Recently two high-level dialogues involving China were held and at both, China and its interlocutors largely talked past each other, achieving very little genuine communication or progress. The continued determination of both Beijing and Team Washington (for want of a better collective description of those who are aligned with Washington's position) to not cede an inch is getting to be not only strategically alarming, but rather predictable. It has been said that it is madness to continue to do the same thing while expecting a different result. In this case, surely it is clear that two sides continuing to use the same rhetoric is not working. Someone has to do something different if we want a different outcome; and as things stand, it probably won't be China. That leaves Team Washington.
At these two important annual meetings, namely the Strategic and Economic dialogue with the US held in Beijing; and the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, in Singapore, the issue of the South China Sea was high on the agenda. This is unsurprising as the verdict from the Philippines' case against China at The Hague is due very soon. At both, as most observers would likely have predicted, the US (Team Washington in the case of the Shangri-La Dialogue) castigated China over its assertive behaviour in the South China Sea; and China rejected any assertions that its activities are increasing tensions, or in any way unlawful. The US said China is isolating itself, and the US stood for principles and prosperity, freedom, and against intimidation and coercion (read the Ash Carter speech here). Beijing said the US and others were hypocritical, bullying, indulging in a Cold War mentality, and interfering with Beijing's path of peace. Analysts note that tensions are mounting.
Mounting tensions are inevitable as this predictable rhetoric entrenches all parties into increasingly intractable positions. The problem is, all parties truly and deeply believe they are absolutely right, and there is no other way of understanding the situation. Genuine communication and negotiation becomes more and more difficult.
It is time for Team Washington to change the script, if it wants a different result.
This recommendation raises two obvious questions. Firstly, why should Team Washington change; why not Beijing? Secondly, how — and to what — should the script be changed?
Team Washington needs to change its tune for three simple but important reasons.
(1) Somebody has to, Beijing won't, and that doesn't leave anyone else.
(2) Beijing hasn't been listening so far to the approach Team Washington has been taking, which is evident in the obvious but slightly embarrassing fact that Beijing isn't doing what Team Washington wants, despite Team Washington's best efforts.
(3) Surely it is more important to achieve a peaceful, sustainable, mutually agreeable solution in the long-term than just being the most right.
So, how should the script be changed? This is of course the difficult bit. Team Washington needs to genuinely listen to what Beijing is saying and design its responses not to how it thinks Beijing should see the world, but how Beijing does see the world. This does not require any of the dangerous 'A words': agreement, acquiescence or appeasement. It does however require acknowledgement that the Washington perspective is not the only one. This would at least provide a starting point for redesigning the script so as to allow genuine communication rather than just delivering pre-fabricated, albeit very sincere, phrases that simply whistle past China's ears and land on an already very large pile labeled 'the US is picking on us again'. Presumably more nuance is being used in diplomatic exchanges behind closed doors, but public discourse affects the policy space in which actors can operate, and the policy options for both sides are narrowing.
Despite its good intentions, the US does not, regrettably, have an excellent track record of cultural sensitivity when it comes to international interventions. Often, the unintended consequences can be extremely messy, expensive, and protracted. It would be wise for Team Washington to tread with caution in the short term in this case, in the interests of achieving its goals of a peaceful region in the longer-term.
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