China’s situation in the aftermath of the Tiananmen crackdown is eerily similar to how things stand at the moment. Photo: Reuters
Shi Jiangtao
Shi Jiangtao

Echoes of the past in the uncertain future of China-US ties

  • The insight of American sinologist Michel Oksenberg is just as relevant today as it was 30 years ago
  • Beijing is facing anti-Chinese sentiment in the West and leaders feel under siege in ways similar to the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown
For the community of China watchers, making predictions about where Chinese foreign policy is headed is a favourite way to start the year. But reading Chinese political tea leaves is notoriously challenging, even for Communist Party insiders.
With China again entering a protracted period of uncertainty comparable to the aftermath of the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, some of the advice offered by American sinologist Michel Oksenberg 30 years ago is still relevant today.

In an article in Foreign Affairs magazine in 1991 called “The China Problem”, Oksenberg closely examined China’s domestic and international conditions and dissected the thinking of Chinese leaders. More importantly, he raised a set of salient questions that can still be asked today to understand what the future holds for US-China ties.

Among the biggest questions was whether the leaders of the United States and China are locked in a Greek tragedy, unable to act on the vision that brought the countries together in the 1970s.

Many others, including realist strategist John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Harvard professor Graham Allison, have asked similar questions, with Allison warning in 2017 of the risk of the two countries falling into the Thucydides trap of confrontation between a rising power and a ruling one.

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Oksenberg, who played a key role in bringing about the normalisation of the US-China ties in 1979, was not only an American authority on China, but before his death in 2001, he was also a mentor to many leading China experts including Elizabeth Economy and David Shambaugh. In 2002, former US president Jimmy Carter credited Oksenberg as the person who “changed my life – and changed the life of this country, and to some degree changed the life of every citizen of China”.

His insights are applicable today, with China’s situation in the aftermath of the Tiananmen crackdown eerily similar to how things stand at the moment.

Amid soaring anti-Chinese sentiment in the West, moderate voices advocating continued engagement on both sides were on the defensive and Chinese leaders perceived themselves as under siege.

Frightened by the collapse of the Soviet Union and communist rule in Eastern Europe, China’s top leaders “lost much of their self-assurance” and viewed Washington’s sanctions and criticism as an American design to “subvert their rule and to bring about the peaceful evolution of their system”.

Some of Oksenberg’s observations about Chinese leaders and their advisers ring especially true. According to Oksenberg, those leaders were hypersensitive to national sovereignty, usually held mercantilist views of international trade and believed interstate relations were a zero-sum game. They also saw a hierarchy of power as inevitable, with powerful nations exploiting the weak.

He warned that the inherent problems with China’s political system, such as the lack of orderly arrangements for succession and the fragmenting of China’s authoritarian system, would not only undermine China’s own development but also pose challenges to US-China relations.

He questioned the assumptions about the inevitability of China’s democratisation, saying “Washington should not expect Beijing immediately to accept all of its views, nor should the entire relationship await Chinese compliance with American concepts of human rights”.

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“China’s domestic conditions, its international setting and diverging Sino-American perceptions of international affairs will make China’s top leaders even more frustrating to deal with in the future than they were in the 1980s,” Oksenberg warned.

He also cautioned that despite America’s limited influence on China’s internal affairs, Washington had never ceased trying to “produce a China more to its liking”, an enterprise that had always ended in massive failure.

“The United States still seems trapped in the cycle of a ‘love-hate’ relationship with China. It seems reluctant to acknowledge the obvious: China represents a distinct and proud civilisation whose search for modernity will continue to be punctuated by calamity and tragedy and whose necessary incorporation into world affairs will require years of effort.”