Greater US-China ties can cut both ways

Children posing for photos with the Chinese national flag in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
Children posing for photos with the Chinese national flag in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. PHOTO: AFP

LAST week's meeting in California between the presidents of China and the United States won the world's attention. It was convenient for Mr Xi Jinping to stop by after Mexico and it was significant that the meeting was held on American soil. The chance for the two men to get to know each other better is clearly significant for the two countries' future relationship. The fact that the two have different interests, however, cannot be wished away.

It has been easy for the popular media in each country to portray the other by highlighting what its peoples expect to hear. For example, many Chinese see America as weakening: its liberal capitalist economy is failing, President Barack Obama and his political opponents are fatally divided, and the military planners are determined to contain China in order for America to remain forever dominant in Asia.

At its core, US national interest leads its leaders to think in Cold War terms. Hence the system of alliances from that period is being kept to ensure that ultimately the communist system in China will collapse as it did in the Soviet Union two decades earlier. Most Chinese believe that this factor explains much of what the US is doing in Asia today.

Where the picture of China is concerned, most people in the US are now told that there are many kinds of Chinese. While the new set of leaders under Mr Xi are framing the Chinese dream, greedy Chinese stop at nothing to make money, they abuse power in a system without a strong legal framework, and the weak and poor who are regularly cheated and bullied are struggling to fight back.

Then there are those who are none of the above but care deeply for China's once great civilisation, people who hope for a China where people would once again be honest, loyal and creative. They, their fathers and grandfathers, many of them now in think-tanks, universities and some NGOs, have been subject to long periods of political turmoil and false hopes. Nevertheless, they still believe that they can shape a better country for their descendants.

Many Americans believe they have a duty to help the Chinese reform their political system. They underestimate how complex such a task is for people who can rarely agree on what best to do. Most Chinese have been through mind-bending changes as waves of ideas introduced from abroad have been used to wash away the topsoil of China's heritage.

Even the divisions among them today are couched in foreign terms like Left and Right, New Left and Liberals, words that often hide more than reveal what their advocates really want. Deng Xiaoping had asked his people to feel for the stones as they cross the river. He did not, and perhaps could not, say what was on the other shore.

When the future is unclear, it has been wise to concentrate on developing the economy to enable the people to become better off. After that, there will be time enough to define what people really want. However, sooner than anyone expected, the country is proclaimed the second greatest economy in the world. All of a sudden, it has moved from being populous and poor to being both admired and feared. Assuming the transformation is real, who in China are ready for the unexpected changes?

Certainly, Mr Xi and his colleagues are adjusting as best they can while they guard their power. Those who profit from the system support it to enrich themselves as quickly as possible while good times last. The tough-minded who flexed their muscles within the country now believe it is time to do the same abroad.

There remain still the Left, the Liberal, the Moderate and those teachers and students who dream dreams and try to do their duty as thought-leaders. Incredible though it might seem, many are still committed to sift through the debris of past ideals of revolution and restoration. They are looking to find new formulas that may inspire their political leaders to make China a modern civilised nation.

The mix of ideas is drawn from varieties of European socialism and constitutionalism, American liberalism and traditional Chinese statism and familism. There is no single set of values to believe in, and it has not been possible for any particular blend to gain ultimate favour.

In this context, the Chinese Communist Party is unwilling, if not unable, to change direction from what has been successful for more than 30 years. The current leaders are willing to mend the flaws in the current system, and there is pervasive nostalgia among them for the time when the young were idealistic and self-sacrificing. But there is also fear that anything beyond doing that would threaten all that has been gained so far.

The alert among them can see that the mood outside about where China is going has changed. It has shifted away from the sympathy for the failed experiment rescued by Deng Xiaoping and the incredible poverty of a billion people. Instead, there is rising alarm at the new capacity of the Chinese to buy, if not dictate, their way to influence and potential dominance.

That has been the way Chinese and many others saw the US not long ago. When paired with the US, China is now likely to be seen in the same light. If that happens, words of assurance to each other from Mr Obama and Mr Xi will not be enough. The righteous tones of powerful countries cannot but come across as intimidating.

A greater engagement between the two countries is helpful, but it is a double-edged sword. Certainly, better understanding between leaders reduces the risk of greater distrust. But it could also expect China to deliver more than it is ready to do. And, not least, as the engagement is strengthened, expectations of each other will increase.

Can the US demonstrate respect for China's regional interests? Are the Chinese leaders prepared for the necessary reforms their people now expect?

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is chairman of the East Asian Institute and professor at the National University of Singapore.