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Foreign Policy

A Sober-Minded Assessment

Jan 03, 2022
  • Su Jingxiang

    Fellow, China Institutes for Contemporary International Relations

During the past year, the United States made an all-out push against China on political, economic, diplomatic, military, scientific, technological and ideological fronts. China has been prudent and proportionate in its response. Now it’s fair to say that the two countries are undergoing a repeated process of recalibrating and repositioning to find a way to engage. But the fact is that they are drifting in opposite directions.  

China-U.S. relations are the most consequential and complex of any in the world today and need to be approached with objective, sober-minded thinking. The all-around strategic jockeying has led to a situation in which there is little room left to maneuver. For the past two decades, people in U.S. strategic circles have been devising containment strategies against China. In December 2017, the Trump administration released its National Security Strategy Report, which for the first time listed China as a major adversary alongside Russia. In 2018, the Trump administration launched a trade war against China, which opened a new cold war.

The Biden administration inherited this strategy and followed up with the Interim National Security Strategy in March last year, explicitly stating that China ranks ahead of Russia as a primary adversary and that the chief strategic goal of the United States is to “outcompete” China. Biden’s cabinet is dominated by hawkish voices advocating a new cold war with China, a legacy inherited from Trump.

Containing China is a long-term strategy of the U.S. that’s evolving toward greater depth and breadth from its current initial stage. Guided by the National Security Strategy, the departments of State, Defense, Treasury, Commerce, Energy and Homeland Security — as well as the FBI, the National Security Agency, the CIA and other government departments — are all formulating specific policies against China in line with the spirit of the document.

Over the past year, the U.S. has expanded its economic and technological warfare against China, and has reinvigorated its military and political alliances under the banner of “democracy.” On issues such as the South China Sea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang, the U.S. has rallied a number of allies to adopt more hostile stances. The strategy of containment has morphed into a mechanism and a philosophy to serve long-term goals, and has gained such traction that partial setbacks or even heavy costs will not stop it.   

It’s clear that the United States needs a cold war with China as a major strategic adversary. American strategists are well aware that no country in the world, including China, Russia, and Iran, would target the United States as an enemy.

As a matter of fact, the U.S. has never really worried about an attack on its homeland by another country. Its major military forces, including its carrier fleet, are deployed overseas. U.S. hegemony is a supranational power mechanism on a global scale underpinned by NATO, alliances with Europe, Japan, the so-called      Five Eyes Alliance and international economic organizations and institutions.

The crisis facing the United States mainly stems from within, with structural problems such as racism, social injustice, poor governance and government debt reaching perilous magnitude. An implosion of domestic political crises could lead to the collapse of the entire hegemonic system. Thus, the consensus among U.S. strategists is that the United States needs a new cold war to reinvigorate the national spirit. China simply replaces the former Soviet Union as the prime adversary.

The U.S. intelligence community holds that threat equals capability multiplied by motivation. The United States has the capability to threaten China and makes no secret of its motivation to do so. American political scientist Joseph Nye once said, “If you treat China as the enemy, China will be an enemy.” Nye’s underlying message is that the United States is the enemy of China.

The growing competition, conflict and confrontation between China and the United States is a key element of the world’s multipolarization process. Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has been seeking a unipolar world in which it is dominant. U.S. strategists believe that the Westphalian system, with national sovereignty at its core, has come to an end and that the UN Charter no longer applies. The U.S. is now the only sovereign state in the world and the only country that presumes the right to use military power anywhere it wants. Its allies — Europe, Japan and others — are a source of natural and human resources, a source of capital profit and even dumping grounds for hazardous waste, so they must be under U.S. control.

With the term “multilateralism,” the United States refers to the need to recruit more allies as its subordinates, rather than seeking true multipolarity. Countries such as China, Russia and Iran are independent civilizations that reject the preposterous notion of “America first” and the idea of American exceptionalism. Nor will the United States ever give up its hegemonic position, thus making confrontation inevitable.

U.S. strategists often cite the theologian James P. Carse’s book “Finite and Infinite Games,” arguing that the U.S. and China will play an infinite game with no rules, no timeframe and no spatial boundaries, leading to unpredictable outcomes. There is no way to know who will emerge as the ultimate winner or loser. Perhaps this will be the prevailing characteristic of China-U.S. relations going forward. 

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