As trade frictions spill over into other fields, the relationship between China and the United States as a whole has moved away from its established pattern of stability — based on cooperation — and entered a new, long-term strategic game.
The maximum pressure applied by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump in various fields and its resulting problems have become real challenges for China, with major impacts on the design and implementation of both its domestic and foreign policies.
Finding an appropriate approach to the new China-U.S. game is now an urgent and significant topic for Beijing. Arguably, whether China will realize its grand strategy will ultimately hinge on how it assesses and engages in the game with the U.S.
A series of important documents, including the reports of the 18th and 19th National Congresses of the Communist Party of China, provide an outline of China's grand strategy for the coming 30 years. Two broad goals are specified: the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and the creation of a community with a shared future for mankind.
The great rejuvenation refers to a state in which China’s sovereignty, security and development interests are better safeguarded, the aspirations of the Chinese people for a better life are generally satisfied and China enjoys international prestige commensurate with its size, population, history, culture and economic aggregates. This is an inalienable basic right of China as a modern sovereign state.
A community with a shared future for mankind anchors China’s vision for the international order of the future. It envisions solidarity and win-win outcomes between countries in the context of economic globalization and multipolar politics. It is well aligned with the visions of a new international political and economic order and the harmonious world China has advocated over the past few decades. The Chinese people are convinced that such a community is not an unattainable utopia but a realistic goal that human society has been pursuing since the Age of Discovery in the late 15th century.
The Chinese people also deeply believe that only by actively promoting such a community as a foreign strategy will a more favorable external environment be created for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. The strong political energy generated in the great rejuvenation will serve as a core driving force by which the community of shared future will thrive.
These two broad goals are inseparably interconnected and complement one another.
To achieve the great rejuvenation, China demands recognition of its rights and interests at a higher level, be it on issues of national sovereignty, such as reunification across the Taiwan Straits; on issues of national security, such as maintaining long-term peace and stability; or on long-term development issues, such as improving its position in the global industrial chain and expanding its space for economic growth.
This is bound to result in a substantial reset in the framework of China-U.S. relations — in other words a wider scope and greater intensity of competition between the two countries.
The great rejuvenation must be premised on a more mature and consummate system of socialism with Chinese characteristics, which gradually gains wider recognition in the world and under which institutional competition between socialism and capitalism will increase. Eventually, it may become a major source of friction between China and the U.S.
Since Trump came to power, competition has replaced engagement as a point of policy consensus between Republicans and Democrats, between the Trump administration and Congress and between the government and the business community, thus setting the tone for America’s new China strategy. Under the pressure of a trade war, China has also come to realize that competition with the U.S. is inevitable and will be a necessary means for defending its rights and interests.
On the other hand, the great rejuvenation also means that China will embrace the market economy and free and fair trade to a greater extent, have closer interactions with the rest of the world within a more compatible and harmonized system of international rules, become more open, transparent and inclusive and always keep its promises. It is hard to imagine that the great cause of rejuvenation can be achieved in self-isolation or without the highest integrity.
This view offers the necessary predictability for the reset of the framework of China-U.S. relations. In particular, China’s huge domestic demand, supported by the rise of a huge middle class, is the most valuable resource in the context of a chronic shortage of global aggregate demand. If the U.S. pursues decoupling from the Chinese economy, it will not be able to share China’s development dividends, which will not improve its own standing in the world.
In this light, there are also potential spaces for the two countries to explore new cooperation. A global community with a shared future, as a vision for a new international order, is a concept rich in extremely profound connotations and inferences. This vision illustrates how China sees the international order as featuring political equality among nations, rather than replacing the U.S. as a new hegemon.
Therefore, even if there is competition between China and the U.S., including competition in their respective systems and development paths, the China-U.S. relationship is by no means a copy of the U.S.-Soviet relationship, in which the Soviet Union competed for hegemony.
Becoming a hegemon is not the goal of China, which renders China-U.S. competition different both in nature and intensity. The community vision inherently sets out solutions to global governance challenges that transcend national boundaries. That is, within the existing UN framework, and on the basis of universally recognized international law, global hot spot issues such as climate change, epidemics and large-scale refugee displacements should be resolved through discussion and collaboration and with results shared by all members of the international community for the public good.
Even with bilateral competition, both China and the U.S. will have to rely on the global order for their own development and security. It is only natural for the two countries to fulfill their responsibilities as major powers and carry out cooperation in the field of global governance in accordance with their respective strengths and needs.
When the community of shared future begins to take shape, it will also act as a restraint on the behavior of all the great powers, including China and the U.S. The decentralized network structure will constrain and limit the hegemonic behaviors of any major power. If and when countries are bonded with deep converging interests, any move to suppress another country or to impede international cooperation will harm the common interests of all and be met with strong condemnation and resistance. This will provide the most effective means of protection and reward for those who champion cooperation, as well as the most effective means of prevention and regulation for those who would undermine cooperation.
The above analysis of China’s grand strategy will help us better understand some of the Chinese propositions and practices — for example, “focusing on doing our own things well,” “constructing a China-U.S. relationship with coordination, cooperation and stability as its keynote,” “developing a new model of international relations” and so on. These expressions can be understood in a structured way as outlining China’s current and future strategies in the game with the U.S. that proceeds from its own bilateral and multilateral dimensions.
Now that China has formulated a grand strategy for the next 30 years — to “concentrate on doing its own things well” — it must eliminate internal constraints and external interference to put such strategic thinking into practice. That will be its best move in the game with the U.S., consisting of both offense and defense at the same time.
As domestic and foreign affairs have blended together, just doing a good job at home is no longer enough. Carrying out internal reforms while simultaneously opening wider to the outside world lies at the core of doing our own things well. And excellence in internal and external coordination is the key. Given China’s size and potential, doing our own things well is not only significant for us but naturally has far-reaching global implications for others.
In “constructing a China-U.S. relationship with coordination, cooperation and stability as its keynote,” coordination and cooperation are the means, while stability is the goal. Over the past few decades, stability has been the primary goal of China’s U.S. strategy. It has been achieved through cooperation, forbearance and bundling.
With its stable U.S. relationship, China has successfully integrated itself into the world system. In the coming decades, stability will remain the goal of China’s strategy toward the United States. Despite the prospect of increasingly fierce competition in the future, a basic stable relationship will remain a worthwhile and attainable goal. It will be powered by new cooperation in areas of common interest, facilitated through new coordination in global governance and protected by the deep integration of China’s interests with those of the majority of countries in the world. The terrible prospect of mutual destruction could serve as deterrence for any destabilization of this relationship.
China has also made some thought-provoking suggestions for what should characterize a “new model of international relations.” Among them, “mutual respect” is the most basic arrangement for relations and political status among countries. “Fairness and justice” is the value behind political relations, and win-win cooperation is the economic basis for sustaining and strengthening the political arrangement.
Advocacy for a new model of international relations obviously involves more than economic considerations. It is aims for a more advanced system of international rules and values, promoting a new global intellectual enlightenment and constructing a new global social contract.
The idea of transcending the zero-sum games of major powers is China’s great contribution to human history and progress.