join in planning, financing, and executing.

Q: Recently, the new Chinese ambassador to Washington has been appointed, Qin Gang it is said that he is very loyal to Xi Jinping. What will his task be, what are his goals and what difficulties will he encounter in his work and on what basis will he relate to US power?

A: Ambassador Qin has clearly expressed a desire to restore a rational, mutually agreeable relationship between his country and the United States.

Q: In your view and experience, in the long run will the world be dominated by a hegemonic power, will it be bipolar or multipolar? And in the near future, what will be the role of Russia and the European Union?

A: I do not believe there will be a single world order in future but one that is multidimensionally multipolar. Countries may have poor political relations but strong economic ties. They may have military relationships that suit common interests but be rivals technologically or otherwise. Etc., etc. In some dimensions, one country may be preeminent.  In others, another country. I foresee a system in which many actors will have the ability to manoeuvre, cooperate, and compete. The foundations of Russian strength are declining but Moscow is showing that it can be an astute diplomatic player in the new context. Europe should be uniting but is increasingly disunited. Only Europeans can decide the characteristics and dimensions of their future role.

Q: I ask you one last thing. How important is the study of classical geopolitics (with all its derivations and evolutions) in order to understand the complex dynamics of this interconnected world?

A: Very important. We are returning to a world of fluid international relationships not seen since the era of the classic balance of power in 19th century Europe. We will need to reacquire the diplomatic nimbleness and abilities of the great statesmen of that era.

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
Senior Fellow, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University

By email

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Scroll to Top