A new Cold War recipe: Take China’s overconfidence, add our misperceptions, then dip it in a batter of ‘strategic ambiguity’


Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part exchange on U.S.-China relations.

Journalism professor Buck Ryan in Kentucky and English lecturer Lei Jiao in Wuhan, China, pursue cross-cultural understanding through current events—this time President Biden’s head-turning comments about Taiwan on his first trip to Asia.

BUCK: Lei, my friend, I need to talk about our relationship. Beginning today, I am taking an entirely new approach to our exchanges.

LEI: And that is?

BUCK: “Strategic ambiguity.” It means, Lei Jiao, that I’m going to start telling you exactly what I think — clearly and unequivocally.

LEI: Oh, LOL. It looks like you’re inspired by President Biden’s latest comments in Toyko — that kind of strategic ambiguity.

BUCK: Yes, he said flatly that the U.S. would intervene militarily if China invaded Taiwan because “that’s the commitment we made.”

LEI: President Biden sure has a way of setting the hair on fire for our diplomats, not to mention all the netizen pundits smoking the Internet these days. You better watch out.

BUCK: Why’s that?

LEI: When China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman plays the red song card, you are in big trouble.

BUCK: Huh?

LEI: Yes, in his response to President Biden’s comments on Taiwan, the spokesman quoted from a song in a 1956 propaganda film about China’s victory on the Korean War battlefield.

BUCK: What are the lyrics?

LEI: “For our friends, we have fine wine. For jackals or wolves, we welcome with shotguns.”

BUCK: Egads. If it makes any difference, our diplomats jumped out of their seats, too.

LEI: I know, it’s that pesky 1979 Taiwan Relations Act thing. It doesn’t require the U.S. to step in militarily to defend Taiwan, only provide the resources for the island to defend itself.

BUCK: It’s tricky.

LEI: It has been tricky ever since Henry Kissinger relied on “constructive ambiguity” in the 1972 Shanghai Communique.

BUCK: What did that say?

LEI: “The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a province of China.”

BUCK: So, we acknowledge that’s true, but any formula for unification remains, let’s say, ambiguous.

LEI: I guess so. You know China called out the State Department for changing the U.S.-Taiwan relations fact sheet, right?

BUCK: When was that?

LEI: May 5th.

BUCK: What changed?

LEI: It deleted the Shanghai Communique’s phrasing about Taiwan being part of China and removed a statement saying the U.S. does not support Taiwan independence.

BUCK: Oh boy. What does it say now?

LEI: That the “one China” policy is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, the three U.S.-China Joint Communiques and the Six Assurances. Buck, I’m not assured.

BUCK: That Shanghai Communique was signed on President Nixon’s last evening of his historic visit to China in 1972. Nixon would resign two years later.

LEI: Right, so we’re talking about a tale of two presidents here.

BUCK: Say what?

LEI: Nixon gets a lot of credit, and deservedly so, for breaking the ice of the Cold War. But it really was President Jimmy Carter, working with our leader, Deng Xiaoping, who opened the Era of Engagement between the U.S. and China in 1979.

BUCK: I see, the same year as the Taiwan Relations Act.

LEI: Right. The Era of Engagement, among other things, allowed for people-to-people exchanges to dispel misconceptions so we could see each other more clearly. It ran roughly for 37 years.

BUCK: You mean until the Era of Confrontation.

LEI: Well you might say that about President Trump’s election in 2016, but more politely it’s called the Era of Competition.

BUCK: That’s not to say that cracks in the relationship weren’t revealed as early as 1994.

LEI: Oh?

BUCK: That’s when Nixon told the New York Times columnist William Safire, “Maybe we created a Frankenstein.” How would you size up the last half century?

LEI: I think it’s less like Frankenstein and more like the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

BUCK: What do you mean?

LEI: We’ve lived through some freaky moments, but a lot of good came out of the Era of Engagement, not just for the world, but for me personally—and you, too, right?

BUCK: You bet.

LEI: I’m worried now that Taiwan is the fuse to spark a new Cold War—or maybe a hot one.

BUCK: Why do you say that?

LEI: All this saber-rattling, combined with China’s overconfidence and America’s misperceptions, is sending us down a slippery slope to create a no-win conflict that will be damaging to everyone.

BUCK: Interesting, because that’s something I heard in a lecture the other day by a Chinese professor, Yawei Liu, regarding the 50th anniversary of Nixon’s trip to China.

LEI: Who’s that?

BUCK: Liu was born in China in 1960, studied at American graduate schools, became a U.S. citizen, and is now director of the China program for The Carter Center in Atlanta.

LEI: So the Chinese guy works with the man who helped him achieve his American dream during the Era of Engagement.

BUCK: Right. Professor Liu launched his U.S.-China Perception Monitor websites, in English and Chinese, in 2014.

LEI: What does his crystal ball reveal?

BUCK: He’s very concerned about a “clash of perceptions.”

LEI: Tell me more.

BUCK: Well, he says there’s an overwhelming feeling in China that if anything bad in the world happens the U.S. is behind the scenes, pulling the sinister strings.

LEI: I get that.

BUCK: And he says China is wildly overconfident about how the rest of the world views its status on the global scene.

LEI: Uh-huh.

BUCK: And China is totally convinced — by the pandemic’s death toll, Black Lives Matter protests, the January 6th attack on the Capitol, inflation ...

LEI: Are you asking me whether Chinese people believe the West is evil and it’s only a matter of time until China becomes the dominant player in the world?

BUCK: Yes.

LEI: Remember, we’re talking about 1.4 billion people here. If you get my mother and father in the same room, you’re going to come up with three different opinions.

BUCK: Ha! What do you think?

LEI: My guess is Chinese people are probably as overconfident about China’s future role in the world as Americans are overly paranoid about the threat.

BUCK: Professor Liu says the Biden Administration’s answer is to adopt a “Trump-plus” policy.

LEI: What’s that?

BUCK: Well, the same confrontation but this time rallying our allies.

LEI: Who do you think won the great trade war between the U.S. and China launched by President Trump?

BUCK: Who?

LEI: Vietnam, if you believe the Wall Street Journal’s analysis. Both the U.S. and China ended up as losers in more than one way.

BUCK: I see. Professor Liu harkened back to President Biden taking a Trump-like stance at the beginning of his administration?

LEI: How?

BUCK: With this quote, Biden said: “China has an overall goal … to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world. That’s not going to happen on my watch because the United States is going to continue to grow.”

BUCK: So what’s China’s reaction to that?

LEI: Hold my beer.

BUCK: You’re killing me, Lei.

LEI: Sorry, Buck, I thought you would appreciate my strategic ambiguity.

About the authors: Buck Ryan, a University of Kentucky journalism professor, and Lei Jiao, an English lecturer at Wuhan University of Technology, Hubei Province, China, collaborate on articles to advance cross-cultural understanding.
You can read their latest critique, “If you want an honorary degree
in U.S.-China relations, all you need to do is watch Spider-Man,” here.