Fear and Loathing in Beijing? Chinese Suspicion of U.S. Intentions

Publication: China Brief Volume: 11 Issue: 18

Anti-U.S. Provocateur, Air Force Colonel Dai Xu

Recently, a number of Chinese analysts have argued U.S. diplomatic and military actions in the region—including Washington’s efforts to assure allies in response to North Korean attacks, its engagement with Vietnam and other countries in Southeast Asia, and its statements about resolving competing claims in the South China Sea—reflect what they see as a desire to ensure that China’s emergence will not challenge U.S. interests. According to Shen Dingli of Fudan University, Washington is exploiting regional tensions and urging some countries to “hedge against China’s rise” (“A Chinese Assessment of China’s External Environment,” China Brief, March 25). Such comments appear to reflect growing concern about U.S. intentions, at least among some Chinese scholars and security analysts. The United States repeatedly has indicated it welcomes the emergence of a more prosperous and powerful China, one that is capable of playing a larger and more constructive role on the international stage, but many in China are concerned that Washington is becoming increasingly uneasy about the implications of China’s arrival as a great power.

Chinese analysts have harbored deep suspicions about U.S. strategic intentions for many years, but a changing strategic context and a series of recent incidents in the region appear to have intensified their concerns. Some Chinese scholars even suspect the United States intends to “contain” China to prevent it’s rise from challenging America’s position as the predominant power in the international system. To be sure, there is considerable debate about these issues in China, but even the more nuanced and balanced assessments suggest Beijing views Washington’s concerns about China’s rising power and growing U.S. involvement in the region as factors that are complicating Chinese policy. China’s most recent defense white paper reflects this growing wariness. According to China’s National Defense in 2010, China’s security environment remains relatively favorable, but “suspicion about China, interference and countering moves against China from the outside are on the increase.”  Beijing’s suspicion of U.S. intentions may make it difficult for the United States to maintain a strong deterrence posture while simultaneously assuring Beijing that it welcomes China’s arrival as a great power.

The United States Welcomes China’s Rise…

As underscored by numerous official statements, the United States welcomes China’s emergence as a great power with global interests. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other senior officials have emphasized that the United States wants to build a “positive, cooperative, and comprehensive relationship” with China [1]. To be sure, Washington is also concerned about how a stronger and more capable China will use its growing power in the region and beyond. In particular, U.S. officials highlight lack of transparency with regard to China’s growing military capabilities and uncertainty about Beijing’s long-term strategic intentions.

Nonetheless, the overall strategic message Washington is sending is that the United States welcomes the emergence of a more prosperous and powerful China—one capable of playing a larger and more constructive international role. Washington also seeks to assure Beijing that the United States is not trying to delay or prevent China’s emergence as a great power with global interests and capabilities. For example, in June 2011, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stated “We are not trying to hold China down. China has been a great power for thousands of years. It is a global power and will be a global power” (Wall Street Journal, June 2).

…But Beijing is Deeply Suspicious of U.S. Strategic Intentions

No matter what strategic assurances the United States provides, some in China are concerned the United States is becoming increasingly uneasy about China’s emergence as a great power. Specifically, despite Washington’s rhetorical emphasis on the importance of a stable and constructive U.S.-China relationship, they are deeply concerned the United States ultimately will attempt to delay or prevent China’s emergence as a great power because it sees a stronger China as a threat to its continued preeminence. Some even fear Washington really intends to “contain” China. Chinese suspicions about U.S. strategic intentions are longstanding [2]. What is new is that a changing strategic context and series of recent events appear to be intensifying China’s concerns.

One key factor is China’s wariness about the possible implications of a shifting balance of power. Some Chinese scholars see U.S. power as diminished by the strains of multiple wars and the global financial crisis [3]. Yet there is considerable debate about the extent to which the gap is narrowing and the implications for Chinese foreign and security policy. In the words of Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai, “China’s national strength has been on the rise in the past three decades and more since reform and opening up…but there remains a big gap, even a huge gap, between China’s national strength and that of the United States. This is a fact that we Chinese must face soberly” (People’s Daily, January 18). Dai Bingguo’s December 2010 essay on “Peaceful Development” is also noteworthy in this respect [4].

Notwithstanding this debate about the extent to which the balance of power is shifting, a number of Chinese analysts have portrayed the United States as worried that it is declining relative to China, giving rise to concerns that Washington will try to check China’s rise in order to preserve its preeminent position (Outlook Weekly, February 6).  Beyond concerns about how the United States is likely to respond as China narrows the gap, some Chinese analysts highlight Taiwan and maritime security issues as indicative of antagonistic U.S. strategic intentions.

The China-Taiwan relationship has improved dramatically in recent years, but Taiwan remains a central concern and a source of suspicion about U.S. intentions toward China. Beijing continues to object to U.S. political-military backing for Taiwan in general and U.S. arms sales to the island in particular. Beijing also appears convinced Washington’s support for Taiwan is aimed at using it as an obstacle to China’s emergence as a great power. In this respect, some see U.S. arms sales to Taiwan as evidence of a “two-handed” policy toward China, one that includes elements of engagement on the one hand and containment on the other (PLA Daily, September 12). More broadly, as Nancy Bernkopf Tucker and Bonnie Glaser point out: “Apart from being a potential trigger for war, Taiwan impedes improvement in U.S.China relations because of suspicion and mistrust. Beijing firmly believes that Washington seeks to keep the PRC weak and divided to obstruct China’s rise” [5].

Beyond Taiwan, some Chinese analysts are focused increasingly on what they see as a deteriorating maritime security environment. In the words of China Academy of Social Science (CASS) researchers Zhang Jie and Pu Jianyi, “maritime security has become a major source of tensions in China’s peripheral security situation” (Shijie Zhishi, January 16). Some Chinese scholars identify the United States as the main cause of China’s maritime security problems. Academy of Military Science analyst Major General Peng Guangqian argues the United States is “the fundamental factor that influences surrounding countries, and causes complicated situations, intensified contradictions, and greater turbulence” [6]. Some Chinese analysts contend Washington seeks to exploit North Korean attacks on South Korea and Beijing’s maritime disputes with its neighbors, especially Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Chinese observers have expressed concerns that recent events in the Yellow Sea, East China Sea and South China Sea reflect what they see as Washington’s determination to prevent China from challenging the U.S. position in the region. Some Chinese observers criticized the late 2010 U.S.–South Korean naval exercises as further destabilizing an already tense situation. Particularly vocal opposition came from PLA officers, such as Luo Yuan, who emphasized the historical sensitivity of the Yellow Sea as “the gateway to China’s capital region” (People’s Daily, July 16, 2010). Indeed, the writings of some PLA officers and other observers suggest they interpreted the exercises as a show of force intended to put pressure on China. For example, Li Jie asserted, “Although on the surface the purpose was to exert pressure on North Korea, actually a very large part of this was to exert influence over China” (Phoenix Weekly, February 2011). U.S. support for Japan following the September 2010 ship collision incident near the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands also raised concerns for Chinese analysts (China Daily, December 20, 2010).

As for the South China Sea, some Chinese analysts assert other countries are exploiting Beijing’s relatively restrained approach by nibbling away at China’s interests. Zhu Chenghu, a vocal military scholar at National Defense University, writes that rival claimants are “plundering China’s oil and gas resources without scruple, turning the South China Sea into an ATM machine” (Global Times, July 1). Many Chinese observers worry that Vietnam and the Philippines may try to draw in the United States to advance their own interests at China’s expense. Some Chinese scholars even suggest the United States will take advantage of an opportunity to sow discord between China and the other countries with territorial claims in the South China Sea in pursuit of a broader strategy of “containment.” Additionally, China’s disagreement with the United States over what activity is permissible within China’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is another source of tension. Chinese analysts complain U.S. reconnaissance activities in China’s EEZ are increasing and they appear to believe these reconnaissance activities reflect hostile intentions toward China (“Assessing China’s Response to U.S. Reconnaissance Flights,” China Brief, September 2).

The Dark Side: Fears of Encirclement, Containment and Subversion

Some Chinese analysts who view these maritime developments as evidence of Washington’s broader strategic intentions toward China argue that the United States is bent on exploiting Beijing’s differences with its neighbors over maritime issues as part of a broader plan aimed at “encircling” or “containing” China. According to Liu Jianhua and Yu Shuihuan of Zhongnan University of Finance and Economics, “The controversy between China and Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei over the issue of South China Sea sovereignty, and the concerns of Japan, India and Australia over the expansion of China’s maritime power, have provided excellent opportunities for the United States to draw them in to encircle China” [7].

Some Chinese analysts see this as part of a strategy of “C-shaped encirclement.” Perhaps the most vocal proponent of this argument is PLA Air Force Colonel Dai Xu [8]. In a recent op-ed, Dai argued that U.S. military exercises in the Yellow Sea, involvement in the South China Sea dispute and the development of operational concepts like “Air-Sea Battle” are all directed mainly at China. Moreover, Dai views U.S. attempts to strengthen its relationships with Japan, South Korea, Australia and India as part of an attempt to create an “Asian NATO” (Global Times, August 2, 2010). In this view, the United States is building on the posture it created to contain China beginning in the 1950s, which centered on alliances and bases along the first and second island chains. Although Dai’s views may be on the extreme end of the spectrum, he is certainly not the only Chinese analyst who is concerned that the United States is pursuing a strategy of “containment.” For example, in a speech last year, CASS President and Central Committee member Chen Kuiyuan said that U.S. leaders ”will not give up their strategy of trying to contain China’s sustainable development.” Chen further suggested it would be wishful thinking to believe, that by partnering with a neo-imperialist United States, Washington would leave China alone. [9]

Another concern is Beijing’s longstanding fear of “peaceful evolution,” which has been heightened this year amid concerns about pro-democracy uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. Chinese observers frequently assert that Washington aims to undermine the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Recently, some have cited U.S. efforts to circumvent Internet censorship as evidence of this alleged intent to subvert China’s political system (Chinese Cadre Tribune, April 2011). Some Chinese Internet users even interpreted then-U.S. Ambassador to China John Huntsman’s appearance at a February 2011 “Jasmine Revolution” gathering in Beijing as proof of what they see as a conspiracy aimed at weakening and destabilizing China (The Atlantic, February 24). The U.S. Embassy in Beijing explained the timing of the stroll was a coincidence. Whatever Chinese officials and scholars may think about this particular incident, some probably will continue to view U.S. support for civil and political rights in China as indicative of a desire to change China’s system of government through “peaceful evolution.”

Counterarguments Emphasize Constraints on Containment

The argument that Washington intends to “contain” China has vocal proponents, but it is certainly not the only point of view articulated in Chinese debates about U.S. policy toward China. Some Chinese observers suggest the more extreme characterizations of U.S. intentions clearly exaggerate the potential for “containment.” According to Rear Admiral Yang Yi, Washington may be worried about China, but Cold War-style containment is irrelevant because China is much different than the Soviet Union and the current international environment is hardly the same as it was during the Cold War (Shijie Zhishi, August 16, 2010).

Chinese scholars also suggest Washington’s policy options are limited by the desire of many countries in the region to maintain positive relations with China and the United States rather than choosing sides. In addition, they argue China’s growing power and influence make it an important player on a broad range of international issues. As a result, they conclude Washington’s options are constrained because Chinese cooperation is often required to achieve U.S. foreign policy goals.     

Still, even many of the more sophisticated analyses of U.S. policy toward China tend to portray Washington as increasingly concerned about the possibility that China’s rise will challenge its predominant position. For example, Liu Qing, Director of the American Studies Department at the China Institute of International Studies, writes that Washington did not expect China to rise so quickly and that U.S. concerns and anxiety about China are growing [10]. Chinese scholars also suggest Washington’s “Return to Asia” is aimed at retaining its dominant position, and that U.S. military and diplomatic actions are making the regional security situation more complicated for China.
Implications for the United States

The United States and some countries in the region are hedging their bets because of China’s growing military power and uncertainty about China’s long-term strategic intentions. They also are pushing back against some of China’s more assertive behavior along its maritime periphery. Such actions, however, are not “containment,” as the term is usually understood in the context of Cold War superpower rivalry. Nevertheless, growing Chinese suspicion poses a difficult problem for the United States. Washington understandably seeks to assure U.S. allies and discourage aggressive moves by China, but doing so without inadvertently heightening Chinese concerns could prove to be very difficult in some cases.


  1. For example, see Hillary Rodham Clinton, “Inaugural Richard C. Holbrooke Lecture on a Broad Vision of U.S.-China Relations in the 21st Century,” Washington, DC, January 14, 2011, https://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2011/01/154653.htm.
  2. On the attitudes of China’s America specialists and Chinese views of U.S. strategic intentions during the 1990s, see Phillip C. Saunders, “China’s America Watchers: Changing Attitudes towards the United States,” China Quarterly, No. 161, March 2000, pp. 41–65.
  3. Wu Xinbo, “Understanding the Geopolitical Implications of the Global Financial Crisis,” Washington Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 4, October 2010, pp. 155–63.
  4. For the official English translation, see Dai Bingguo, “Stick to the Path of Peaceful Development,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, December 6, 2010, https://www.news.xinhuanet/com/english2010/indepth/2010-12/13/c_13646586.htm; for the Chinese version, see https://www.gov.cn/ldhd/2010-12/06/content_1760381.htm
  5. Nancy Bernkopf Tucker and Bonnie Glaser, “Should the United States Abandon Taiwan?” The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 4, pp. 23–37
  6. Peng is quoted in Guo Zhenyuan, “Zhongguo zhoubian anquan xingshi de huigu yu zhanwang [Review of and Outlook for China’s Security Situation in Surrounding Areas], Zhongguo Pinglun, No. 159 (March 2011): p. 55. “Without intervention by the United States,” Peng argues, “these contradictions would not have emerged suddenly and all at once, nor would they have become so acute.”
  7. Liu Jianhua and Yu Shuihuan, “‘Duobian shiya: Meiguo dui Hua waijiao celue xin dongxiang [Multilateral Pressure: A New Trend in America’s Diplomatic Tactics Toward China],” Xiandai Guoji Guanxi [Contemporary International Relations], October 20, 2010, pp. 1–7
  8. Dai Xu, C-xing baowei: neiyou waihuan xia de Zhongguo tuwei [C-Shaped Encirclement: China’s Breakthrough Under Internal and External Problems] (Shanghai, China: Wenhui Publishing, 2009).
  9. “Chen Kuiyuan zai Zhongguo shekeyuan 2010 nian zhuanti yantaohui shang fabiao zhongyao jianghua” (Chen Kuiyuan Makes an Important Speech at the Chinease Academy of Social Sciences’ 2010 Special Topic Seminar) https://www.cass.net.cn/file/20100810279147.html.
  10. Liu Qing, “Meiguo zai Yatai zhanlue bushu de xin bianhua” (New Changes in U.S. Strategic Deployments in the Asia-Pacific), Xiandai guoji guanxi (Contemporary International Relations), May 2011, pp. 13-19, 26.