Heading north on Connecticut Avenue just below Woodley Park in Washington, DC, the road bends suddenly and sharply toward a large, squat red-brick building before spanning Rock Creek Park via the Taft Bridge. It would no doubt come as a surprise even to most Washingtonians that the nondescript fortress in front of them is actually the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China. In the near future, however, drivers who continue north up Connecticut Avenue and then left toward Reno Road will have no doubt at all about whose building towers over them. With little fanfare beyond the round-the-clock blazing of arc welders and the booming of jackhammers, the government of China has built a gleaming new Embassy. At 250,000 square feet, the massive steel and cement structure will be the largest embassy in Washington, DC—indeed, the largest chancery ever built in the United States.
What’s obvious from the surrounding neighborhood, and the still small-town feel of much of residential Washington, is just how out of place and out of scale this massive new structure will be. Washington’s surrounding and sprawling suburbia has scores of McMansions that are a blight on the once rural pastures of the Potomac and Piedmont. The new Chinese Embassy—in keeping with both some of the garish new structures of Beijing and Shanghai and the nouveau-riche architecture of greater Washington—is a veritable McEmbassy. This enormous new diplomatic compound, however, does reflect a new balance of political power and an associated architectural aesthetic that will be on full display in the Summer Olympics of 2008.
Indeed, the new Embassy project is more than a simple step up for the Chinese in the capital real estate market. Rather, it signifies the arrival on the international (and Washington) scene of a powerful new player, with potentially enormous consequences for the United States.
Washington is filled with embassies, ranging in size and stature from the grand to the gauche. In many subtle though important ways, these state buildings are a physical manifestation of the ebb and flow of national power and the character of relations between nations. Old friends and allies, like Great Britain and France, maintain magnificent but aging mansions in plush, quiet Washington neighborhoods. Emerging new commercial states, particularly in Asia, gobble up vacant property in and around downtown DC to put up new, sometimes garish buildings and then stuff them with peripatetic personnel. In the case of the PRC, its sleek new building will serve as just the latest reminder of China’s rise and growing rivalry with the United States. Increasingly, we compete over trade, soft power, military modernization, climate change and now, embassy architecture and size.
Indeed, architecture in this case speaks volumes. For most of the past thirty years, since the United States and China restored relations, Chinese diplomats and military liaisons have cloistered themselves behind the thick, drab walls of a building that seemed to come straight out of either the Cultural Revolution or 1950s urban American hell—take your pick. In the past, the daily exercises and lonely vigils of the Falun Gong and Tibet demonstrators across the street seemed to be the only sign of activity. These public demonstrations were a constant source of anger and humiliation for the Chinese government. The new chancery will allow for a much greater degree of privacy. Yet today’s official Chinese representatives are no longer hiding inside a fortress, behind drawn curtains and shuttered windows; they are out on the town, meeting reporters, schmoozing Congressmen—essentially, playing the Washington game. The old building has become a startling incongruity, very much out of tune with the new mercantilism of modern China.
We have much to learn from China’s choices as it makes its mark on the landscape of our capital. In the midst of the Cold War, the Soviet Union built its new Embassy on the commanding heights of the Mt. Alto neighborhood north of Georgetown. From its strategic position, the Kremlin’s representatives could literally look down upon almost every agency of influence in the U.S. government, including the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon. Indeed, many in the intelligence community were concerned that KGB operatives working under diplomatic cover would be able to use this new diplomatic “high ground” to maximum strategic advantage.
China’s new diplomatic quarters are more discreetly located, but evince much grander ambitions. Unlike the Soviets, who practiced an accomplished form of clandestine intelligence, China’s main aim in Washington appears to be less about gaining strategic or military insights and more about ensuring that American markets remain open to Chinese goods (and one day, services, too). For Chinese diplomats, the big challenges are not American reactions to Chinese anti-satellite programs, cyber initiatives or ballistic missiles, but rather to keep American consumers from making a big fuss over contaminated dog food or lead paint on Chinese-made toys. For the current phase of the competition between the United States and China, it’s as if Beijing’s diplomats have reflected deeply upon a phrase straight from Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
At the same time, the Chinese are taking no chances. Although the Embassy was designed largely in the West (by Chinese-Americans I.M. Pei, Li Chung and Chien Chung), it is being built by a consortium of four massive companies from the East: the China State Construction Engineering Corporation, the Shanghai Construction Group, General Corporation and China Rilin Construction Group. Many of these construction giants have been involved in building the gleaming new Chinese skylines of cities like Shanghai. Secrecy and security have been paramount concerns on the construction site in Washington. Few visitors have been allowed inside to glimpse the building’s progress. The construction site’s gates are monitored night and day by watchful Chinese guards who carefully inspect every shipment and container entering or leaving the compound. Virtually every worker and contractor has been brought in from China or somewhere outside of the United States, and virtually every step in the design and construction phase is inspected to ensure that no “unexpected modifications” slip through. There is virtually no local content in the entire edifice.
The aura of suspicion that hovers over the entire project feels more like a throwback to the Cold War, when Soviet and American agents played hide-and-seek around Washington landmarks and parks. But a Chinese diplomat recently suggested to me that it is the United States that is clinging to old-fashioned ways of doing business. He noted (off the record) that
the United States has a bad habit of seeking to monitor our important state buildings and other assets. You no doubt know that when China took delivery of the Boeing aircraft, built for our senior leaders, we found many unexpected surprises.
Indeed, it was reported at the time that Chinese engineers found hundreds of listening devices, homing beacons and transmitting relays in the aircraft after they had proceeded to take it apart piece by piece, wire by wire. This was embarrassing, but probably not surprising, for all concerned. In today’s environment of barely disguised strategic competition, Chinese precautions have played out according to a familiar script. Of course, the Americans are not the only ones who practice the black arts of intelligence gathering. Indeed, while the Chinese accuse the United States of employing the tactics of a bygone era, they are clearly engaged in some 21st-century spying of their own. Official U.S. government web sites are constantly being probed and infiltrated by Chinese cyber sleuths, and there are periodic reports of PRC representatives involved in activities “inconsistent with their diplomatic status”—or spying, as it is more commonly known.
If the new Chinese Embassy is a telling symbol of how the PRC wants to be perceived, perhaps America’s official architecture can tell us something, too. Despite the monotony of many official buildings in Washington (particularly the 1940s-era bricks and mortar testaments to Cold War conformity), one can still glimpse the underlying strength and symmetry of Pierre L’Enfant’s elegant design, whose clear geometric angles and spaces were intended to subtly impress visiting dignitaries. The most important Washington institutions such as the Oval Office and Capitol speak to an intimate, quiet power and the immediate give and take of politics. That identity is increasingly being lost in the massive new buildings going up around the city. Even more telling, perhaps, the largest U.S. Embassy abroad is not in Beijing, New Delhi, Moscow, London, Paris or Rome. It is in a highly guarded “green zone” compound in Baghdad, attacked daily by mortars and rockets.
Over the course of the past five years, as the United States has been bogged down in unforgiving battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, China has gone about consolidating its newfound political and strategic influence on the global stage. China’s arrival on the international scene as the new great power is the most rapid ascent of a country since the emergence of the United States during the dawn the 20th century. Much of China’s growing influence has come at America’s expense, and Washington’s Middle Eastern preoccupation has allowed China to flex its soft power muscle in ways that few would have anticipated only a few years ago. The rapidly shifting urban skylines of Beijing and Shanghai—skylines crowded with new buildings and construction cranes—are proof of the dramatic changes afoot. With so much exciting concrete and steel in China’s dynamic new cities, it was time for the PRC to upgrade its structural standing in Washington, DC.
Once completed, the new Chinese Embassy will be a daunting reminder that while the 20th century belonged to the United States, China has set its sights on the 21st. This is just one piece of a larger Chinese public relations strategy to let the Americans know that, while they were away fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, China arrived.