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Foreign Policy

Back to the Future

Apr 21, 2020
  • Zhu Feng

    Director, Institute of International Studies, Nanjing University

Ideological conflicts over differences in political institutions have never ceased between China and the United States since the two established diplomatic relations and normalized ties in 1979. Yet bilateral ties have advanced and grown anyway.

The most important motivation before the end of the Cold War was the Soviet Union, which was seen as the biggest common threat, and both countries handled relations based on realistic political and diplomatic philosophies in the post-Cold War era.

The realism in China-U.S. relations is concentrated in three aspects:

First is the pragmatic treatment of ideological and institutional divergences. Because China is a “transitional state,” progress in its domestic governance mechanisms need both time and “Chinese solutions.” But elites on both sides believe changes are inevitable and irresistible.

Second, both sides can satisfy some of their interests through cooperation, and as China rises the benefits from bilateral cooperation become increasingly indispensable for both parties.

Third is the reasonable assessment of the other side’s strategic intentions. Though China won’t listen to the U.S. on such matters as Taiwan or the South China Sea, Washington has sufficient confidence in its comparative strength. Though China believes the U.S. is attempting to divide, weaken and Westernize China, it’s equally convinced an increasingly strong China will be in a better position to maintain a “China path” and find “China solutions.”

America’s China policies have undergone tremendous paradigm shifts under the administration of President Donald Trump. The essence of the changes is not a return to “state-centric” strategic competition between major powers but a focus on ways to evaluate and cope with Chinese political institutions and Chinese leaders. The transition has deviated from the realistic tradition formulated by the governments and elites on both sides through interactions over the past three decades or more.

Escalation of confrontation and tension between China and the U.S. China-U.S. is inevitable, given the Trump administration’s unrealistic policies, as reflected in the following four aspects:

First, China hawks in the Republican Party have floated criticisms directly and undeniably at China’s top leader and ruling party. The Trump administration’s main foreign policy team is now referring to China as “communist China” on regular occasions, which is how the U.S. entered the Cold War against the Soviet Union.

From China’s perspective, such language denies the legitimacy of its governance model. U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has repeatedly stated that he was criticizing “communist China,” not the Chinese people — attempting to distinguish the present “new Cold War” approach to China from its friendly attitude toward the Chinese people — which is highly misleading.

Though the Chinese public often criticizes their government, most Chinese endorse the historical changes of the past 40 years and refuse the kind of changes that took place in the former Soviet Union. They prefer changes through a steady, incremental process. American China hawks actually know very little about China.

Second, what the Trump administration has launched against China is not just a trade war and a technology war. Those have escalated to include an information war and even a media war during the COVID-19 pandemic. A  financial war can’t be excluded in the future.

Is complete China-U.S. economic and trade decoupling really in U.S. interests? In that case, more than 350,000 Chinese students will be withdrawn from the U.S., more than 6 million Chinese tourists annually won’t visit and the massive U.S. investments in China will suffer.

How many Americans will lose their jobs or see their incomes drop? If decoupling is aimed solely at imposing pressure on China to achieve a “new balance” in relations and China refits itself to the rules the U.S. wants to see in such aspects as business conduct, then Trump will have succeeded. Beijing and Washington have signed a phase one agreement and can negotiate phase two, along with other rules to redefine the mutually beneficial relationship.

Yet the Trump government’s China policies are clearly self-contradictory. In a speech on March 31, Trump said he wants manufacturing to return to the U.S. so his country can achieve full self-sufficiency. Then does China need to continue trade negotiations? If the world’s No 1 economy pursues self-sufficiency, will globalization continue or collapse?

Third, COVID-19 is a once-in-a-century severe global threat to public health, and fighting it calls for China-U.S. solidarity to coordinate and lead global collaboration. The U.S. Congress, however, has shown escalating animosity toward China. Pompeo is still calling it the “Wuhan virus” and insisting China should be held accountable for it.

Despite its initial reluctance, the Chinese government locked down Wuhan on Jan. 23 and then extended it across China. The first death occurred on Jan. 7.

What about the U.S.? Calls for investigating China are on the rise in both the U.S. Congress and among the general public. Facing such a rare biosecurity disaster, unseen in 100 years, the Chinese government, in hindsight, might have done better at the beginning, but its determination and capacity for response have proved it’s as good as any government in the world. Is there any basis in international law for the “Chinese liability” theory rattling around the U.S.?

This pandemic has brought two major changes to China. One is that Chinese public opinion has awakened and erupted. Responses to the pandemic have exposed various shortcomings in the country’s current domestic governance. Public opinion, social vitality and awareness of political participation is turning into an unprecedented driver for deepening political reform.

Fourth is that the Chinese government and society bore the brunt of the crisis initially, and China has been struggling between pandemic containment and resumption of work and production since mid-February. Resumption has largely begun, yet as the pandemic continues spreading overseas, export-oriented Chinese companies have no orders. They see enormous potential for losing their international markets.

The pandemic has instilled a keen awareness of the critical significance of preserving globalization as well as the integrity of industrial, supply and value chains. In this way, the pandemic will make China’s integration with the world all the more irreversible.

Elites in Washington should take a more truthful and accurate look at present-day China. The populist notion of “America first” won’t lead to a “Make America Great” comeback. U.S. greatness doesn’t just lie in strength but in its ability to let transitional countries like China and its 1.4 billion people continue seeing the U.S. as a “beacon”  to guide their developmental trajectory in the future.

This is precisely where the most precious and important U.S. power and value advantages rest in terms of interaction with China. But the Trump administration has greatly eroded this advantage. Populist notions in the U.S. based on self-claimed ideological and moral advantages — or on the wishful thinking that these things can separate Beijing from the Chinese people, attack the ruling party and win hearts of the general public — will prove disastrous for both countries.

Amid the pandemic, it’s important to put China-U.S. relations back on reasonable, reality-based track and show the people of both countries the sincerity and understanding they need. China and the U.S. must work together to lead the international community out of the devastating coronavirus disaster.

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