China has a choice. It can partner with a resilient, multipolar world that respects diversity, sovereignty and autonomy. Or it can undercut seven decades of peace and prosperity with its vision of a world dominated largely by itself.
Those two competing outlooks were outlined in a speech delivered on Monday by a senior Trump administration official.
“Our approach reflects a view deeply ingrained in American thinking that fair play is about genuine win-win arrangements,” said David Stilwell, US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, at an event sponsored by the Brookings Institution in Washington. “For Beijing, international relations is about hierarchy and ‘big makes right’.”
“As is increasingly apparent in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and beyond, Beijing’s idea of governance is enforcement of uniformity,” he added.
At the same time, Stilwell pushed back at the idea that Washington was forcing nations in Southeast Asia and elsewhere to choose between competing American and Chinese global visions, suggesting this was more Beijing’s approach.
“I want you to know, they won’t be forced to make such a choice by the United States,” he said. “We’re not looking to dictate to others, and we want our allies and friends not to be subject to anyone else’s dictates.”
The 35-year Air Force veteran and former defence attaché in Beijing said China was increasingly flexing its muscles and enforcing its values abroad. An example, he said, was Beijing’s extreme reaction to a single tweet by a National Basketball Association executive in early October expressing sympathy for Hong Kong protesters.
“Clearly Beijing’s campaign to compel ideological conformity doesn’t stop at China’s borders,” Stilwell said.
The administration has faced criticism for its weak ideological framing in the face of President Donald Trump’s mercurial tweets, quick policy reversals and tendency to steadily increase pressure on allies and adversaries alike as part of an apparent negotiating strategy.
Earlier administration efforts at presenting a framework have fallen short. In May, Kiron Skinner, then head of the State Department’s policy planning staff, told a Washington audience the US must brace for a “clash of civilisations” with China, “the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian”.
Skinner, formerly one of the most high-profile African-Americans in the Trump administration, was fired a few months later.
Stilwell – along with Assistant Secretary of Defence for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs Randall Schriver and United States Deputy National Security Adviser Matthew Pottinger – are seen as being among a group of senior officials working to better explain the administration’s priorities, which include using an “whole of government approach” to counter Beijing more robustly than past presidencies.
At Monday’s conference, titled “Global China: Assessing China’s Role in East Asia”, Stilwell said that his office has “had to think through intellectual trappings for what we’re trying to do”.
It remains our hope today that Beijing will return to the path of reform and convergence. More respect for pluralism, at home and abroad, would be a welcome sign
David Stilwell, US State Department official
He also offered a more nuanced tone than some of the chest-thumping statements by other administration officials that have not always played well with China’s neighbours in Southeast Asia and beyond. “It remains our hope today that Beijing will return to the path of reform and convergence,” Stilwell said. “More respect for pluralism, at home and abroad, would be a welcome sign.”
Beijing in recent years has outlined a competing “Community of Common Destiny” that stresses inclusiveness and cooperation. Jonathan Stromseth, a senior fellow at Brookings, said this has sometimes been interpreted abroad as a return to China’s ancient system of neighbouring vassal states paying tribute.
“I think that’s a little overblown and that China is trying to create some sort of broad narrative of how nations work together,” Stromseth said.
China’s more assertive actions, including the building up of islands in the South China Sea, have backfired somewhat, panellists said, causing Vietnam, the US and others to mount a more forceful response.
China has used various military, monetary and social media tactics in Taiwan to counter and work against the re-election of President Tsai Ing-wen, panellists said.
While many of these also may backfire, inadvertently bolstering support for Tsai, others can be successfully exported to Southeast Asia, said Richard Bush, a Brookings senior fellow, including its support of business executives, media and politicians supportive of its views.
“China has been quite effective in using some of these domestic influence operations” in Southeast Asia, said Lynn Kuok, a senior research fellow at the University of Cambridge. “China should be quite proud of itself.”
More from South China Morning Post:
- US diplomat David Stilwell says Washington must shed its myths about China to check Beijing’s growing influence
- Donald Trump to appoint Air Force veteran David Stilwell to senior Asian diplomatic role, vital to overseeing relations with China
This article US vision for global order is vastly different to China’s, Trump administration official says first appeared on South China Morning Post