The New York Review of Books has published an essay by the academic, writer and long time China-watcher Orville Schell. In the essay, Schell details a recent trip to China he attended, with former US President Jimmy Carter, that was meant to commemorate the 35th anniversary of 'normalised relations' between the two countries. For Schell, the trip in many ways highlighted the shifting balance of power between the US and China, and how much relations have changed since the late 1970s when Carter was President. Schell attempts to unpack the reasoning behind something that has become apparent to many diplomats and senior officials dealing with China, which is an increasing 'standoffishness' or distance that results in a dialogue that is largely empty. As Schell says:
The overall effect of the visit—and it is an “effect” that has been sealed at a good many other meetings between Americans and Chinese—was to make the visitors feel the impossibility of making real contact. In fact, at one point I heard from sources close to him that Carter was upset enough to consider just packing up and going home.
But many Chinese officials and military officers now seem so proud that their country has become rich and strong that they appear almost relieved to at last be able to stand up militantly to the Japanese and the Vietnamese—and even to quietly insult prominent Americans—never mind the negative, even dangerous, possible consequences for the rest of the world of such truculence. Right now people on both sides seem to be filled with increasing perplexity about why things are so difficult, just at a time when we are urgently in need of finding ways to avoid the kind of conflict many worry can all too easily emerge with the rising of a large new power.
Where does such a standoffishness, which impedes our two sides from truly engaging, come from? Perhaps from a concern of the Chinese that being too obviously flexible and accommodating might be misinterpreted as weakness, the very frailty that China’s hard-earned rise to wealth and power has sought to remedy. A second is perhaps Beijing’s awareness that despite all its economic progress, Western-style democracies not only still look down on China’s Leninist system of governance, but wouldn’t mind seeing it fundamentally changed. Western attitudes toward Chinese Communist Party rule are, not surprisingly, experienced as condescending, and they rankle many proud Chinese.
And, what might really be at the heart of it:
The Western presumption that China, aided by open markets, foreign education, and Western soft power, will irresistibly be swept toward ever greater political openness, which many Westerners have come to view as the inevitable (and desired) evolutionary path for every society, is now being met by Chinese leaders with a loud and defiant denial that could be summarized as follows: “We don’t want to be in your teleological dream! Your President Clinton’s ‘right side of history’ is not in the official view of our Party Chairman Xi’s ‘China dream!’”
The entire essay is an interesting read and touches upon many of the deeper issues revealed by China's recent assertiveness. A reply to the essay from academic Perry Link has also been published.