TO FIELDMICE, rabbits and voles, every shadow overhead is a hawk until proved otherwise, condemning them to lives of needless panic. Chinese nationalists seem intent on ignoring that lesson from nature. Behind rising tensions with the West, they see dangerous anti-China hawks everywhere. Specifically they feel under attack from hardliners with President Donald Trump’s ear, who are intent on keeping a rising China down.
Rather than hawks scheming to contain China, jumpy nationalists should be worrying about a different group: Americans and Europeans who were once advocates of engagement, but have been disappointed by illiberal, aggressive choices made by Chinese rulers. They are not so much hawks as unhappy ex-doves.
That runs counter to an official Chinese narrative that casts China as the peace-loving victim of Americans with a cold-war mindset. In the words of a Chinese speaker at a recent policy forum: “[Cold-warriors’] feet have entered the 21st century but their heads are stuck in the 20th century.” This narrative is used to explain the trade war begun by Mr Trump. It is applied to the recent arrest in Canada of a Chinese businesswoman, Meng Wanzhou, on an American warrant linked to an alleged sidestepping of sanctions on Iran (see Business). The arrest of Ms Meng, chief financial officer of Huawei, a telecoms giant, and also the daughter of the firm’s founder, has angered public opinion in China. Dismayingly, many responses skip past the legal rights and wrongs of the case to denounce what they call an outrageous, political attack on a Chinese national champion.
More vitriol is poured on anti-China hawks than on Mr Trump in person, in part because China hopes to strike a deal with America’s president. That message discipline is striking but unhelpful. It is true that Mr Trump lends half an ear to anti-China hawks who think communist rulers incapable of changing. But for Chinese leaders, a trickier challenge is posed by ex-doves readying one last attempt to make them change. These diplomats, academics, politicians, executives and entrepreneurs from across the West are not America First unilateralists. Plenty are internationalists, worried that China is co-opting institutions such as the UN and the WTO to make them safe for authoritarianism, state-backed capitalism and other threats to a rules-based order. Above all, these ex-doves agree that 20 years of patiently cajoling China to change has not worked.
Lines between economic competition and national security are blurring. Western officials fret about Chinese hacking attacks on the home-country servers of big companies, only some of which have been reported. They murmur about Chinese investors visiting obscure startups or university researchers, offering to buy very specific technologies. That makes such officials more willing to endorse the idea that the West should insist on reciprocity in dealings with China—an idea they once heard as code for protectionism. They worry that China is taking advantage of a Western openness that now feels naive. That does not make them anti-China. It makes them ex-doves who read secret intelligence reports.
America’s China-policy machine, involving various branches of government and members of both parties in Congress, wants to change tactics. Instead of writing wishlists of specific actions—here a new regulation, there a business licence—the machine wants to talk about high-level principles. That means telling China that it cannot rise at America’s expense. It involves explaining that granting foreign firms market access means little if the government is their regulator and (via state-owned enterprises) their competitor. Such scepticism may overshadow a reported Chinese offer to supplant a self-reliant industrial policy, Made in China 2025, with something more foreigner-friendly. Rather than haggle over every concession, America’s machine wants China to explain how it will change.
In recent months Chinese and American officials talked past each other, as China resisted a substantive discussion about how it operates. A worrying lesson from Western governments’ human-rights dialogues is that China is brilliant at turning debates about principles into empty talkfests. It complicates matters that America’s machine answers to a president who seems so uninterested in principles and norms. On December 11th Mr Trump told Reuters, a news agency, that he would intervene in the Department of Justice investigation of Huawei and Ms Meng if it was good for national security or for reaching a China trade deal. Aghast, Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, urged America not to “politicise the extradition process or use it for ends other than the pursuit of justice.” Soon after China threatened Canada with “serious consequences” for arresting Ms Meng, Michael Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat turned analyst for the International Crisis Group (ICG), a think-tank, was detained in Beijing. ICG said he had been picked up by secret state-security police. China’s foreign ministry accused ICG of lacking operating permits. A China-based Canadian entrepreneur who has led tours to North Korea, Michael Spavor, is also missing after contacts with Chinese authorities, Canadian officials said on December 12th.
No-go for the status quo
At his worst Mr Trump makes his trade war sound like a rent renegotiation, through which he wants to make China pay more for access to the valuable property known as the American economy. But Mr Trump is not the only actor in China policy. Lots of decisions never reach his desk. Indictments of alleged Chinese spies and hackers are said to be on the way, along with tighter visa rules. Wise tech-firms are examining whether sensitive supply chains that run through China are politically sustainable. Tensions may worsen quickly if China sticks with a state-dominated growth model. If so, expect accusations that anti-China hawks have achieved a long-planned victory. In truth, brokenhearted advocates of engagement with China will have failed.