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Foreign Policy

Accommodating China Is Unavoidable

Jun 26, 2021
  • Andrew Sheng

    Distinguished Fellow at the Asia Global Institute at the University of Hong Kong
  • Xiao Geng

    President of the Hong Kong Institution for International Finance

In their latest communiqué, NATO leaders declared that China presents “systemic challenges to the rules-based international order.” The response from China’s mission to the European Union was clear: “We will not present a ‘systemic challenge’ to anyone, but if someone wants to pose a ‘systemic challenge’ to us, we will not remain indifferent.” Such a tit-for-tat rhetoric is unnecessary, and most of the world’s population probably does not want it to escalate. Yet escalation is becoming more likely every day. 

That is largely because China is one of the few policy areas where US President Joe Biden has largely upheld the approach of his predecessor, Donald Trump: compete fiercely, cooperate when needed, and confront when necessary. So, as China’s response to the NATO communiqué implies, it has adopted its own three-pronged response: don’t look for a fight, don’t be afraid to fight, and fight when necessary. 

NATO is hardly the only forum where Biden is pushing the US approach. At the recent G7 summit and during his meeting with EU leaders, Biden also sought to convince America’s allies to form a united front against China (and Russia). 

US Senator Bernie Sanders sees the problem. He recently warned that, by casting China as an existential threat, the US political establishment is effectively “beating the drums” for a new cold war, which will have no winner. As he put it, organizing US foreign policy around a “zero-sum global confrontation with China” would be “politically dangerous and strategically counterproductive.” 

America’s flawed approach to China is rooted in an enduring belief in the concept of absolute national security. But, while this might have been a reasonable goal for the United States in the decades after World War II, when the country stood at the helm of a unipolar world order, it is not realistic in today’s multipolar system. 

In today’s world, attempting to “contain and confront” those with different values or systems, rather than negotiating a new global compact that accommodates them, is a recipe for conflict. It certainly impedes the ability to pursue mutually beneficial economic engagement and cooperation on shared challenges like climate change. As a spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in London noted after the G7 summit, “The days when global decisions were dictated by a small group of countries are long gone.” 

But the problem runs deeper: even within this “small group of countries,” decisions like courting conflict with China do not necessarily reflect the will of the majority. As Joseph E. Stiglitz has argued, the US today looks more like a plutocracy – with the top 1% of income earners able to steer most public policy in their favor – than a representative democracy. 

If the top 1% in a country that accounts for 5% of the world’s population pushes the two largest economies into conflict, the entire world will suffer immensely, with the vast majority of people getting no say in the matter. If the US and its Western allies genuinely believe in democracy, they should find this unacceptable. 

A better approach – and one that reflects the values Western liberal democracies claim to hold dear – would account for the interests of “One Earth,” encompassing all of humanity and the planet on which we depend. That means expanding our perspective beyond national security to pursue global security – the greatest good for the greatest number – and ensuring that every human being has a say in determining our collective future. 

We are not arguing for global government. The natural and social sciences have shown the fragility of monoculture. In human civilization, as in nature, diversity brings stability and progress. Even competition can be a good thing, but only if it is balanced by effective cooperation, and violence, against humans or the environment, is eschewed. 

So, how would a One Earth system be realized? Bottom-up feedback mechanisms, enabled by technology, will be crucial. The objective must be to break the silos that global elites, aided by abstruse language, have traditionally created. This would enable more people – with expertise in more areas – to contribute to discussions. 

The benefits of such an approach are thrown into relief by the tension between traditional economic thinking – focused on ever-more consumption, investment, and growth – and environmental imperatives, like reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and protecting biodiversity. In a One Earth system, more of a “good thing” can often be very bad. 

The obsolete, siloed approach is also reflected in the facile narrative that the US and China are locked in a “clash of civilizations.” Empires clash. Civilizations should be “civil” to one another, not least because we are all sharing the same Earth

To that end, leaders must move beyond a narrow focus on national security to broad, inclusive discussions about how to deliver global security, in the form of peace, stability, adequate nutrition, and environmental sustainability. But, first, the US must give up on containing China and start accommodating it. 

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.

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