When the United States became the No. 1 power with an overwhelming advantage at the end of World War II, the realism that underlay its diplomatic thought and global strategic theory was automatically elevated to hegemonic realism.
The core idea was that the United States must dominate the international community, which was essentially anarchic. After the U.S. won the Cold War with the Soviet Union, hegemony became its central pillar of power for maintaining the international order. Over the years, hegemonic realism has become an unquestioned political dictum in the consciousness of U.S. elites of both major political parties and the majority of the country’s population, thanks to the discourse system of national interests and perceptions that the U.S. has continued to foster. Any country that, for whatever reason, is perceived to pose a challenge to the U.S. cannot be tolerated. The abrupt transformation of China-U.S. relations into a strategic rivalry is the result of Washington’s perception that China’s development poses just such a challenge.
China says this is a misunderstanding and misjudgment; it says it is only interested in developing itself and has no intention of replacing the United States. The United States says there is no misunderstanding or miscalculation, that China has become a superpower with strength approaching that of the United States, that there are increasingly prominent conflicts of interest with the United States over geopolitics and various important issues, that China adheres to a national ideology different from that of the West and that the United States has no greater competitor. Obviously, this sort of thinking rejects China’s theory of peaceful development.
Using hegemony as a hammer, the United States is bound to view China as the biggest nail in the coffin of its global preeminence. Under a general policy that sees China as its main adversary, the U.S. regularly adjusts relations whenever it changes presidents. In 2016, for example, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump surprisingly won the White House over Democrat Hillary Clinton. Unilateralism, with “America first” as its central diplomatic principle, became the policy presentation of hegemonic realism. Trump represented mainly right-wing interest groups and blue-collar whites in the United States. Under the banner of opposing the powerful groups in Washington, taking advantage of populist and ultranationalist aspirations became the prominent features of his foreign policy.
Also playing an important role in the process was the strong impact of bipartisan political polarization on U.S. diplomacy. These developments were most evident in U.S. relations with China, where trade wars, decoupling measures and playing the Taiwan card sent China-U.S. relations into a downward spiral. Trump then blamed China for his own disastrous response to the COVID-19 pandemic, causing U.S. policy toward China to enter a state of complete imbalance.
In 2020, Joe Biden won the presidential election as the choice of a coalition of anti-Trump forces. Many expected that he would correct the dangerous imbalance in Trump’s China policy. But this expectation was unrealistic. Hegemonic realist thinking determines the basic structure of U.S. strategic competition with China, and America’s own political and social crisis is at the root of the Trump phenomenon. Biden’s rise to power will not change the former, nor will Trump’s fall from power change the latter. Moreover, Biden’s fragile political position makes his China policy even more subject to the impact of major economic and social issues and partisan struggles within the United States.
Avoiding the Democrats’ loss of a congressional majority in this year’s midterm elections is Biden’s No. 1 priority. His China policy since he took office shows that he has no intention of depleting his already thin political capital. The recent visit of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan shows that one of the serious consequences of the imbalanced U.S. policy toward China is that it escalates the Taiwan issue and has pushed the situation to the brink of crisis.
With the strong policy orientation of U.S. hegemonic realism, we must face the reality that strategic competition has become dominant in Sino-U.S. relations. The degree of political mutual trust between the two sides is crucial to the way this competition unfolds and the impact it has. Political trust between China and the United States has now fallen to its lowest point since the establishment of diplomatic relations, and the prospects for the development of relations between the two are increasingly uncertain. Taiwan has become the most dangerous flashpoint.
For this reason, risk management needs to be brought to the forefront, and the U.S. side has proposed the concept of guardrails. However, if the risks are not managed at the policy level where they arise, but only at the operational level, this will at best play a small role in reducing the risk of triggering a crisis at the micro level.
The current situation suggests that if political maneuvering and policy risk-taking, such as Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, continues to cross China’s bottom line, political mutual trust between China and the U.S. will be lost and relations between the two countries will slide into a disaster that neither side wants to see. For this reason, risk management must be elevated to a strategic level, and the necessary management of the enormous risks posed to the situation in the Taiwan Strait by America’s own political imbalance is the primary objective at this time.
(The author delivered the foregoing in a speech at the Taihe Civilizations Forum. It has been lightly edited for clarity.)