The perception gap: if we understand how China and the West see each other, can we build a better relationship?


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

“Perception is reality” is a well-known maxim of international diplomacy. It certainly seems to apply at the moment to relations between the West and China. Hardly a day goes by without another salvo of accusations and recriminations from Washington or Brussels in the direction of Beijing or vice versa.

One day China characterises the recently announced AUKUS pact as an open declaration of hostilities towards it. The next day, Washington denounces Chinese military flights into the air identification zone of Taiwan as a threat to regional peace and stability. This tendency to overreact to the actions of the opposing side places time constraints on more in-depth analysis and limits the opportunity for policy communication and dialogue.

This is when pre-established perceptions start to take hold. They are fuelled in the modern age by the power of social media and the populist press, and go viral increasingly quickly. Once they take root they are subsequently difficult to dislodge. They are, of course, only perceptions and their prominence does not mean that they are real or justified, whether as whole or partial truth and reality.

Yet this does not make them any less powerful. Populist politicians feed on the images of threats and plots to mobilise their base. Social media feeds on exaggeration, false drama and false claims to hook more viewers and generate more tweets, shares and likes. It becomes harder to separate facts from fiction, truth from lies and information from disinformation. We soon become trapped in and by perception bubbles that we know are not true or at a minimum grossly exaggerated; but they become so all pervasive that they frame our debates and we cannot ignore them.

Perceptions of a rising China challenging a declining United States or of a new value system replacing an old and discredited one easily fit into this black and white world, where existing views are reinforced rather than challenged and nuanced.

NATO has recently announced its willingness to start a dialogue with Beijing

Negative perceptions on one side are soon exploited to justify the existence of another bubble’s perception and reinforce its sanctimony. Thus, the global phenomenon of COVID-19 is reduced via social media to the ‘Wuhan virus’, with the conspiracy theory of a laboratory leak thrown in for good measure. Legitimate criticism is immediately rejected as politically-motivated interference or as an attempt to blacken a country’s reputation.

We can move quickly from negative perceptions of specific actions and decisions to the demonisation of entire societies and populations, as if China, the US, NATO or the EU are monolithic entities and hold no debates of their own. As the perceptions take hold, they permit and even justify a more strident and often inflammatory political rhetoric and media commentary. This can further reinforce negative perceptions, and so the downward spiral continues.

As a result, bridge building and dialogue must begin by an honest attempt by both the Western democracies and China to identify the key perceptions that each has of the other. In that way we can grasp why each side is acting in the way it is because of the way it perceives us and our own actions. By seeing which particular actions or political narratives have the most mobilising impact on the other’s behaviour, which could lead us progressively into a spiral of confrontation, we can better identify the appropriate course of actions and narratives that can lead us out of this spiral before it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As Dostoevsky once said: “the easiest thing is to condemn the evil doer; the hardest is to understand him.”

Yet there is hope on the horizon. NATO has recently announced its willingness to start a dialogue with Beijing. Indeed, just last week the alliance’s press service revealed that the NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, had held a call with Wang Yi, the State Councillor for foreign affairs and de facto Foreign Minister of China. The NATO summary made clear that Stoltenberg had delivered the standard talking points of current importance to the great majority of Western leaders when they meet their Chinese counterparts: the human rights situation, Beijing’s growing military assertiveness in the East and South China Seas, and its lack of transparency regarding its military spending and weapons programmes.

Predictably Wang Yi, according to press reports, pushed back, pointing to the increasing deployments of NATO country ships in the Indo-Pacific; although it is NATO member states that are deploying these warships, not the alliance itself. Recently, Beijing refused a port visit by the German frigate, Bavaria, to underscore its displeasure. Yet at the same time, Stoltenberg and Wang Yi agreed to continue their dialogue and mentioned issues such as Afghanistan, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and piracy on the high seas as good starting points.

Dialogue depends on a willingness to acknowledge and address misperceptions and disagreements

NATO as an institution has not yet begun a structured and systematic dialogue with China at the level of the 30 allied countries that could help to gain a better understanding of each other’s positions and to bridge differences. Certainly, it would not be starting from scratch as NATO in the past has held a number of talks with Chinese officials and security experts both in Brussels and China. Yet these have been ad hoc and rarely followed up. A substantive agenda has been lacking and the alliance and China have failed to create an informal ‘Track Two’ dialogue, involving think tanks and civilian experts, as well as serving officials, to map the strategic terrain and build confidence and a degree of openness and frankness.

NATO’s analyses of China have involved mainly Western rather than Chinese specialists, notwithstanding the past participation of some NATO officials in security conferences in China such as the Xiangshan Forum. As China has come on to NATO’s agenda only recently, clearly the alliance will have more work to do to develop a full understanding of all the many and complex factors that are driving Beijing’s foreign and security policies.

Similarly, NATO today is also a much more complex and multifaceted organisation than it was during the Cold War. Its strategies, policies and priorities now evolve much more rapidly to adapt to today’s fast moving security landscape. Moreover, this autumn, the alliance will embark on the elaboration of a new Strategic Concept, and we can anticipate more adaptations to NATO’s agenda as a result of this exercise. The debate surrounding the drafting of this new Strategic Concept is also worth watching closely as it will reveal the particular viewpoints, priorities and security interests of the 30 NATO allies. So this exercise should also help China to better understand how NATO works and where it is heading, beyond superficial impressions or lazy stereotypes inherited from the past or some of the more impressionistic media commentary.

Clearly any productive dialogue will want to focus first and foremost on areas of overlap or convergence in order to identify possible cooperation and build confidence. Yet, as NATO’s dialogue with Russia in the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) since 2002 has shown, launching joint cooperative activities does not make disagreements and opposing security visions magically disappear. Both China and NATO need to face any divergences squarely if they are to develop realistic expectations of each other and to build a productive dialogue that does not collapse every time one side disapproves of the other’s behaviour. A crisis-proof dialogue depends on a willingness to acknowledge and address misperceptions and disagreements, if only to better understand the red lines of each side and to prevent incidents from escalating into crises. As a result, an exercise that starts out with an open airing of current perceptions could help NATO and Chinese officials to structure the agenda of a future official dialogue in a way that can build confidence and focus on realistic short-term objectives.

China has successfully developed a soft power narrative

So let us begin with the most prevalent Western perceptions of China. There will of course be nuances among individual allies when it comes to these perceptions as they have different levels of engagement with China and different commercial or strategic interests. This said, the fact that all 30 allies were able to agree on language on China in the recent communiqué of the NATO Summit on 14 June underscores their general consensus as to the security challenges that a rising China poses.

1. China is an authoritarian state that does not share NATO’s values. It is not a democracy of another type but a one-party state that does not respect the human rights of its citizens, especially minority groups such as the Uighurs or the Tibetans. When criticised for its alleged human rights abuses, China obfuscates, denies and rejects the criticism rather than takes action to remedy the abuses.

2. China does not respect international law and treaty commitments where these go against its interests. It has a selective approach to the respect of international norms. Frequently cited examples are its security law and crackdown on the opposition in Hong Kong in violation of the 1997 UK-China treaty, Beijing’s rejection of a ruling by the International Court of Justice condemning its territorial claims in the South China Sea, and its disregard of its commitments under its WTO membership, particularly on labour rights, state-sponsored enterprises and forced intellectual property transfers. The perception is that China desires the prestige and power of its great power status and permanent seat on the UN Security Council, but does not always accept the responsibility to uphold international norms and standards that come with that status.

3. China is increasingly pushing its model of state authoritarianism on the global stage as something superior to the Western democracies. China often portrays the democracies as in decline as a result of their internal divisions and polarisation or their lower rates of economic growth. It exaggerates these admittedly real problems in its public diplomacy both at home and abroad while consistently underestimating the residual strengths of the democracies. China has successfully developed a soft power narrative of the efficiency and effectiveness of its political system and economic model.

It is actively promoting that narrative in the developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America but also in Europe, for instance in its annual 17+1 dialogue with countries in central and eastern Europe. In many cases, the Western democracies believe that Chinese aid and investment come at a heavy political price and result in poorly executed projects and severe indebtedness. Thus, they run counter to the interests of the recipient countries. Yet the NATO allies and Western democracies more generally recognise that it is not enough to criticise China’s soft power. They have to be able to offer a Western alternative. Hence the launch of the Build Back Better World at the recent G7 meeting and similar initiatives by both the US and the European Union.

The concept of European Strategic Autonomy has been used to assert the need to reduce foreign dependencies

4. China has a long-term strategy to dominate global supply chains and future core technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence, quantum computing, mass surveillance systems, synthetic biology, advanced 5G telecoms and advanced medicine. It seeks to gain control of innovative companies through its direct foreign investments but it also resorts to cyber-espionage and massive theft of commercial data and intellectual property through state-sponsored, or simply condoned, computer network hacking. It denies that it is responsible for these cyber-attacks, claims that it is itself a victim and does not cooperate with Western law enforcement investigations. China has a particular interest in controlling transportation links, such as ports, shipping, road and rail links, in order to fuel its export-driven economy. Its civilian technologies are a potential threat to Western security because of the control that the Chinese state has over its civilian tech companies, particularly the transfer of sensitive data. These fears have been raised in conjunction with the 5G telecoms equipment of Huawei and even the video posting site, TikTok.

5. China is rapidly building up its military capabilities. This could put it in a position to threaten or even invade other territories in Asia. Taiwan is frequently referred to in this context. China is also using its military power more assertively to demonstrate its control of the airspace and sea space around its borders. This is particularly the case in the South and East China Seas and the Taiwan Strait. China’s growing maritime and air presence in this region is a threat to freedom of navigation in recognised international waters and needs to be countered by US and other allied deployments to assert freedom of navigation and push back against China.

Another global commons that China is threatening is space due to its anti-satellite tests, development of space weapons and interdiction technologies. In addition to the rapid expansion of China’s blue water navy, the allies are also concerned by the increase in China’s intermediate and long-range missiles and its acquisition of hypersonic capabilities. They criticise China for its lack of transparency, particularly in its military spending and procurements, and the imprecision of its nuclear doctrine.

6. Allies are also concerned by the military cooperation between China and Russia, even if they do not see that this will become a formal military alliance in the near future. Indeed, there is an assumption that this is more an alliance of convenience to poke a finger at the West, and that Russia will not want to be the junior partner to China in the long run. Yet for now Russia is drawing China into joint military exercises in Europe with maritime deployments in the Arctic, eastern Mediterranean and Baltic seas. Coupled with China’s investments in Europe, and its deepening relations with European states, such as Hungary or Serbia, allies have the perception that “China is coming closer to us”, in the words of the NATO Secretary General. The overall impression is that all the various strands of Chinese power – military, economic, technological and diplomatic – are giving Beijing more geopolitical leverage over European affairs.

This has led to intensive policy debates within the EU, US and Canada about where to limit Chinese influence by placing restrictions on Chinese direct foreign investments and ownership, and by bringing some vital supply chains and production back home, particularly in pharmaceuticals and health. In the EU, the concept of European Strategic Autonomy has been used to assert the need to reduce foreign dependencies and develop home-grown technologies so that the EU can have greater freedom of action in its foreign and security policy.

Relations between China and the West are often viewed as a zero-sum game

7. China has not had a good COVID-19 crisis, in the view of many allies. It delayed informing the WHO of the outbreak of the SARS-coronavirus. It has dragged its feet in cooperating with the international community on the origins of the virus, although it did allow a WHO scientific team to visit Wuhan. The pandemic has also shown a harsher face of China during the pandemic. It banned wine and beef imports from Australia after the Australian Prime Minister called for an international enquiry into the origins of COVID-19. Faced with sanctions against four Chinese officials and one state entity for their treatment of the Uighurs, Beijing imposed much harsher counter-sanctions on parliamentarians from across the EU, US, UK and Canada. It even sanctioned EU institutions. This led the European Parliament to suspend its approval of the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment.

At the same time allies have been disturbed by the virulence of the Chinese government’s public attacks on the Western democracies, for instance the press conferences of its ‘wolf warrior’ spokespersons. Their rhetoric has gone well beyond normal diplomatic protocols. There is a perception that China’s behaviour during the pandemic has deepened divisions with Western democracies and undermined its image as a peaceful and cooperative country. US and European views of China have undoubtedly come closer together and the new image of China is much more one of a geopolitical rival rather than just an economic competitor. Consequently, there is more common agreement across the Atlantic than there has been in the past on the joint need to push back against hostile Chinese actions and to bind together to deter Chinese bullying of vulnerable, individual states.

8. Most importantly, there is a perception on the side of the Western democracies that China is now much more than a trading partner, but indeed, a systemic competitor. NATO countries do not view China as a military threat at present, but hopes have been largely abandoned for a more democratically-evolved China with a strong commitment to the rules-based liberal order vis-à-vis the forces of globalisation and economic interdependence. China is seen as a much more significant rival to the Western democracies over the long run than Russia because of its more cohesive society, its greater capacity for innovation and technological development which will also enhance its military power projection capabilities, and its much larger role in global trade and investments. These factors will give China greater leverage and influence over global politics than Russia. China’s voice in international organisations, where more and more Chinese nationals are gaining key positions, testifies to this already.

Given the nature of China’s strategic challenge, the Western democracies are increasingly coalescing around a three-pronged approach to dealing with Beijing: there should be cooperation in mutual interest wherever possible; the West needs to ‘get its house in order’ to sustain long-term competition with China, especially in research, home-grown technologies and education; and the democracies need to constrain China’s behaviour wherever it challenges their security and defence interests. How to balance and implement this three-pronged approach successfully will be the principal challenge for the allies and their partner democracies in the decades ahead.

9. Relations between China and the West are often viewed as a zero-sum game. If the West loses or is in retreat, China will inevitably occupy the resulting strategic vacuum and take advantage – both materially and in propaganda terms – of the West’s failures and discomfort. We have seen this zero-sum game syndrome at work recently following the military withdrawal of the US and NATO from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s return to power. In terms of political influence and economic advantage, China is seen as the winner in inverse proportion to the West being viewed as the loser.

Western initiatives are seen as attempts to curtail China’s rise

These hardening Western perceptions of China have unsurprisingly been reciprocated by equally hardening views of China towards the West and NATO.

1. According to China, NATO is still a Cold War organisation. It needs a threat to survive and China is a convenient scapegoat to provide that threat. China is being used as a device to drive a new ‘alliance of democracies’ and to garner support for programmes to address the weaknesses of the democracies: for instance, political polarisation, economic stagnation, poor secondary education and skills, and inadequate investment in public infrastructure. Yet these failings cannot be blamed on China which is only pursuing its peaceful rise. Moreover, China’s military modernisation gives NATO an additional pretext to push for higher military spending among its own members, for instance, the fulfilment of the 2% of GDP Defence Investment Pledge. Yet China’s defence budget is well below 2% of GDP and therefore NATO is exaggerating the Chinese military challenge for its own internal purposes.

2. NATO is dominated by the US and the allies largely do its bidding. The US wants to turn NATO from an alliance essentially focused on Russia to one increasingly prioritising China as the key challenge and glue for cementing the future transatlantic security partnership. NATO is moving from a regional to a global alliance. It thus will inevitably sooner or later increase its military profile and presence in the Indo-Pacific region. Indeed, the fact that a UK aircraft carrier task force has passed through the South China Sea and that France, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium have all sent ships to the region this year to participate in joint exercises with regional partners, such as Japan, Australia or India, or for freedom of navigation operations, shows that US pressure is paying off.

Moreover, the UK in its recent Integrated Review announced its intention to keep a Royal Navy vessel permanently on station in Singapore and to open a commando training facility in northern Australia by mid-decade. Since then, the announcement of the AUKUS pact and the Quad summit in Washington have confirmed Beijing’s fears of a tightening Western coalition seeking to encircle and bottle up China.

3. Western initiatives are seen as attempts to curtail China’s rise and to prevent it from achieving strategic equivalence with the NATO countries and other Western democracies, let alone overtake them in the long run. For instance, the US has been pushing for Beijing to join the strategic nuclear arms talks between the US and Russia, even though China possesses only a fraction of the nuclear warheads in the arsenals of both the US and Russia which accounts for over 90% of the global total. The US has been criticising China for its development of new hypersonic missiles, intermediate missiles, stealth aircraft, battlefield robotics, and cyber and space weapons; but the US and its allies are also developing the same capabilities, which they deem to be essential for 21st century defence. So to criticise China points to double standards.

The new narrative of an ‘alliance of democracies’ is a US-led effort to re-energise the West

4. The West’s opposition to the penetration of Chinese civilian technologies is also hypocritical. False claims of security vulnerabilities and Chinese state interference are invoked for protectionist reasons and to give Western companies, whose products are less efficient or more expensive, an unfair market advantage. The treatment of Huawei and TikTok, the denial of Google apps to Chinese manufacturers of smart phones, as well as restrictions on Chinese banks and energy companies, are clear examples of the misuse of security arguments to penalise Chinese goods and services. The US and its allies seem to favour a ‘grand decoupling’ with China and the West splitting into separate technology spheres with different standards and shrinking interoperability. This will undermine the open markets and globalisation that have facilitated China’s rise and made it a win-win for both the Chinese and Western economies. Of course, in this respect, Chinese experts are mindful of Western claims that China’s markets are less open than those of the West and offer fewer legal protections.

5. The international system is based on the principle of state sovereignty and non-interference. The US and its allies are increasingly violating these principles by condemning China and imposing sanctions on it for its internal behaviour, notably regarding the Uighurs and Hong Kong. The US is also undermining the ‘One China’ policy by increasing its high-level diplomatic engagement with Taiwan and selling modern weaponry to Taipei. Yet criticism of China cannot hide the West’s own failings as is clear in the Black Lives Matter campaign, the 6 January attack on the US Congress and the ongoing social tensions and divisions in many Western democracies. The latter ask for understanding when they take measures in the name of their own security, but they do not show China the same understanding when it needs to act against extremism and separatism within its own borders. Again, this demonstrates the West’s double standards.

6. China’s rise, along with the emergence of other major powers, shows that the Western dominated multilateral system has outlived its purpose. With a declining share of the global economy, the West needs to make way for the newcomers and give them a greater voice and decision-making role in international affairs, especially the distribution of global public goods and the setting of new rules. Yet the Western democracies, accustomed to their privileges, are unwilling to accept a new multilateral order in which their own power would be reduced. So they are fighting back by trying to revitalise the G7 and adding India, Australia, South Africa and South Korea to it. The US has also revived the Quad in the Indo-Pacific; now there is AUKUS too. The US is pushing to boost the global outreach of NATO. For China, this is reminiscent of the early Cold War when the US formed military pacts around the globe, including NATO, CENTO, RIO, Baghdad and SEATO, to contain and hem in the Soviet Union. Moreover, the West is resisting efforts to reform and enlarge the UN Security Council, wherein the US and the Europeans always have one third of the seats. In this way the West wishes to make the global rules by itself.

The new narrative of an ‘alliance of democracies’ is a US-led effort to re-energise the West and preserve its dominance by pushing it into a confrontation with the authoritarian states, supposedly led by China and Russia. This effort is destabilising global politics by dividing the world into new Cold War blocs and forcing countries in the middle to choose sides. It is undermining much needed cooperation on common challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic or climate change. NATO will similarly try to divide security and cooperation in the Indo-Pacific by increasing its engagement with its partners in the region – namely Australia, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand – and pushing them in a more anti-China direction.

Economic and technological decoupling could lead to major trade losses and enormous economic damage

If a NATO-China dialogue and ongoing diplomatic exchanges between Washington and Beijing, as well as multinational engagement with China, can help to soften these perceptions as removing them entirely will be more difficult, we could avoid a number of consequences and risks. On the other hand, if the conflicting and contrasting perceptions and assumptions of both the NATO countries and China continue to interact with each other, a number of scenarios could soon become a reality.

China and the Western democracies could enter a syndrome of confrontation where they regard each other as existential threats based on fundamentally incompatible systems. The scope for dialogue, cooperation and accommodation would progressively dwindle.

As the military forces of both China and the West come into closer contact, there is the risk of incidents and clashes that could escalate. This suggests the urgent need for agreed hot lines, a military communications channel and risk reduction measures.

Economic and technological decoupling could lead to major trade losses and enormous economic damage especially at a time when the world needs to recover from the impact of COVID-19 and pare down financial deficits and out-of-control public spending.

Antagonism between China and the West could undermine the West’s ability to deal with challenges where China’s cooperation, even if sometimes discreet, has been helpful in the past, such as North Korea, the Iran nuclear file, maritime piracy and organised crime.

The lack of clear rules and doctrine regarding cyber-attacks against critical infrastructure or military systems, such as nuclear command and control or vital space communications, could lead to rapid escalation and excessive retaliatory measures that could force China and the West into open conflict. This might also be the case with regard to a lack of transparency in any future defence commitments between China and Russia.

Afghanistan is now another zone of mistrust, rivalry and competition

A lack of dialogue and understanding between the military establishments of China and the West could lead both to increasingly base their strategic foresight on worst-case scenarios, automatic responses and escalation ladders, similar to the US-Soviet ‘Dead Hand’ of the Cold War. In such an environment, arms control and disarmament steps would become more difficult to achieve as they would be seen as constraining the freedom to act on both sides, and additionally would not command sufficient political support in either Washington or Beijing.

Growing military rivalry and antagonism between the West and China carries the risk that regional crises and conflicts could be seen through the prism of a new Cold War. China and the West would see – rightly or wrongly – the influence of the other at play and intervene to block each other, thereby risking escalation. Compare this, for example, to the US-Soviet crises in the Middle East in the 1960s and ’70s. As mentioned previously, Afghanistan is now another zone of mistrust, rivalry and competition as the vacuum left by the withdrawal of the US and NATO forces is seen by the West as benefiting China’s growing influence and its diplomatic and economic leverage as part of a zero-sum game.

All these factors point to the urgency of establishing a constant high-level and confidential dialogue between the US and China. At the moment these contacts appear to be limited to official visits or to highly-choreographed semi-public exchanges, like the one recently in Alaska where both sides seemed primarily interested in addressing their domestic audiences. Contacts are also limited to the margins of international conferences or to the working levels within foreign and defence ministries, where mid-level officials have little room for manoeuvre.

Even at the height of the Cold War, the US and Soviet leaderships were able to communicate with each other directly and immediately via the Soviet Ambassador, Dobrynin, in Washington and to have a confidential back channel. After the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, they established a hot line to defuse crises, which served both sides well during the Middle East conflicts of the late 1960s and early 1970s. So Washington and Beijing would be well advised to set up a similar communication system so that the US National Security Adviser can speak directly to his counterparts in President Xi’s office. Dealing with the current wave of cyber- and ransomware attacks, and consequent accusations of involvement, would be a good place to start.

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