A key part of what makes the US-China relationship so interesting to scholars, politicians, and businesspeople alike is its mercurial nature. The bilateral relationship has been full of ups and downs, at times experiencing highs of friendship and growth while at others dragged down by disappointment and mistrust. Despite the fact that both countries acknowledge the importance of the relationship and have made countless attempts to cooperate, the relationship is still often strained and the rhetoric negative.
Why has it been so difficult for the US and China to exit the competition cycle and maintain healthy, cooperative relations? One complicating factor is the pervasive presence of historical narratives. Both China and the US maintain narratives about the relationship that appear throughout the years and the state of the relationship.
An American Narrative
Throughout the history of the US-China relationship, the US has pushed a narrative of its unappreciated benevolence, which tells the story of a global leader whose generosity goes unappreciated and whose authority goes unheeded at times, leading to situations where it can be taken advantage of and harmed. Stemming from the concept of American exceptionalism, this narrative promotes the idea that the US is a moral example and leader who bestows kindness upon the rest of the world, but does not always receive the same kind of treatment in return.
The narrative paints the US as a benevolent hegemon whose efforts often go unnoticed or unappreciated, or whose benevolence creates opportunities for other countries, like China, to easily take advantage of it. For example, the US views China’s trade activities as unfair, undermining the free market, and creating advantages for China at the expense of the US. If and when China fails in some way to appreciate this benevolence, or acts in a way that opposes American values or subverts expectations, the “parent” becomes disappointed, upset, and punitive.
Thus, this narrative has two sides: the parental side that looks at China with fondness and potential, if perhaps also condescension, and the punitive side that sees an ungrateful, misbehaving China. The narrative explains to a degree the periods of high engagement and hope in the US-China relationship, as well as the periods of disengagement and disappointment. These correlate to the ever-changing nature of the relationship as well; at varying times it can be characterized more by animosity, amity, or competition.
A Chinese Narrative
Parallel to the US’ narrative, China adopts one of national humiliation, which can be divided into two parts: national humiliation and national rejuvenation. These parts combine to form the linear story that informs China’s past, present, and future. The narrative details China’s past and lays out a path for its future. It holds that China was once a great civilization that suffered unjust treatment at the hands of imperialist foreign powers during the “Century of Humiliation (百年国耻国耻),” or the period of foreign intervention by Western powers in China that took place between 1839 and 1949. Now, China must rise back to a position of global prominence and respect. This rise will be complete when it has achieved “National Rejuvenation (民族复兴战略).”
Thus, the storyline takes on a linear format: ever since the period of humiliation, China has been working toward this ultimate goal of national rejuvenation. China’s rise will be considered complete when it has reclaimed both physical and symbolic losses from the period of humiliation, returned to its rightful position of high global standing, and successfully demanded respect from the international community and other states, especially those foreign powers that interfered in China during the Century of Humiliation.
This narrative influences the way China interacts with other countries by providing a constant backdrop to interactions and events. China is sensitive to situations that could be seen as another country attempting to humiliate, control, or patronize the rising country. It can be used by the Chinese government to depict China as a victim to the wrongdoings of others, or it can be used to focus on China’s rise and justify a hardline approach with its global rivals and encourage China to refuse to back down to another power.
Clearly, these narratives are bound to clash and exacerbate tensions in the bilateral relationship. Each government uses its respective narrative to color events and encourage assumptions about the other. This can be seen in statements from officials and leaders from the time of the Opium War to today.
The Opium War itself is a key example of opposing narratives. China views the US’ involvement in its opium crisis as the beginning of its Century of Humiliation. Not only did American merchants bring opium into China during this period, but the US also gained special privileges and the use of ports through a treaty at the end of the first Opium War, riding on the privileges China was forced to grant Britain. Even today, China refers back to this as the beginning of its humiliation, calling the treaty unfair and comparing it to contemporary conflicts with the US. For example, a 2019 article in the People’s Daily News is titled, “The US Demands an ‘Unfair Treaty’ with China. Is it 1840 Again?”
However, the US has characterized this period differently. It has focused the negative aspects of the Opium War squarely on the British, and painted itself as a friend to China. This interpretation continues today, with Mike Pence stating in 2018, “When China suffered through indignities and exploitations during her so-called ‘Century of Humiliation,’ America refused to join in, and advocated the ‘Open Door’ policy, so that we could have freer trade with China, and preserve their sovereignty.” The narrative of national humiliation and the narrative of American benevolence are both clearly at play here, and have painted two completely different pictures of one event for outsiders to subscribe to.
There are countless more examples of the narratives interacting and conflicting with each other. Another recent example has to do with the US-China trade conflict. Tensions began to rise as the US trade deficit with China rose to an all-time high in 2011, prompting the US to take a harder stance against China’s trade activity. The US increased the complaints it brought against China in the World Trade Organization (WTO), claiming that it intended to level an unfair playing field and push back against Chinese policies that interfered with the market. The punitive measures taken through the WTO are one example of the parental side of the American narrative, with disciplinary actions taken in an attempt to change unwanted behavior.
Another aspect of the parental part of the narrative is the American determination to maintain the relationship. In 2015, National Security Advisor Susan Rice stated: “Determined, constant engagement is necessary to manage our differences. If America chose to remove itself from China, we would only ensure that the Chinese are not challenged on the issues where we differ and are not encouraged to peacefully rise within the international system that we have done so much to build.” Meanwhile, China faced the escalating trade tensions with indignation, especially regarding the number of WTO complaints brought by the US. To China, US complaints and lawsuits against China are seen as discriminatory competitive measures that have more to do with bullying than with abiding by international rules. The WTO complaints are seen as highly unfair, and as part of unwelcome American interference meant to keep China from succeeding.
Examining the ways both countries characterize historical events such as the initiation of the Open Door policy, the flow of American Christian missionaries into China, the Boxer Rebellion, and the Tiananmen Square Massacre reveals the presence of both narratives. Recent trade issues have also featured the narratives, particularly in light of the Trump administration’s unabashed criticism of Chinese trade practices.
Why Are Narratives Important?
Paying attention to the existence and use of these narratives is important because doing so can provide insight into the sensitivities and assumptions underlying the relationship, as well as serve the basis in understanding how both countries make decisions. If actors become too enamored with their own perspectives, they can unwittingly undermine diplomatic relationships. If adhered to too stubbornly, narratives can hinder a relationship by binding it to certain expectations and prejudices.
Greater awareness of the ways in which countries speak about each other at the highest levels can counter this and perhaps bring more mutual understanding and stability to the relationship. This would surely be a good change for the bilateral relationship, arguably the most important bilateral relationship today and in the coming years. The dynamic of an established power and a rising one is fraught with potential conflict but also with potential cooperation. The US and China are intertwined on political, economic, and social levels, and the actions of each have significant implications for the other.