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Foreign Policy

After the Pandemic, Then What?

Jun 28 , 2020
  • Fu Ying

    Chair, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University

US China.jpg

(Foreign Policy illustration)

Observing the policy evolution of the United States, one must not ignore the opposing dynamics that have characterized Chinese and U.S. national policy orientations since the Cold War. 

Grasping peaceful development as the theme of the times, China has adhered to reform and opening-up and concentrated on economic progress. Now in the second decade of the 21st century, China has become the world’s second-largest economy and begun to participate more — and exert more influence — in international affairs. 

Meanwhile, the U.S., with its firm belief in the idea of “the end of history” and a unipolar world order, has been obsessed with trying to transform other countries according to its own will and model. It has launched multiple wars and overstretched its hegemonic power. Its strength was further eroded by the 2008 financial crisis, caused by a lack of effective regulation over capital expansion during a time of rapid economic globalization. At the same time, domestic problems haven’t been handled well. Imbalanced distribution has led to a deteriorating quality of life for the middle- and low-income strata of society; conflicting social identities amplify societal discord; and politics has become increasingly polarized. The Trump administration has simply forsaken liberal international policies, openly embraced conservatism and called for “America first.” As a result, U.S. hegemony has tended to contract, and its “beacon effects” have started to fade. 

The Chinese progress and U.S. regression mirror the two countries’ evolution in opposite directions within the same global regime, which inevitably brings about tensions in the international power structure. 

The U.S. needs to recover from its mistakes and solve problems accumulated over the years in domestic and foreign policies, even as it worries increasingly about the rise of China and tries to slow it down through suppression. The U.S. side fears that China will compete with it for global leadership, and therefore takes its competition with China as a fight for safeguarding its fundamental national interests, which it can’t afford to lose. Hawkish forces in the U.S. administration intend to push relations with China toward all-around confrontation, believing this is the only way to impede its forward pace. Their rallying cries and influence are on the rise.

The result is worldwide concern: Will China and the U.S. plunge into the so-called Thucydides trap — that is will the fear of the incumbent power and the rise of an emerging one necessarily result in conflict? Will the framework of multilateral global cooperation disintegrate, or even collapse, thereafter? 

“Principled realism” 

On May 20, the White House website published a policy paper titled United States Strategic Approach to The People’s Republic of China, which was submitted to the U.S. Congress as required by the Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2019. It doesn’t represent a newly launched fresh China strategy, but it does include some updated policy considerations based on situational changes. It more explicitly negates the engagement policy past administrations had followed and more aggressively plays up the “threat” and “challenge” a rising China poses to the U.S. It more concretely describes the roadmap for competition with China, and gives greater emphasis to an ideological confrontation. 

A China strategy based on competition has thus taken a step forward. The U.S. intends to intensify it. The “principled realism” put forward in the Strategic Approach paper has become a keyword in expounding America’s China strategy. We shouldn’t be surprised if the possibility cannot be ruled out that the White House at some stage will seek to develop a set of new theories about competition with China based on this concept. In turn, those may help mold the China policies of future administrations.

U.S. raises the stakes 

How China-U.S. interactions play out will be the main determinant in shifting the international power structure. The current tension has been mainly driven by the U.S. side, which is trying to provoke competition on four fronts: 

First is competition in political systems and values. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, Western intellectual circles had already begun to be concerned that the success of China as a non-Western, “non-democratic” state may yield consequences that dilute the rallying effects of Western values and further undermine the U.S.-led West’s already unsuccessful bid to command the world in political systems and values. In U.S. strategic circles, China’s rise is not only a challenge to America’s real interests and international standing but more important is a threat to U.S. institutional stability and ability to export its values — a challenge with profound implications. 

From the Chinese perspective, the U.S. has never given up its intent to overthrow the socialist system led by the Communist Party of China. Lately, the China rhetoric from U.S. authorities has even sought to separate the CPC from the Chinese people and pit them against each other and to challenge the basic legitimacy of the CPC and the Chinese political system. The Chinese side has no choice but to fight that. 

The Strategic Approach paper spearheads its attack on the Chinese way of governance and the ruling party by identifying “values” as one of the three challenges China poses for the U.S. and highlighting the ideological sources of Chinese domestic and foreign policies. It seems to intentionally frame China as the bygone Soviet Union. Its purpose is to prioritize political and security factors in China-U.S. relations and lay the groundwork for coercing businesses and wider economic circles into accepting decoupling. Should the two countries follow such a path, they would inevitably sink into an ideological contest in the mode of a zero-sum confrontation.

Second is a war of rhetoric. Since the beginning of 2020, the focus of U.S. wrangling with China seems to have shifted from the trade war to a war of rhetoric. This is an area in which the U.S. has rich experience and advantages as it commands traditional influencers in the sphere of international public opinion. China, on the other hand, is not very well connected to the information and public opinion circles of the U.S., or of the West as a whole. Firsthand knowledge about China has never fully reached the American and international community. 

When we listen to the voices of those hawkish and powerful U.S. opinion-shapers, we can see an overall trajectory of the rhetorical offensive against China. Their key meaning boils down to “China is untrustworthy.” They label it as “dishonest” and “unfaithful.” The purpose of this verbal offensive is to undermine the image of China as a successful reformer in achieving economic progress and a responsible player in world affairs, thus sabotaging China’s external environment. 

Third is competition over economic and financial security. The pandemic has seriously affected the American economy. According to the U.S. Labor Department, unemployment reached 14.7 percent in April, and remained as high as 13.3 percent in May despite a slight drop. The economy’s downward turn has brought on rapidly worsening conditions. In the first eight months of fiscal 2020, U.S. financial expenditures are expected to surpass $3.9 trillion, increasing $912 billion year-on-year, or more than 30 percent. In fiscal 2020 and 2021, the U.S. federal financial deficit is expected to stand at $3.7 trillion and $2.1 trillion respectively. 

The deteriorating financial situation has resulted in a rapid increase in U.S. federal debt, the total of which was approaching $26 trillion as of June 10, which means increasing more than $3 trillion in the first eight months of the fiscal year. The U.S. Federal Reserve expects the country’s economy to contract by 6.5 percent in 2020; therefore, by the end of the fiscal year, its financial deficits and federal debt in GDP will reach 18 percent and 140 percent, respectively, which will prove an extremely heavy burden for the U.S. government. 

Under such circumstances, U.S. anxiety is rising, and it has tried to shift attention to China. By capitalizing on countries’ concerns about supply chain security during the pandemic, it is playing up the alleged risk of China “weaponizing” industries to advantage, and it aims to disconnect with China amid structural adjustments in industry and supply chains. The ideal goal in U.S. strategic deliberations — through remaking rules and standards, the reorganization of regional trading blocs and the transformation of international institutions — is to achieve decoupling in key technologies and industries and to “desinicize” via deglobalization.  

Fourth is strategic security competition and maritime security rivalry. In the field of military security, the U.S. is increasingly suspicious of China at the strategic, tactical and operational levels, and it regularly attempts to increase pressure and achieve containment. China needs to fight U.S. pressure and provocation on issues that concern sovereignty and security, and take proper countermeasures and necessary action. 

Judging from the trend, uncertainty will increase in China-U.S. military relations for some time, and the erosion of strategic trust will be difficult to repair. Close encounters between the two parties’ military vessels and aircraft at sea and in the air are no longer accidental, and the chance of conflict is rising. 

Threatened by the coronavirus, U.S. forces overseas have been forced to reduce global operations. Yet, for fear of China taking advantage of the outbreak and filling the strategic void, they have increased the frequency and aggressiveness of patrols, surveillance missions and provocations in the South and East China Seas, as well as in waters off Taiwan. The biggest uncertainty in the two militaries’ postures lies in the fact that they have yet to establish effective crisis management mechanisms. The two sides aren’t clear about each other’s bottom lines. The rules and “red lines” in interaction are yet to be properly clarified. With both sides having to continuously test the other’s bottom line, there will be a greater chance of unexpected incidents and risks of uncontrollable consequences. Leaders of the two countries and militaries have reached a general consensus on “no conflict, no confrontation,” but both parties need to give serious thought to how to implement it in real life. 

With the U.S. adjusting its nuclear strategy, refreshing its nuclear arsenal, lowering its nuclear threshold, developing missile defense systems and hypersonic aircraft and planning to deploy mid-range missiles that could strike China, the disparity between Chinese and U.S. nuclear strength may be further enlarged. We’ll have to wait and see if this will press China to consider making corresponding adjustments. Both China and the U.S. are exploring new AI-driven weapons platforms and military technologies, and they have obvious motivations for militarizing cyberspace, outer space and polar regions. It is thus imperative to put the topic of how to manage and control their competition in such areas on the agenda. 

There is no denying that in-depth interdependence has developed between China and the U.S. and between them and other countries. China has also achieved peaceful, comprehensive development in the existing international system. Such characteristics and conditions were nonexistent in the vicious major-power competitions in the past, all of which suggests that China-U.S. competition will be more complicated going forward, and the benefits and drawbacks may be more difficult to distinguish. Although competition may be broad in scope and fierce in intensity, there still is a big distance between a relationship of competition and one of rivalry. The most important challenge or choice facing China and the U.S. is whether they will settle their differences within a same global regime in the future, or instead separate and create two relatively independent yet connected regimes, each going its own way. If the latter scenario materializes, it means the end of globalization and the disintegration of the current regime. 

Is a new type of major country relationship featuring benign competition achievable between China and the U.S.? 

The third decade of the 21st century is witnessing the prelude of the China-U.S. contest, which the Chinese have been dragged into involuntarily. It’s worth noticing that the U.S. no longer enjoys the position of absolute superiority it used to have immediately after the end of the Cold War, nor does it have sufficient reason or required popularity to launch a round of global waves of strategic containment. It cannot lay an effective ideological siege against China. China-U.S. relations have opened a new chapter: The two parties need to re-evaluate each other in a new environment. The two diverge in philosophies and interests, but they also share the common responsibility of preserving the existing system and the general trend of peace and cooperation. They have broad common interests with respect to such matters as global stability and sustainable development. 

Currently, China and the U.S. perceive the nature of their bilateral competition differently. It’s no exaggeration to say their goals of competition are in different dimensions: The U.S. firmly believes China’s purpose is to take over its role as global leader, and the nature of competition is about who will be No.1 and who’ll be No. 2. Therefore, its strategy for competition is aimed at effectively restraining China in all aspects. On the other hand, China’s intent is to realize its twin centennial development goals and national rejuvenation. 

If there’s anything worth fighting for, it’s room for self-development. Whether China and the U.S. will slide into zero-sum confrontation or achieve a relationship of “coopetition” (cooperation plus competition) therefore rests on whether the two parties are able to objectively judge each other’s strengths and purposes, and whether they can find a middle ground where their respective goals won’t be mutually exclusive.  

No matter what the outcome of the coming U.S. general election, the future orientation of China-U.S. relations calls for careful, rational deliberation by decision-makers on both sides in the next stage. One can see impetus in two directions in the U.S. as to how it should apply a new strategy toward China. One is led by the right-wingers in Washington and advocates confrontation and all-around suppression of China. They constantly instigate disputes, making every effort to reduce bilateral communication in various fields. They persistently pushing for decoupling using such topics as “national security concerns” and “political differences.” 

At the same time, there also is a relatively rational force, that stands against abandoning “limited engagement,” hopes to maintain pragmatic relations, urges the Chinese side to adjust and change any rule-violating practices and “unfairness.” 

The harm the Trump administration’s radical China policies have done to the U.S. itself is increasingly conspicuous; therefore, although the latter’s ideas are often obscured by higher pitches of confrontational rhetoric, it doesn’t mean they don’t have a broad base of silent supporters. As domestic political conditions evolve in the U.S., their influence may rise in the future.

How should China cope with competition with the U.S. and the latter’s provocations? How can it accurately judge global trends and ensure that the process of achieving the twin centennial goals at home won’t be disrupted? And how can it win and guarantee the external environment of peace and cooperation the country’s development needs? These are key questions facing China in the 21st  century. China’s choices regarding the orientation of the two countries’ relations will to a great extent determine how it answers these questions.

A desirable prospect for future China-U.S. relations is that rational deliberations prevail and the two parties formulate a new stable relationship of coopetition wherein they engage in limited, controllable competition but maintain wide cooperation, preserving the relatively stable development of bilateral ties on specific issues and collaborating in various areas and global affairs. The ultimate materialization of such a prospect for a new type of major country relationship featuring benign competition calls for serious endeavors by both parties. 

The challenge for China now is that the current U.S. administration has little interest in moving in this direction. Rather, it is investing more in the opposing direction. So, it will be very difficult for China to shape the relationship in this direction, and it must give more thought and make greater effort to making sure that the bilateral relationship does not go in the wrong direction. 

(Excerpts from China News Weekly)

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