Vice President Biden’s trip to China would have been as forgettable as most high-level U.S.-China dialogues were it not for the Beijing Brawl and the Press-Conference Pusher, which revealed the biggest challenge we face in dealing with China: its attitude. When the People’s Liberation Army basketball team started stomping on Georgetown University players after what even a casual fan could see was the most biased officiating since Roy Jones Jr. was robbed of a gold medal in boxing at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the imperative for the Chinese to humble their visitors was evident. Just as egregiously, Chinese security officials started physically shoving foreign reporters and then White House and U.S. Embassy staff out of the conference room where Biden was giving his prepared — and hence expected — remarks along with Xi Jinping, the putative next leader of China.
The optics of the trip now set, the rest of Biden’s visit only confirmed in the eyes of some the relative decline of the United States and rise of China. One Asian observer wrote that Biden came as a “supplicant,” not quite the image of building a personal relationship with Xi that the White House had hoped for.
For the past several years, China watchers have engaged in “Beijingology,” the successor to the Cold War Kremlinology, wherein every pundit worth his salt tried to explain what was going on in Moscow through supposed clues such as who stood next to whom on top of Lenin’s Tomb. Like priests in ancient Rome, today’s Beijingologists divine through signs and portents, though not yet bird entrails, what the leaders inside the Forbidden City are really thinking. Every action must have some grand ulterior plan; every slight, like those which marred Barack Obama’s 2009 trip to Beijing, is a move in a game of geopolitical go whereby China not only is increasing the territory it controls on the board of the Indo-Pacific, but is simultaneously reducing American maneuvering space.
Yet if we see all of China’s leaders as budding Henry Kissingers, we miss that China has an attitude problem as clear as the Bayi Military Rockets basketball team’s anger-management problem. China is like a lottery winner who goes from being the weak and regularly dissed George McFly in Back to the Future to being Al Czervik, Rodney Dangerfield’s nouveau-riche country-club boor in Caddyshack.
China may indeed want to supplant America on the world stage, but it is doing so at least as much through an unpredictable, often reflexive, attitude that is both opportunistic and emotional as it is through any master orchestrated approach. How else to explain China’s foreign minister telling Southeast Asian nations that China was big and they were small, the diplomatic equivalent of saying, “We really hope nothing happens to your nice new car”? Or Beijing’s refusal to let U.S. Navy ships in distress haul into the nearest port? Or Beijing’s choosing the visit of America’s secretary of defense as the best moment to unveil its new stealth fighter?
Beijing’s plan since the early 1980s has been clear: Get strong. But in its success, China has developed the idea that the world’s rules don’t apply to it. Imagine a China that respected human rights, civil liberties, and the rule of law. A China that pressured North Korea, Burma, Sudan, and Iran to behave responsibly, instead of acting as a sugar daddy to them. A China that protected intellectual property rights and upheld its contracts in foreign joint ventures. A China that didn’t point more than a thousand missiles at Taiwan. Instead, today we have a China that is undermining the global system that allowed it to get rich and powerful, a China that now feels a sense of grievance every time it is called to account for its disruptive behavior.
Yet in another way that psychologists love, we can see that China’s attitude stems not from its strength, but from its weaknesses. The Communist party is a brittle oligarchy distrusted if not hated by millions and millions of the people it rules. Thousands of protests and revolts reverberate through China each year, while ethnic and religious separatists in Xinjiang, Tibet, and other regions keep alive the great fear of civil war and the splintering of the country. When China’s rulers say their country is still weak and developing, they mean it. They know just how tenuous their hold on power is, and how much they depend on continued economic growth. Hence, trash talking about the U.S. and smacking down some American college basketball players (along with jailing Nobel Prize winners) is a way of showing everyone that this is a country not to be trifled with.
Of course, Washington is encouraging China’s attitude by ignoring its bad behavior, and it is making it easy for Beijing to act the responsible world power (and lecture us) by bankrupting our country and refusing to recognize it. When we follow that up by cutting hundreds of billions of dollars from the budgets of our Navy and Air Force, which keep the big peace in Asia, then the Chinese seem to be making a pretty good calculation that they just have to wait us out for a while before we’re too weak to oppose whatever whim they have on a given day. While they’re at it, they may as well kick sand in our faces if that will get us to go home more quickly.
Joe Biden’s trip and the China-U.S. Basketball Friendship Match simply confirmed for the Chinese that attitude is what you need. Maybe in this media-driven world they’re right. But more likely they’re wrong, because if you don’t have the seasoning to know when to pack it in, someone someday will call your bluff. And that may be a very messy day.
— Michael Auslin is a resident scholar, and a director of Asian and Security Studies, at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations (Harvard, 2011).