It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Many remember the long-running children’s show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, whose theme song ended with the words, “Would you, could you, be my friend?” Mr. Rogers’ plaintive query has reappeared in the debate over U.S. foreign policy toward China, accompanied by complaints that the United States has overreacted. It is entirely true that some Americans have overreacted to China’s hostile actions, but overreaction is the norm in the media-driven policy environment of today and it does not mean that China is ready to be friends again if only the United States would soften its tone.

One would have thought that China’s leader has been sufficiently clear about his goal of making the China the dominant global power and restructuring the international order to make China’s interests paramount. Doing this requires displacing the United States, perhaps using force in the process. China’s military buildup and the deliberate inflaming of nationalist and anti-American sentiment in China makes this a very different neighborhood than it was 20 years ago.

It should also be clear that this change is a result of decisions by China’s rulers, not some sudden U.S. desire for confrontation or containment. China’s leaders believe that China’s time has come. Nor is this conflict an effort by the United States to defend U.S. hegemony (whether the United States was indeed a hegemon is another matter). A belief that hostility to China is generated by a desire to preserve U.S. hegemony reflects weak analysis rather than a systematic assessment of the nature of the United States’ global influence, but the concept of hegemon fits well with China’s Leninist orientation.

This changed direction for China’s foreign policy raises several questions: whether China can achieve its goal (after all, Marxism is the great policy failure of the last century), whether it is in the interests of democracies to oppose China’s rise and of so, how best to do this; why are some drawn to Mr. Rogers-style diplomacy; and how effective are Chinese influence operations in shaping these views.

A review of China’s behavior should be discouraging for advocates of a less confrontational approach to bilateral relations. China has been in the international order but does not accept its norms and values. Xi, for domestic reasons, amplified support for Marxism (with Chinese characteristics), despite its long history of failure. This is ironic, as it means that the biggest obstacle to China’s continued rise is the Chinese Communist Party, not the United States. China would be much more likely to become the world’s biggest economy if it gave up Marxism, and much more likely to gain influence if was less overbearing it its diplomacy and more respectful of human rights.

Longing for the Grand Bargain

Until recently, U.S. policy was based on a grand bargain with China that shaped bilateral relations. The grand bargain had two phases. The first was recruiting China in the Cold War to be a strategic partner against the Soviets. That rationale evaporated in 1990. A new rationale appeared in 2000 when China was admitted to the World Trade Organization (WTO). The era of open trade is what some long to see return. The second grand bargain was economic, but it was nurtured by a traditional American view, dating back to the nineteenth century, that commercial diplomacy promotes good relations and would eventually make China some kind of market democracy (the initial belief that Xi was a reformer who would move China is this direction reflects these wishful analyses).

The bargain was based on access to China’s giant market and included an acceptance of the theft of intellectual property by China, and a tolerance by the United States, Europe, and Japan of China’s predatory trade practices, where it exploited Western markets and ignored rules for international trade and finance. The failure to call China to account for its behavior helped undermine the fabric of globalization and with it, the legitimacy of institutions like the WTO. 

The grand bargain originally included sales of U.S. arms to China to counter the Soviets. After the Tiananmen massacre, the United Stated stopped arms sales, but continued to sell everything else. Only recently has this technological bazaar received any check in Western countries. This reflects the new recognition that unlimited trade with a hostile China risks hollowing other economies. Both sides profited from the grand bargain, but its terms have changed in ways that harm market economies beyond the point where profits of individual firms from China trade compensates for the harm to national interests. The long-term cost has been to create Chinese competitors supported by government subsidies, predatory policies, and espionage, who are free to compete in the global market. The grand bargain became a strategic blunder.

Analysts and policymakers struggle with how to remedy this. China’s economy is now so deeply intertwined with the West that it would be difficult and costly to disentangle it. Economic entanglement and dependence are the source of Chinese influence. The Western reliance on open debate in the marketplace of ideas provides China with an opportunity to shape American opinion. The tools and targets of influence are not lip-synching teenagers but the use of incentives and messaging aimed at the U.S. commentariat and business community.

Social Media and Influence

The nature of China’s influence campaign is obscured by misunderstandings of the 2016 election and post-2016 fears over foreign government use of social media as the primary vehicle for their influence operations. Social media, irrespective of foreign attempts to use it for manipulation, amplifies confusion and doubt in public debates. While social media is reshaping domestic politics, the role of foreign governments is of secondary importance. One way to assess this is to consider if the outcome of the 2016 election would have been different if Russia had done absolutely nothing. Foreign government use of social media for influence operations since 2016 has had mixed results at best.

Social media is not the primary tool in China’s influence campaigns. Chinese influence efforts in the United States are more sophisticated than short music videos. China’s emphasis is on “elite capture,” cooption, and building a party-friendly narrative, while suppressing criticism. There is no doubt that China attempts to control the global narrative, but at least for the United States we can ask if their tactics have much success. China’s most effective tool is manipulating access to its market and officials. The ability to sell in China creates powerful incentives. One example is that Chinese filmmakers are rewarded when they make movies showing a coarse American enemy. U.S. filmmakers would never do the reverse out of fear of losing access the China market. China routinely uses it control of access and the western desire to sell to gain influence and to promote and shape views of China. 

The dubious success of influence operations in 2016 does not mean we should ignore covert actions by opponents to exploit social media and damage democratic norms. These are violations of sovereignty and clear indicators of hostile intent. Problems other than foreign influence operations that explain American political turmoil. It is understandable that many prefer to explain the astonishing result of the 2016 election as the product of outside interference rather than weak campaigning and a perception of elite indifference. Economic inequality (some of it stemming from the 2000 decision to open markets to China) created a large class of discontented voters. Social media amplifies the voice of the discontented. Domestic political problems provide a better explanation than manipulation by Russia or China, and until these domestic issues are addressed the United States will be vulnerable. This suggests that many remedies proposed to counter influence operations address symptoms more than cause and may have limited effect.

Messaging for an U.S. Audience

China promotes an inflated view of its strength and inevitable rise (Chinese leaders may even believe this narrative to be true). The widely held view of a few years ago that only China could make 5G telecom equipment or that it led in 5G deployment is an example, since for a time many Western media and opinion makers subscribed to this inaccurate assessment. Another example is the still frequently repeated assertion that China is on track to become the world’s largest power. China did have remarkable success in lifting millions of out of self-imposed poverty, but its success depended on blending cheap labor with Western technology and capitol, and on unconstrained participation in Western markets. This formula may have run its course, but a mixture of gullibility and anti-Americanism, combined with a loss of confidence in Western institutions, creates an audience for this messaging and encourages China to shape Western views in ways favorable to its interests.

The effectiveness of Chinese influence operations can be estimated by looking at the frequency with which some of these themes appear in media and analysis. China uses constant repetition in both official media and nongovernmental channels to promote its message of success and growing power. This is combined with efforts to forestall criticism. The tactics aim to influence opinion-makers (scholars, journalists, and executives) and have had some success in creating favorable assessments of China’s strength and in dampening criticism of China’s behavior. Messaging at international conferences is also a tool (think of Huawei’s central presence at the annual Mobile World Congress in Barcelona) but it is largely aimed at non-U.S. audiences.

China’s influence operations can also resemble conventional agent recruitment campaigns. It is likely that these efforts are centrally coordinated and target selected individuals. In other Five-Eyes countries China is alleged to have used bribery of politicians, but there are no reported incidents in the United States.

Another Red Scare?

Any discussion of Chinese influence operations can raise the specter of Cold War McCarthyism. This is puzzling, as the modern McCarthyites direct more venom against their American political opponents more than China. Some of them even admire Putin. While “Red Scares” occur with deplorable regularity in American politics, there can be a painful reality that lies behind them. There were Soviets agents in the United States and in European allies from the 1930s to 1950s, ideological recruits driven by the Great Depression to embrace Stalin. The histrionics over China are much less intense than the Red Scare episodes of the 1900s, 1920s or 1950s.

China is at a disadvantage in recruitment of agents as it lacks the ideological appeal of 1930s communism, but it has been successful in using its economic power to gain influence. The issue today is not human agents, but China’s ability to exploit deeply interconnected economies and the access this provides to shape opinion and deflect criticism of China, while seeking to create favorable views of China’s policy and intentions. China has been most successful when it has been able to play into existing fears and doubts created by the United States’ debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, the post-2016 election rejection of elites, and the 2008 financial crash. 

Sustainable Competition

Chinese influence operations aimed at elite capture requires a determined response. While most Americans distrust China, the myths of its economic growth and technological development remain influential and must be debunked. Efforts like the CHIPS Act to strengthen the U.S. technology base are essential for deflating the myth that resistance to China is futile. The Kremlin’s discomfort over video messages is suggestive and providing factual accounts of China’s history and problems would have a similar effect, not on the heavily censored and surveilled Chinese people, but on a global audience. Any response will first require rebuilding trust lost after strategic blunders in the Middle East and restoring confidence that the U.S. model of democratic politics can sustain an equitable society. Rebuilding trust will give legitimacy and authority to political leaders undercut Chinese influence without the need to silence Chinese voices, and China has little influence on this crucial internal debate.

Those with negotiating experience know that it is fruitless to talk when the other side is not ready to compromise. China is not ready to compromise since any deal would require concessions it sees no need to make. If China’s leaders believe (or pretend to believe) that its rise is inevitable, what would lead them to make concessions now? While itself unwilling to compromise, China, is ready to accept concessions from Westerners. What it wants is a world ordered on China’s terms and for Americans, there is little benefit in being demanders or supplicants. What is required is a degree of realism about rebuilding relations with China while a new and more sustainable defense against a hostile China is devised. This is not a beautiful day in the neighborhood and China does not want to be our friend.

James A. Lewis is senior vice president and director of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.  

James Andrew Lewis
Senior Vice President; Pritzker Chair; and Director, Strategic Technologies Program