National Security & Defense

It’s Time to Rethink How We Talk about China

President Obama with Chinese president Xi Jinping in Beijing, Novemer 2014.

Amid the spin and obfuscation of political Washington, it is easy to forget that words matter and have real consequences for U.S. foreign policy. Yet in its public statements on the relationship most likely to define global politics in the 21st century — America’s relationship with China — the U.S. government has long seemed like a detached observer.

Years ago, prominent China watcher James Mann spoke of the “lexicon” that defines the Sino–American relationship. Disturbingly, that lexicon has far too often featured a “Made in China” label, as U.S. policymakers eagerly embrace Chinese exports while ignoring Beijing’s appropriation of language to serve its own purposes at home, in Asia, and around the world.

The words American leaders use to describe issues of contention with China should, first and foremost, reflect U.S. interests and values. China’s unprecedented reclamation activities in the South China Sea, totaling roughly 2,000 acres in recent years, fly in the face of international law and norms, and mock the United States’ firm belief that territorial disputes should be peaceably resolved. Yet we repeatedly hear that China is constructing new “islands,” a word Beijing itself uses to describe what should more appropriately be called “man-made features.” This question of semantics has real-world implications. An “artificial feature” is a unilateral land grab. An “island” connotes the internationally accepted twelve nautical miles of territorial waters, along with an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of another 200 nautical miles. Blithely accepting China’s preferred language gives unwarranted legitimacy to Beijing’s destabilizing behavior.

RELATED: It’s Time to Stop Pretending Beijing Is a Partner

The same can be said of how we describe the U.S. response to that destabilizing behavior. American policymakers have spoken of the need for the U.S. Navy to support “freedom of navigation” in waters China has claimed as its own — waters where fishing and commercial vessels from neighboring states are regularly harassed by the PRC. But the threat from China’s lawlessness is more profound than the mere obstruction of foreign boats: Beijing’s extravagant territorial claims and militarized response to its neighbors’ concerns reflect a serious challenge to “freedom of the seas,” which legally encompasses activities on, above, and below the surface of the ocean.

For years, and under administrations of both parties, the United States has calibrated its rhetoric to avoid unduly “provoking” or “antagonizing” Beijing. It seems that the same Chinese leaders who ruthlessly suppress internal dissent and engage in a systematic campaign of territorial aggrandizement are too sensitive to hear open and honest pronouncements from U.S. officials. In deference to these sensitivities, Washington regularly engages in a series of linguistic contortions at the expense of our longstanding friends in the region and of U.S. values like human rights and religious liberty.

Undue American concern about Chinese sensitivities on issue after issue is encouraging unacceptable behavior and giving pause to our friends and allies.

While the U.S. is legally obligated to provide Taiwan the weapons needed to ensure its survival, the U.S. government regularly forces Taipei into a series of small-scale humiliations in the hopes of buying Beijing’s “goodwill.” When Taiwan’s president recently traveled to the United States, he was officially “transiting” the country en route to another destination; permitting him to “visit” the country in which he spent several days would be too much for Beijing. And, of course, the elected leader and senior-most officials of a longstanding U.S. partner are never allowed within a hundred miles of Washington, D.C. Unlike their counterparts from every other nation, Taiwan’s military attachés can’t even wear their country’s uniform while in the United States. The list of indignities imposed upon a close partner in the name of placating China is as long as it is ridiculous.

Worse yet, in the name of a “stable” relationship, the United States has virtually abandoned its longstanding public opposition to China’s oppressive domestic policies and to its grotesque human-rights record. From the persecution of Tibetans to the widespread reprisals against lawyers who dare to confront Beijing in court, to the repression of Christians who choose to worship outside one of China’s state-sanctioned churches, China’s authoritarianism has only grown, while U.S. opposition has become nearly invisible. American values of individual rights and personal freedom are seen by officials in Washington as too threatening to the Chinese regime for public discussion. Once again, Beijing has set the terms of the debate.

RELATED: American Passivity in the Face of Beijing’s Cyberattack Encourages More Chinese Aggression

If American meekness on issues of both national interest and fundamental values is intended to produce Chinese cooperation and amity, it clearly hasn’t worked. While close U.S. partners are marginalized, China is using economic, political, and military levers to coerce its neighbors toward its preferred outcomes. While Washington soft-pedals concerns about Chinese human-rights abuses, Beijing is still constructing artificial formations on which it is placing artillery and military runways. While Washington follows China’s lead on the everyday terminology of the relationship, Beijing threatens to establish an air-defense identification zone in the South China Sea.

#related#China respects strength, and undue American concern about Chinese sensitivities on issue after issue is encouraging unacceptable behavior and giving pause to our friends and allies. The U.S.–China relationship is multifaceted and immensely complicated, and nuance is the coin of the realm in relations between Great Powers. Yet if we truly hope to sustain the American-led international order that has served the Asia-Pacific region well for the last three generations, U.S. policymakers must begin speaking clearly about the challenge China poses to that order and about the interests and values that should animate any successful American policy in the decades ahead. Words matter, and they should reflect who we are and what we believe.

— Representative J. Randy Forbes (R., Va.) is co-chairman of the Congressional China Caucus and chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces.

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