Widening the scope of US-China relations

The power of perception

Rachael Rudolph

Government and governance, International relations | The World

25 June 2018

When US and Chinese officials talk, they need to understand the power and problem of perception to facilitate stability in the Asia-Pacific region, writes Rachael Rudolph.

The countries of the Asia-Pacific rely heavily on China for economic development and the United States for security assistance. It follows that peace, stability and order in the region require a normalisation of Sino-American military relations.

But tensions between the two countries and the confrontational posture portrayed in the media impose limitations on the policy options available to US decision-makers. Policy options are constrained by how the public and policymakers perceive the actors and the nature of their relations, and shaped by how those relations are framed in the US media. The power and problem of perception means that US officials need to understand how it can either facilitate stability or create tension in the Asia-Pacific region.

My recent study analysed how western media frames Sino-American military relations by looking at articles published in the Washington Post and the New York Times between 2001 and 2017. The study reveals that the perceived character of these relations generally moved not between confrontation and cooperation, but between periods of confrontation, with perceptual shifts occurring from 2005 to 2007 and 2008 to 2011.

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Between 2001 and 2004, a confrontational approach was salient in the media coverage. The image cultivated by US media was of a China using covert means to intentionally oppose and divide the US from its allies and to undermine its role in the international order. The issues covered included the EP-3 aircraft incident, missile defense, the status of Taiwan, Sino-Japanese tensions, Sino-Russian relations and the Shanghai Pact, and China’s aid to Iran, Libya, and North Korea.

From 2005 to 2007, the approach shifted to one that was both confrontational and cooperative. The portrayal of China in US media was of a rapidly modernising country which was increasing military spending and capabilities, threatening the delicate security balance (defined by US primacy in the Asia Pacific), locked in tense relationships with Taiwan and Japan, and leading the efforts of six nations to denuclearise the Korean Peninsula.

In this period, China was framed in a positive light on the issue of North Korea and in other areas where the US sought assistance, while being critiqued on domestic matters including human rights abuses and lack of democratisation. There were also instances where the media highlighted China’s discussions on and potential move toward democracy.

Media coverage between 2008 and 2011 was primarily neutral and corresponded to an improvement in military relations. The period saw the 2009 Comprehensive Economic Agreement between China and Taiwan and the opening of a “rare” diplomatic door to opportunities for greater cooperation. There were calls for dialogue and a reduction in tensions between the US and China on the South China Sea disputes, with a marked softening in the tone of relations.

In particular, the US announced that it “does not take a position” on the territorial sea disputes following an unscheduled meeting between President Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. Overall, 2011 appeared to be the start of a change in the nature of security cooperation between the two countries.

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Given the previous perceptual shifts and start of a strategic security dialogue a year ago, the shift from neutral to confrontational between 2012 and 2017 was surprising. Media coverage highlighted China’s military modernisation, the deployment of US missile defense systems in South Korea despite Chinese objections, and the perceived threat of China to the US position in the international order. This change in coverage followed the US ‘pivot’ or re-balancing toward the Asia-Pacific, and an increase in bilateral and trilateral military and security cooperation agreements it has with countries in the region.

My study shows that, overall, America’s key media outlets have framed Sino-American relations primarily through a confrontational lens, despite actual political relations fluctuating along the cooperative-confrontational continuum.

This is a problem, because American public perception is shaped by the US media, and its framing provides the perceptual boundaries within which US policymakers act. That is, the existing perceptions of China and Sino-American relations as portrayed in the media contribute to reinforcing the hardline positions among US policymakers and the public. They thereby limit the voices within the US military and policy communities advocating for better relations and geostrategic security cooperation.

Peace, stability and the continued economic development of the Asia-Pacific region depend on the transformation of the Sino-American relationship. But that is not possible without breaking down the barriers to how policymakers perceive and understand the nature and type of this relationship. Their perceptions are important, especially given the restrictions imposed on Sino-American security cooperation by the US National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

The US will remain limited in its cooperation with China on common security issues such as North Korea, the development of electromagnetic pulse weapons, cybercrime and trafficking (arms, drugs and persons) without changes in how relations are covered in the media, perceived by US policymakers and the public, and restricted by the NDAA. Cooperation on such issues could lay down a foundation upon which broader geostrategic ties can be built, and contribute to transforming the Sino-American relationship.

This article is based on the author’s paper, ‘Framing Sino-American military relations: The power and problem of perception in preventing geostrategic security cooperation between China and the United States’, which was published in Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies in April 2018. All articles in the journal are free to read and download.

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