I have spent the last few days in Beijing, attending meetings and dinners. The single most striking thing I have encountered is the response to a speech U.S. Vice President Mike Pence delivered at the Hudson Institute in October. Many people interpreted the speech as an indication that the United States has decided to significantly deepen its dispute with China, moving from economic issues to a general confrontation some likened to a new Cold War. There was also an expectation that, during a meeting scheduled between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump at the G-20 summit later this month, some paths to accommodation might emerge.
I was surprised by the idea that the U.S.-China dispute is deepening. From my point of view, it was already deep, considering their many issues over trade and the South China Sea. I found Pence’s speech unexceptional. It criticized China on grounds the Chinese have heard many times before and ended with several paragraphs on the need for accommodation and hope that both sides will work toward this end. The Chinese were reading the speech with meticulous care, isolating certain sentences and words that were interpreted to mean that the U.S. intended to enter into a new Cold War.
This incident reminded me of the real Cold War with the Soviet Union. Each side, not really certain how power was constructed in the other, read every word and reviewed every photograph that came out of its adversary, trying to determine where power lay and how that would change its strategy. Sometimes very strange conclusions were drawn. When President Richard Nixon was forced from office, the Soviets believed that a coup d’etat had taken place, engineered by opponents of Nixon’s policy of detente with the Soviet Union. I recall that when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, some saw the invasion, in addition to some incidents in Iran and the Persian Gulf, as an indication that Afghanistan was the preface to a Soviet move to close the Strait of Hormuz.
Each side looked at events from the standpoint of their worst fears and connected totally unconnected things to make the case. The Soviets saw intense criticism of Nixon’s Soviet policy in what they thought were influential journals (but really weren’t). When Nixon resigned, the Russian view was that it was all about them, and they marshaled the evidence to show it. During the fall of the Shah and the 1973 oil embargo, the U.S. was obsessed with the Persian Gulf, and some reasonable people thought that an invasion of Afghanistan was an appropriate preface to choking off the flow of oil from the Middle East. Each nation has its own fear, and analysts in every country look for evidence that the worst is going to happen. Watergate had nothing to do with the Soviets, and Afghanistan had nothing to do with the Persian Gulf.
The fear in China is that the United States is going to intensify the conflict. The Chinese are looking for indications that this might happen, and they found it in a speech made by the vice president. In the United States, a speech delivered by the vice president in front of a think tank wouldn’t be the venue to convey a dramatic shift. Given the politics involved, it would be managed very differently. But in China, the first hint of a policy change might well come from a fairly obscure speech. The Chinese fears found grounding in an address that didn’t really break any new ground, and that wouldn’t be the place new ground would be broken anyway.
The U.S. and the Soviet Union did find the means for creating somewhat trusted channels of communication. But the real foundation of trust is understanding the geopolitical constraints and imperatives of the other side. The Soviets were a defensive power so long as they controlled their buffer. The Americans were in a defensive posture all around the Soviet periphery. Neither was about to launch an attack, although both feared that one was coming.
In the case of China and the U.S., the Chinese interest is to maintain its essential economic relationship with the United States and to avoid triggering a naval conflict off its shores, while retaining its right to navigation. For the United States, the imperative is to develop a trade relationship that fits current realities, which are different than those of 30 years ago, and to maintain a pro-American stance on the archipelago east of China (namely, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and Singapore) to preserve American control of the Pacific.
Not everything China and the U.S. do is directed against each other, although they will believe it is. Geopolitics lays out the red lines that can’t be crossed. And that reality will not emerge from speeches and articles, even those given by high-ranking officials.
P.S.: In an email sent to readers last month, I promised to resume my Geopolitical Journeys series, but the flight to Beijing fried my brain. I will board a flight to Helsinki Friday morning and will start my series from there.