Regardless of Beijing’s insistence of the contrary, America is being challenged by China for global dominance.
This struggle ranges from 5G technology advancement, to military control in the South China Sea. Clearly, a heated rivalry is unfolding with China, emphasized by significant cultural differences between our two countries, as well as economic, scientific, religious, military, and other geopolitical fault lines. Director of Policy Planning at the U.S. State Department Kiron Skinner notes that China’s rise constitutes a generational challenge that will require a generational response. The U.S. State Department is preparing for a “clash of civilizations” with China.
While there are significant generational challenges between the U.S. and China, perhaps the bigger challenge is how the West might live in harmony with a China that has regained its fuqiang – wealth and power – while maintaining our collective national interests and values.
There is much talk in Western Sinophile and elite political circles about managing or thwarting China’s rise after decades of providing the ladders that helped China climb out of the economic and ideological hole it found itself in after Mao’s rule.
This old proverb may be of use by the Biden administration as they begin to reshape the chaotic Trump policy on China: “He who rides a tiger finds it difficult to dismount.” The clear message is that once a dangerous or troublesome venture is begun, the safest course is to carry it through to the end. It would be wise to review the consequences of attempting to quit or abandon a more engaging, cooperative, relationship with China.
The incoming Biden administration’s China policy is shaping up to change direction from that of the Trump administration – more in style than in substance. Many Western China watchers are seeing similarities in Joe Biden’s early steps to the Trump administration’s focus on containing the Chinese Communist Party while embracing the Chinese people. Given the recent rise of Chinese nationalism, this is a razor-thin edge to walk.
President Trump and his band of China hawks are doing all they can to hasten a geopolitical confrontation with China while laying diplomatic landmines to detonate throughout Biden’s term in office. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s cautious and delayed congratulatory message to President-Elect Biden was clear, albeit in diplomatic speak: “Don’t mess with China.” This was a signal to the President-elect that maintaining good relations with China is more important than anything else if the U.S. wants harmony and access to the lucrative Chinese market.
In turn, Biden’s China policy must be based on reality – China’s record – not on rhetoric, or what we wish China to be.
President-Elect Biden sees China as a disruptive competitor intent on reclaiming its historical power and influence around the world. Well-versed , he is adamant this will not happen on his watch.
Some powerful Western China experts, including Henry Kissinger, are warning the incoming President of America’s fragile relationship with China today. With his usual flair, Kissinger recently warned Biden of “catastrophic consequences on the scale of WWI.”
Can the U.S. Keep the Lid on China?
How well equipped is the West to thwart China’s rise without doing great harm to itself? Our economies are as entwined as a bowl of noodles. Decoupling from China may be possible, but it will be messy.
China recently revealed their next five-year plan, which promises to build the nation into a technological powerhouse with an emphasis on quality growth and the environment. As Fortune magazine frames it, ‘China’s ambitious aim is to become a self-sufficient, global tech superpower’.
China is investing in all things that will make it strong – from its people’s education, technology, infrastructure, and in social safety constructs to buffer Chinese citizens from economic shocks while the U.S. continues to spend trillions as the world police, all the while disinvesting in the American people.
Talk Softly and Carry a Big Stick
At a time when COVID-19 is ravaging the world’s public health, unleashed a devastating global economic tsunami, Chinese and American leaders should be communicating, coordinating and collaborating – instead, they are talking past each other.
What Chinese leaders see and hear from America is a worried and declining democracy, attempting to tie anchors onto China as it sails into the 21st century. The U.S. sees China as an authoritarian bully and a threat to not only the U.S., but its global allies’ dominance. Distrust on both sides is palpable.
The big question the Biden Administration faces is how to integrate U.S. policy to slow, modify, or prevent China’s rise without it coming at America’s and the West’s demise. Holding back China at this point may seem like building a chain link fence to hold back a tidal wave.
It is no secret that China wields its economic power like a weapon, threatening many nations (Canada, Australia – big time!) to cut off their buying machine from those who don’t play nice with them.
Playing nice with China means not “interfering with their internal affairs,” or looking the other way on human rights abuses, not complaining about intellectual property theft, keeping U.S. battleships out of the South China Sea, and turning our heads on Taiwan’s independence.
Along Comes Joe
On January 20, 2021, the 46th U.S. President Biden will face twin challenges at home: helping manage the COVID pandemic and re-igniting the U.S. and global economy. Time will tell if “building back America better,” means American ideals and values take a back seat to our economic interests. Will the U.S. get moral laryngitis when China threats are staring us and our allies in the face?
And if China tells those who stand up to their bad behavior that they will “suffer the consequences,” the world must be prepared to ask, “What are those consequences”?
As the World Spins
Is it possible for all to come together around a shared vision and common agenda that benefits the two largest superpowers and the world?
America needs to cooperate, communicate, and collaborate with China while we forcefully protect our national interests and values. My hope is we focus on cooperation (global economy restart, helping developing nations), and communication— open high-level and subnational channels. And collaborate around global health, and climate change, while initiating cooperation in areas that don’t contradict our respective national interests. The flash point issues need to be pushed away – there is no need for going to the edge of a war that neither nation wants nor can decisively win.
President Biden assumes the reigns of Presidential power at a time when America is hurting. He must keep in mind the wisdom of former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Tip O’Neill, who said: “All politics are local” – both for himself and President Xi. In the post-Trump era, the clarity on how foreign policy impacts us at home — and particularly on job elimination and creation – has never been clearer. We must move away from the old geopolitical game of see-saw where one nation must be down for the other to rise.
The wisdom of that old African proverb is true now more than ever: “When elephants fight, all the grass gets trampled.”
Can America and China find ways not to trample each other?