In a letter to King George III of Britain in 1793, the emperor Qianlong (乾隆) of China rejected a British request for trade and diplomatic relations, saying: “The celestial empire abounds in all things and lacks nothing. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious and have no use for your country’s products.”
With the Ching Dynasty then at the height of its power, Chien Lung continued: “It behooves you, O King, to respect my sentiments and to display even greater devotion and loyalty in future, so that, by perpetual submission to our Throne, you may secure peace and prosperity for your country.”
The emperor closed the letter handed to the visiting British envoy, George Macartney, with the customary Chinese imperial command of that time: “Tremble and Obey!”
Today, the evident revival of the world view of Chien Lung’s Middle Kingdom has become apparent in the dispatches of Xinhua, Beijing’s official news agency, in the pronouncements of China’s leaders and spokespeople, and in the documents setting out China’s demands on conflicts in the East and South China Seas.
What seems to be a US reaction to the Chinese stance helps to explain the unfavorable US views of China. In a fresh report, the Pew Research Center found that large US majorities see China as neither partner nor adversary, but as competitor. According to the report, more than two-thirds of Americans say China cannot be trusted.
Expressing Beijing’s current attitude, a headline from Xinhua blared: “US politicians need to stop counterproductive meddling” in Asian affairs. The article charged Washington with fashioning “a two-pronged policy of containment” that “could never possibly underpin a stable and constructive China-US relationship.”
Another headline demanded that the “US should stop playing double game” in the conflict over the remote Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) — known as the Senkakus in Japan. The US has no official position on the sovereignty of the islands but, Xinhua said, “Washington has never ceased to employ gamesmanship to roil the waters in the region.”
Just before US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta made separate visits to China, Xinhua said: “Washington owes Beijing a thorough, convincing explanation of the true intentions of its Pivot policy, especially on issues related to China’s vital or core interests.”
“And the United States also needs to take concrete steps to prove that it is returning to Asia as a peacemaker, instead of a troublemaker,” Xinhua said. “This is just what China expects to come out of the upcoming visits to Beijing by both Clinton and Panetta.”
At the just-concluded UN General Assembly meeting, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi (楊潔篪) accused Japan of “stealing” the Diaoyutai Islands and said Tokyo must “correct its mistake.” He contended that China has “indisputable and legal evidence” that the islands are Chinese and that Japan “has violated China’s sovereignty.”
Chinese Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Le Yucheng (樂玉成) warned that continuing erroneous practices by Japan will see its relationship with China “sink like the Titanic.”
In the dispute with the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal (known as Huangyan Island (黃岩島) in China and in Taiwan, which also lay claim to it) Beijing has published a legalistic document contending that “China first discovered Huangyan Island and gave it the name.” The document adds that Manila’s territory had been defined by treaties dating back to 1898 and the island “is obviously outside this limit.”
Among Americans, the well-regarded Pew researchers found that Republicans are more concerned than Democrats about China’s rise. This issue was barely mentioned in the first presidential debate between US President Barack Obama, the Democrat, and Mitt Romney, the Republican, but is certain to come up later.
Pew showed that six in 10 Republicans believe China’s emergence as a world power poses a major threat to the US, compared with 48 percent of Democrats. Moreover, far more Republicans than Democrats see the US trade deficit with China, the loss of US jobs to China and the large American debt held by China as serious problems.
Republicans are also far more likely to favor the US taking a tough stand with China on economic and trade issues, while Democrats are more likely to see building strong relations with China as a top priority.
The Pew researchers also said that most American experts on issues with China would support the use of US military force to defend Taiwan if China employed force against it — without Taiwan having made a declaration of independence.
However, an attack from China that followed Taiwan’s unilateral declaration of independence would find half or more of those experts opposing the use of US military power to defend Taiwan.
Richard Halloran is a commentator in Hawaii.