As the jet lag fades (mostly) from my first trip back to China in nearly three and a half years, a few fuzzy impressions are now coming into sharper focus.
Resignation is at the top of my list. For the broad consensus of Chinese I met with during my March 23 to 28 visit to Beijing, the air was heavy with a grim sense of resignation over the US-China conflict. This was true of government officials, academics, business executives, and students who I spoke with at the China Development Forum and at several other functions during my trip.
By resignation, I don’t mean a deep understanding of the source of the problem. To the contrary, most seem puzzled as to the sudden sharp deterioration in the US-China relationship over the past five years—the trade war that quickly morphed into a tech war and now a new cold war. But they were especially troubled by the ominous turn of events over the past eight months, starting with the Pelosi visit to Taiwan and continuing through the balloon fiasco, the cancellation of Secretary Blinken’s visit to Beijing, the Blinken-Wang confrontation in Munich, the extreme China bashing on display in the US House of Representatives, and the McCarthy quid pro quo of receiving Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on a transit visit to California.
The China consensus now believes that there is very little that can be done to arrest this worrisome downward spiral in the world’s most important bilateral relationship. The question I was asked the most last week in Beijing was, “How could this this have happened so quickly?” While they accept the notion that the relationship has always been challenging, they had clung to the idea that reason would eventually prevail and that the two superpowers would find a way to work out their differences. Trump’s tariffs of 2018 were obviously a wake-up call. The subsequent chain of events has now dispelled any semblance of hope.
But resignation speaks to a different dimension of conflict—the acceptance that it is here to stay and that there is very little that can be done to arrest the escalation, let alone find a path to conflict resolution. Unwilling or unable to neutralize a seemingly intractable conflict with the United States, the Chinese leadership is now focused on other things—economic recovery, a new round of “opening up” reforms, new initiatives in global governance, a geostrategic partnership with Russia, and a deepening of the ideological commitment to Xi Jinping Thought.
It is certainly China’s prerogative to shape its own agenda. But I am left with the uncomfortable sense that the Chinese leadership is now struggling to reconcile its core goals of prosperity and global stature with the mounting conflict with the United States. In doing so, they are all but dismissing an important tradeoff between conflict and prosperity. Washington, of course, may be ignoring the same pitfalls of denial.
Acceptance is often the first step to solving tough problems. But that does not appear to be the case today—at least, not yet. As China shrugs its shoulders in resignation and gets on with its own agenda, the case for conflict resolution remains more elusive than ever. That made for very interesting discussions of the plan I describe in Accidental Conflict.
There is, of course, a dark side to resignation—of a China that has given up hope and is now preparing for a far more dangerous phase of conflict escalation—kinetic military action. Fortunately, I didn’t pick up any such sentiment on my recent trip in Beijing. But just the thought, reinforced by the recent bellicosity on the US Congress, adds to the lingering sleep deprivation of jet lag.
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