This week, U.S. and Chinese officials held meetings in Washington aimed at building ties following months of tension since Beijing’s surveillance balloon floated across the U.S. in early February.
For the former U.S. officials who used to broker such talks 15 years ago, the tensions reflect how Beijing itself has changed under leader Xi Jinping.
Stephen Hadley, who served as national security adviser for former President George W. Bush, said Beijing has gone from wanting to be a part of the international system at the end of the Bush administration to trying to challenge it now.
“The China we faced was a China that wanted a benign international environment so they could focus on their own domestic development,” Hadley, one of the highest-profile U.S. foreign policy specialists of the past 25 years, told an audience in Washington this week.
“It was a China that did not want to overturn the international system but wanted to be a part of that system and made that very clear. It was a China that wanted a constructive relationship with the United States. And we tried to build that,” he added.
Hadley and other former Bush administration officials gathered this week to discuss relations with China during the Bush administration, just as China’s leader Xi Jinping was rising to power.
Dennis Wilder, a senior fellow for the Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues at Georgetown University, who appeared with Hadley at the event, said the Bush administration "did try to figure out Xi Jinping" during its first meeting with the Chinese leader. Wilder served as the National Security Council's special assistant to Bush.
“When we went to the 2008 Olympics, Xi Jinping was actually in charge of the Olympics. … It was one of the most boring meetings I'd ever been in. Xi Jinping gave nothing. He was cardboard. He wasn't going to tell us a thing about himself. He was not going to show his hand. And this is how he got to the top of the Chinese system. He did hide his cards,” Wilder said.
Wilder added that many thought Xi Jinping was “another reformist Chinese leader,” but everyone was surprised by him.
Xi is enhancing Beijing’s diplomacy, economic strength and military capability, believing the United States is in “terminal decline,” according to Hadley, whose book Hand-Off: The Foreign Policy George W. Bush Passed to Barack Obama was published in February.
Xi, Hadley said, views that "the West is in decline" and "the United States is in terminal decline."
"Xi was prepared to put his power center stage and then to use it to intimidate his neighbors and others abroad, with his enhanced diplomacy, economic strength and military capability,” he said.
"China is a defender of the international order. We always firmly safeguard the UN-centered international system, the international order based on international law, and the basic norms of international relations underpinned by the purposes and principles of the UN Charter," said Chinese Embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu in an email to VOA on Saturday.
In 1978, Deng Xiaoping, who is widely considered the father of modern China, kick-started the country’s economic reform that embraces a free-market economy while maintaining the political model of one-party dictatorship. The reform led China to open up to the world economically and politically, achieving double-digit GDP growth rates for over 30 years by becoming the global manufacturing hub. Today, China is the world’s second-biggest economy.
Hadley said Deng’s “hide and bide” strategy, which guides China to build power while hiding from international leadership responsibility, continued to be prominent in the Chinese leadership until Xi came to power in 2012.
The U.S. sees China as its main strategic and geopolitical challenge. The U.S. national security strategy published on October 2022 states that "the People’s Republic of China harbors the intention and, increasingly, the capacity to reshape the international order in favor of one that tilts the global playing field to its benefit."
Bonny Lin, director of the China Power Project at CSIS, who also attended the event, said the U.S. right now is not necessarily able to communicate with China the way it could during the Bush administration. But she added that there is a “continued emphasis on President [Joe] Biden being able to speak directly with Xi Jinping.”
"Given how much China has centralized power under Xi - very different than under Hu Jintao, who was going in sort of the opposite direction, inviting more collective leadership - that is even more important for the two leaders to maintain that personal bond," Lin said.
Hadley said the foreign policy of the Bush administration that was passed to the Obama administration was to try to cooperate and engage with China and to “bring China into the international system,” but China’s shift to challenge the system was not anything the U.S. can control.
"Who leads countries really matters," he said. "And I think if China decided in 2012 for a Jiang Zemin- or Hu Jintao-type leader, and we had that leader for 2012 to 2022, I think China would be in a very different place today. And America's relationship with China would be very different today."
Christy Lee contributed to this story.