Interviews | Diplomacy | East Asia

Harry Harding on the Rapidly Changing US-China Relationship

What happened to U.S.-China relations? Professor Harding offers his thoughts on the past, present and future.

Shannon Tiezzi
By Juan Zhang and for
Harry Harding on the Rapidly Changing US-China Relationship
Credit: Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead

The Diplomat and the U.S.-China Perception Monitor recently had a joint interview on the topic of U.S.-China relations with Professor Harry Harding of the University of Virginia.

Harding is a specialist on Asia and U.S.-Asian relations. His major publications include “Organizing China: The Problem of Bureaucracy, 1949-1966”; “China’s Second Revolution: Reform after Mao”; “A Fragile Relationship: the United States and China since 1972”; and the chapter on the Cultural Revolution in the Cambridge History of China.

Below are Harding’s thoughts on the state of U.S.-China relations, from the decline of the engagement policy to the COVID-19 fallout.

What explains the rapid decline in U.S.-China relations over the course of 2020? How much of the current decline can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic?

I think some of the decline in US-China relations can be attributed to the pandemic. There are some polls in the United States showing that a significant number of Americans blame China as being the origin of the pandemic. They say that China didn’t act quickly enough to prevent it spreading outside its borders to other countries. Now, China itself is saying that it might weaponize some vaccines that it develops. In other words, it will favor some friendly countries in distributing the vaccine and punish unfriendly countries by denying it. The same was said about personal protective equipment in an earlier stage of the pandemic.

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I should also add that China’s reluctance to have an early independent outside investigation of the origins of the virus inside China has contributed to the impact of COVID on the U.S.-China relationship. But I have to emphasize that this was simply adding something to a much wider set of concerns here in the United States. Looking back over a longer period of time, of course, there’s been the trade dispute, the question of the access to the Chinese market for both exporters and foreign investors in China, China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, its threatening military activities around Taiwan, the proposed law that would have allowed the extradition of alleged criminals from Hong Kong to China, and the national security legislation Beijing imposed on Hong Kong. It’s been one thing after another.

Different groups in the United States have been interested in different issues. Some of them are concerned about human rights. My students, for example, have been concerned for some time about Xinjiang. I’m a little surprised by this because this was not an area of much concern before. Others who know Hong Kong, where I am right now, are more concerned about Hong Kong. It’s a very long list of concerns, and COVID has simply added another item to that list.

Chinese officials often claim the Trump administration’s harsh rhetoric towards China is simply a case of a few politicians seeking personal gains during an election year. Would you agree with this? What are the prospects for U.S.-China relations in the post-election period?

If Chinese officials really believe that this is just a matter of a few politicians, basically referring to Trump and some Republican senators who are seeking personal gain, they are getting very bad analysis from those who are providing it. It is a much bigger problem than that. I said a minute ago that it’s not just COVID, and I can add now it’s not just Trump either. There has been a sea change in American attitudes towards China over the last few years. And again, it depends on who in the United States you are looking at. I think in the analytic community, both inside and outside government, a major turning point was the global financial crisis of 2008, when there was a growing sense in the United States that Chinese analysts and Chinese leaders were seeing a major shift in the balance of power internationally, away from the United States and toward China.

Of course, America was the source, the origin of the global financial crisis. It was affected by it very severely. China managed to protect itself from it quite effectively and it recovered fairly quickly. The balance of power was shifting, as was the balance of what might be called normative power. The American model of liberalization, especially in finance, came under very sharp and appropriate criticism at that time. So, China was already becoming more confident and more assertive and some people in the United States were picking that up as early as 2008. It intensified after 2012 with the emergence of a new leadership in China. The reassessment of China then spread to the policy community. I sensed the change of attitudes in the policy community around 2014, and especially in 2015. More recently, it has been very evident in public opinion more broadly.

The percentage of Americans having an unfavorable view of China was 12 percent around 2012 and then began to increase dramatically, reaching 47 percent in 2017. And then it soared to 66 percent this year. So a very large majority of Americans now have an unfavorable view of China. Another way to put it is that the previous low point in American attitudes towards China occurred in 1989 and 1990 after the Tiananmen crisis. We basically have wiped out all of the improvement in American public opinion towards China that occurred very slowly after that. To be sure, there are some differences: Young people are somewhat less critical of China than older people and Democrats are somewhat less critical than Republicans. But even in those categories, a majority now have unfavorable views of China.

One of China’s soothing scenarios about the future of U.S.-China relations is that it’s all about Trump or, as you said, a small number of politicians who are using it for their electoral advantage. Unfortunately, that’s not true.

What will happen if Biden is elected? Another soothing scenario is that Biden will make everything go back to normal. Unfortunately, the new normal is now quite critical of China. I think there will be differences between Biden and Trump. In fact, I think China might properly be more concerned about Biden than about Trump, because I think that Biden will have a smarter strategy for competing with China. He will see the need to form closer partnerships with our allies in dealing with some of the challenges presented by China. He’ll focus on the need to restore the vitality of the American economy and make the American democratic institutions work better. I think that he will return to a smarter approach to competing with China, but he will not give up that competition altogether.

Where did things go wrong with the old engagement policy? If China works on issues related to reciprocity, do you think two countries could go back to some form of enhanced engagement policy?

Originally, in the mid-1990s, engagement was simply a decision by the United States to resume official, and then unofficial, dialogue with China on a wide range of issues. You may remember that after the June 4th crisis of 1989, the United States cut back on almost every kind of official interaction between the United States and China. And when we did interact, it was almost entirely on the question of human rights, reflecting the American concern about what happened in Tiananmen Square on June 4th, 1989. And “comprehensive engagement” – that was the original term – meant resuming interaction at various levels with the Chinese government and with various sectors of Chinese society on a wide range of issues, not just human rights. I think that in that sense of interaction, discussion and negotiation, engagement is always going to be there. It is inevitable and it is necessary.

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In addition, but as you just implied, engagement then began to include a wider range of strategies. Some of these were good ideas that were not well implemented. Others I think were simply naive, and I’m writing a book about this. It’s hard to summarize in a few words, but I think that the most naive vision, and something that we’ve seen again and again in the history of American relations, is that if we simply interact with China, not just government to government, but rather economy to economy, and society to society, then ultimately China is going to become just like the United States.

This is a vision that Americans have had ever since the 1920s and 1930s. Some people call it the missionary approach in American policy towards China; then it was largely religious. We were going to convert Chinese to Christianity. But over the years it took on a much more secular form. The best example I always think of is a Nebraska senator named Kenneth Wherry who summarized some of this in the phrase, “With God’s help [so there is still the religious component], we will lift Shanghai up, up, ever up, until it’s just like Kansas City.” Kansas City was at the time one of the most modern cities in the United States, and that was his vision for Shanghai. That was naive then, and it remains naive now. China’s history is very different; the political values that history has created, the need for a strong government to protect against famine, against external threats and against domestic chaos, are very deeply ingrained in Chinese political culture.

But America is organized around different principles; our fear is not of a weak government, but of a strong government and government tyranny. Our values are individual, not collective. And unless there is a major value change in both countries which I think would be unlikely, or else very far off, I think it’s very difficult to imagine that China will become just like the United States, or the U.S. like China. The idea that international issues would drive us together, whether it’s COVID or terrorism or any other major issue, or that economic interdependence would be a solid base for the relationship, was also naïve because once a competition starts then the question becomes not just what do we both gain from that cooperation, but who gains more.

One way I like to explain it to the Chinese friends is that the Chinese often talk about win-win relationships. And yes, in academic game theory, where both sides win in absolute terms, that should be a favorable outcome. Each side is better off with the cooperation than it was before. But a more sophisticated game theory raises the question of relative gain. Who wins more? That has been the problem in the U.S.-China relationship, Many Americans have felt that China is winning more than the United States, and equally important that it’s winning by unfair strategies and tactics in its game. Some cynics have turned “win-win” around and defined it as “China wins once, and then China wins again,” and then keeps winning round after round of the game. So, I think that comprehensive engagement was based on some theories of international relations and human behavior that have been proven to be somewhat naive.

The challenge now is to accept that this is going to be mainly a competitive relationship, but then decide how we can we get the benefits of a healthy competition, and prevent it from going off into very costly forms of competition. Arms races can be risky and expensive. It’s even worse when competition degenerates into open confrontation, whether it’s economic or even worse, military.

In an interview that you did in 2017, you said there were a number of countries that were pursuing quiet balancing against China. You hoped that the Chinese leadership could see this and make adjustments accordingly. Three years later, has this counterweight grown stronger? Do you think that China has made any adjustments since then in its foreign policies?

Yes, China has seen the quiet balancing, and it has made adjustments, but the adjustments have quite frankly been in the wrong direction. They have involved doubling down on using pressure rather than conciliation to deal with issues with the United States, and especially with smaller countries. That reflects one of the problems with how China views what motivates other countries.

It believes that the promise of economic benefit, the threat of military pressure, and sometimes the threat of economic sanctions is entirely what motivates people. Some people have used an analogy from the game of bridge, which of course was Deng Xiaoping’s favorite card game, identifying which suit of cards are trumps. To stress the use of force is to say clubs are trumps. You hit somebody or threaten to do so and that’s how you get what you want. The Chinese have gone one step further, saying if the trump suit is not clubs, it’s diamonds; it’s money. In other words, it’s material threat and material reward that motivate people.

Of course those things – fear and reward – are powerful motivators, but they aren’t the only ones. The suit that is missing from this analysis, of course, is hearts. Hearts you could see as values and identities, and basically that’s where China does not, I think, give sufficient weight. China is still, in this sense, highly Marxist and materialist. Dialectical materialism is still very much a part of Chinese thinking especially, but maybe not exclusively, for those who are trained in Marxist-Leninist ideology.

I think that the Chinese have never really understood the rise of local identity in Taiwan or Hong Kong. They just don’t seem to understand why so many people in both these places, despite their ethnicity, family background, language and culture, are saying that they are not Chinese. Why is that? It’s values. They now have different values that are, some would say, post-modern. These are the values that people more often begin to incorporate into their lives after their basic needs for personal security and personal material survival are met. These are values of freedom of speech, creativity, freedom of travel, or many other individualistic values that I said are so important to Americans as well. So I think that is what Beijing just doesn’t seem to understand; it thinks that either clubs or diamonds are the way to play the game with the United States, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. That’s part of the answer but not the whole answer. To emphasize only those two, especially in their coercive form, is counterproductive; it gets exactly the opposite effect of what you want. It’s important to give sufficient attention to the importance of hearts, values and soft power.