HONG KONG — As the United States debates the security implications of the Cox report on Chinese spying in the U.S., and as China continues to deny the spying and to denounce the NATO attack on the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, it is easy to lose sight of a basic reality: There is a remarkable symmetry in the current deterioration in Sino-American state-to-state relations.
The U.S. increasingly sees China as being at fault in the downward plunge of ties, even when the evidence is less than compelling. China increasingly sees the U.S. as the perennial troublemaker, even when the U.S. merely reacts to events, as with the new U.S.-Japan security guidelines or when the U.S. concludes a new status-of-forces agreement with the Philippines.
As the U.S. debates these allegations of spying, China is seen as increasingly unreliable. As the upper echelons of the Chinese government and communist party debate China’s increasingly doubtful accession to the World Trade Organization, the U.S. is increasingly seen by important factions within the Chinese Communist Party as being untrustworthy.
In Washington, Congress is increasingly asserting itself in relation to China policy. In Beijing, the indications are that Li Peng, the chairman of the National People’s Congress and second-ranked CCP member, is increasingly assertive in relation to policy toward the U.S.
In both capitals, hardliners are increasingly influential regarding Sino-American relations, though whether they will end up making policy on it remains an open question. But in both capitals postures are being struck, and assertions are being made more according to domestic political imperatives rather than to trans-Pacific realities and careful calculations.
Slowly but surely, Washington is succumbing to an “orange obsession,” to borrow a witty concept from the Wall Street Journal’s China bureau chief Marcus Brauchli.
He sees the orange obsession as being a mixture of American yellow peril fears and Red-menace phobia.
As the Cox report suggests that 3,000 Chinese-owned mainly high-tech companies in the U.S., and most Chinese visitors to America, are all somehow associated with Chinese spying plots, it comes dangerously close to reviving old yellow peril reflexes. The report sensibly reminds Americans what they were in danger of forgetting — that China is ruled by the Chinese Communist Party — but amid the democratic clamor, there could be simplistic recourse to the Red menace reactions of yesteryear.
Meanwhile, in Beijing, the powers-that-be long ago succumbed to Red paranoia, mainly as a result of the massive 1989 demonstrations across China implanting two profound fears. One is the CCP fear of losing power and the second is the CCP fear that any political reform might result in its loss of control. Since the Americans cannot help advocating both human rights and political reform, Chinese “Americanphobia” mixes in with the Red paranoia. Since, for the CCP leadership, the Red paranoia increasingly mixes with the white Americanphobia, it may eventually produce a “pink obsession.”
The good news is that for both nations the sheer weight of Sino-American people-to-people and business-to-business relationships could end up inducing a renewed sense of realism in the way China and the U.S. view each other.
But while there is never any shortage of apologists for China in the U.S., who even now have little difficulty making their voices heard, there are relatively few apologists for the U.S. in China, and they are usually silent. Critically, in both countries, a clear-sighted political leadership capable of reversing the downward spiral in Sino-American ties is missing.
Ironically, both U.S. President Bill Clinton and his Chinese counterpart Jiang Zemin almost certainly, and with reason, see current Sino-American controversies in their respective capitals as being aimed against them. They are both more worried about their personal political survival, rather than taking the firm, and perhaps unpopular, positions that combating the orange and pink obsessions really requires.
It is not merely that domestic politics in China and the U.S. are driving the two nations apart. The present crisis in the relationship amounts to much more than that.
Obviously, as China treats American allies like the Philippines and Japan with disdain, and even attacks the U.S. for having orchestrated the 1989 student demonstrations in China, it is once again manifesting its renowned Middle Kingdom complex, the belief that it is the center of the universe. An enduring strand in China’s Middle Kingdom complex is the inability to see any other point of view except its own.
Yet, as the U.S. lurches toward its orange obsession, it, too, is displaying a Middle Kingdom complex, seeing itself as the center of the universe, the lone superpower viewing a complex world through the convoluted and incestuous politics inside the Beltway. An enduring strand in America’s Middle Kingdom complex is the inability to see the world in the way that other important nations view it.
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