In this analytical piece on "Negotiating with China" Vijay Gokhale argues that the secretiveness, stage-setting and theatricality of Chinese counterparts should not throw Western negotiators off their game. It is the result of a workshop held at MERICS in Spring 2023. Another piece resulting from the conference by Charles Parton can be found here.
How do you negotiate with a government like the People’s Republic of China when you are constantly reminded of its glorious past, its venerable strategic and diplomatic culture, and its capacity to win against all odds? China evokes fear, awe, self-doubt, feelings of inadequacy or a sense of being in exalted company. Negotiators arrive at the table already convinced that China’s rise is unstoppable, that it is a world power and that its demands, however egregious, must be accommodated for those reasons. If these mind games succeed, the negotiation will be lost even before it has begun.
Understanding the psyche of Chinese counterparts is critical in preparing for negotiations. It starts with the simple fact that the party-army, known as the Chinese Communist Party, became the state in 1949. In other words, the People’s Republic of China is really the CCP. Therefore, China is driven by two key sources of conduct that motivate the party. First, the imagined reality that China has historically been the center of the world and the world should accept the CCP’s dominance because it is the natural order of things. Second, the sense that there is a deep-rooted conspiracy by outsiders to subvert and overthrow the CCP and, therefore, China. This means the outside world’s negotiating partner is not the PRC but the CCP. In addition, the CCP’s self-perception of dominance is laced with a deep-seated sense of besiegement. This insight should inform any negotiating strategy and tactics.
Understanding the mindset
Recognizing the structural and organizational differences between democracies and the CCP is of equal importance. In a democratic system, the state is both decision-maker and negotiator, while in China there are parallel structures: the party decides and the state acts. In democracies, this translates into a linear chain of command where the negotiator often has direct access to, and input into, the decision-making process. In China, the parallel chains of command greatly limit the access of negotiators to the decision-making process. In short, Chinese negotiators are likely to second-guess or blindly obey orders on the principle that if they mouth the right political line, they will stay out of trouble. Any expectations that the Chinese negotiator is empowered, has flexibility or knows the endgame, are misplaced.
Understanding this mind-set is also important for strategy and tactics. The negotiator is a loyal servant of the CCP. Expect them to be ideologically prepped and unlikely to be moved by logic and reason. Political loyalty is valued above professional competence. Most importantly, negotiators are not deterred by failure since this will have no bearing on their professional career. They are simply following orders and will not depart from their brief. Efforts at building friendship, reasoning, and informal exploration of ideas with Chinese counterparts are usually a waste of time. Overly friendly or accommodative behavior is viewed as a sign of desperation and will be exploited by the Chinese side to serve their own ends.
Using constraints to your advantage
The Chinese strategy is to prep the agenda in advance to discuss only the topics in their interest. This is about control. When they talk of finding “common ground,” this means only issues defined by the agenda. A key to getting the Chinese negotiators to take serious notice of your concerns is to keep them from choreographing the negotiation. Challenge all points of their interest and raise all issues of your own even if they are not on the agenda. If this frustrates or irritates them, that helps limit their control of the negotiation.
Time is a critical element on multiple levels. It is used to frustrate, to extract the bottom line of the opposite side and to pressure. Patience may be an antidote. When faced with a deadline, the Chinese are more likely to become flexible and willing to compromise. Combined with time pressure, the chances of success increase greatly if negotiators also refrain from being exploratory or familiar with their Chinese counterparts and adhere to the brief. Convey maximal positions on record each time and repeat the mantra ad nauseum to show the CCP you will not relent easily without some flexibility from them.
Be wary of the CCP’s interests
Chinese negotiators also try to include unilaterally framed concepts in documents, such as the “one-China principle” regarding China’s claims on Taiwan or the “Belt & Road” infrastructure initiative. The terms might look uncontroversial, but are highly political. Domestically, it helps the CCP’s narrative of how it is putting China again at the center of the world. Internationally, when a few countries have – perhaps unknowingly – accepted such new ideas, the CCP has used it to pressure the rest of the world to follow suit and thereby usher their thinking into the mainstream.
Over time, the CCP has used its persuasive skills to shape global discourse on subjects from the Taiwan Strait to the “community for the shared future of mankind” – either to circumscribe other countries’ freedom of action on grounds they are going against universally accepted norms, or to get them to jump on the bandwagon. Any new idea, therefore, must first be weighed carefully as to how it serves the CCP’s interests.
Negotiators may believe their chance for success is greater if they talk “one-on-one” or through a back channel. A fundamental CCP rule is that no secrets can be kept from the party and, therefore, “informal” or “off-the-record” conversations do not exist. All conversations are reported and treated as official and may be brought up at the appropriate time in formal meetings, either to discredit or put counterparts at a disadvantage. Also, verbal understandings are of limited value and should be recorded on paper with little ambiguous language.
Reading the final agreement very carefully is essential to minimize the likelihood that the Chinese side will claim victory. China uses the free press in democracies to re-claim, in terms of public opinion, any ground they might have lost in negotiations. The idea of “giving face” to show respect is a farce. Countries reach an agreement when both have succeeded in securing their interest, and there should be no further need for compensation.
A final word of caution: for the CCP, negotiations are rarely a permanent resolution of any matter. It is usually a stop-gap arrangement until they acquire the capacity or opportunity to overturn the outcome. Hence, it is unwise to let down your guard on the assumption that the problem has been resolved forever.