It Takes Two to Tango. But Does China Want to Dance?

From a Washington Post column by Fareed Zakaria headlined “It takes two to tango. But does China want to dance?”:

The mysterious disappearance of Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang is a timely reminder that the future of U.S.-China relations will be determined not just by U.S. policy and what is happening domestically in the United States (such as the presidential election campaign). It will be shaped also by developments in China — which at this point are opaque but troubling.

From what outsiders can tell, China is reverting to a Mao-era style of politics that we have not seen for decades. More significant than Qin’s mysterious removal from power — after the authorities attributed his absence to “health reasons” — is the doctoring of websites and news releases to expunge the foreign minister’s participation and achievements. “Who controls the past controls the future,” George Orwell wrote in his novel “1984,” and that ominous dictum seems to be the guide to China’s elite politics these days.

This is a far cry from the technocratic government that Deng Xiaoping ushered in as he reformed China in the 1980s. In those days, the Chinese political system seemed a contradiction in terms — a dictatorship that had age caps or term limits for high offices. Where else did one see this kind of limitation of authoritarian rule? Today, once again, there are no limits to the power of China’s ruler. What scholar Elizabeth Economy has called China’s “Third Revolution” (the first personified by Mao Zedong, the second by Deng, and now by Xi Jinping) is still going strong.

That third revolution is not just about domestic politics. Xi has consolidated his own power and put the Chinese Communist Party back at the center of the society, but he has also sought to present a much stronger and more assertive China to the world. Those decisions have had ripple effects across the globe, especially in Asia, where China’s neighbors have been rattled by Xi’s more aggressive posture and policies.

The United States has not handled relations with China perfectly. The Biden administration was needlessly confrontational from the outset, publicly upbraiding Beijing in their first meeting of senior officials. The United States has also maintained President Donald Trump’s tariffs on China, despite the fact that they have been expensive failures. (Remember that it is American consumers who pay for those tariffs, not the Chinese.)

Trump provided tens of billions in additional subsidies to farmers to make up for the losses they suffered because of these policies. And, for a while, it seemed that U.S. policies toward Beijing were being announced with no effort to maintain a working relationship with China, despite its status as the world’s second largest economy, a nuclear weapons power, and possessor of a U.N. Security Council veto.

But Biden has corrected course. Several of his senior officials — including the secretaries of state, commerce and the treasury, — have met with their Chinese counterparts and tried to stop the decline in relations between the two countries. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told me in an interview that world leaders have been telling him that they expect the United States and China to build a decent working relationship.

The administration is taking seriously the idea that it will restrict only a limited number of high-end technologies from being shared with China, using the metaphor of a “small yard” with a “high fence.” Even some U.S. policies that would provoke Chinese opposition — such as looming new regulations around U.S. investment in China — are now being signaled to the Chinese in advance (in that particular case by Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen).

There are still areas in which the United States could make a more serious effort. If the Biden administration wants to have productive military-to-military dialogue, maintaining Trump-era sanctions against China’s defense minister would seem an odd way to signal that desire. Far better to waive the sanctions so that the two sides can talk and avoid misunderstandings on issues such as Taiwan.

But the ball is really in China’s court. Unfortunately, Chinese policy has been marked by an assertiveness and even bellicosity that has broken sharply with the past three decades. Xi has staked out expansive claims for China in the South China Sea, increased military activity around Taiwan, clashed with India in the Himalayas, demanded that Australia cease any criticism of his country, pledged his country’s unqualified support for Moscow even as Russia’s aggression in Ukraine escalates, and has ramped up criticism of the United States.

None of these policies seem to be working. Countries around China have become far more active in countering Beijing’s influence and searching for assistance elsewhere, especially from the United States. From Japan to the Philippines to India, nations are pushing back. Will Beijing change? Is an increasingly autocratic and closed decision-making system capable of learning and adapting? Qin Gang’s mysterious removal does not suggest a positive answer.

Fareed Zakaria writes a foreign affairs column for The Post. He is also the host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS.

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