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Foreign Policy

Beyond the China-U.S. Wrestling Match

Feb 14, 2023
  • Da Wei

    Director of Center for International Strategy and Security; Professor at Tsinghua University

US China chess.jpg

With the Donald Trump and Joe Biden administrations comprehensively adjusting America’s China policy over the past few years, the previous strategy — with “engagement” at its core — has given way to “strategic competition.”

Facing the U.S. side’s various examples of hegemony and power politics, the Chinese side has naturally countered and fought back resolutely. Within this circle of U.S. suppression and Chinese retaliation in recent years, relations have plunged. China’s relationships with other Western countries have also run into trouble. The 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China emphasized the pursuit of “Chinese-style modernization” with a global outlook and a methodology that adheres to “systems thinking” — as was proposed at the meeting.

Great significance was attached to the challenges the United States has posed for China. We must transcend bilateral competition and focus on preserving and upgrading all-around connectivity between China and the rest of the world. This is the only way for us to win the long-term strategic game with the U.S. and create favorable conditions for achieving the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. 

Two “big pictures” 

General Secretary Xi Jinping has stated on multiple occasions that we should keep in mind “two big pictures.” One is the overall strategic picture of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation; the other involves changes unseen in a century. “These are the basic starting point for planning our work,” he said. We should be aware of the tension between the two pictures, however. They are not easy to coordinate; but this is also why coordination is imperative.

On one hand, the overall strategic picture of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation calls for connectivity with the world. China’s international environment has gradually improved since the 1970s, and connectivity with the outside world has increased correspondingly. China has enjoyed a higher-level of development in an open environment. Openness brings progress; isolation results in backwardness. This has become a national consensus in China.

At the core of a national economy’s long-term growth is the rise of productivity, and there are only two ways for achieving that. One is a more sophisticated division of labor, the other is scientific and technological advancement. Market scale can be maximized in an interconnected international environment, especially connectivity with developed economies. The division of labor can then be more sophisticated and professionalized, and productivity can be raised. Similarly, only through connectivity and cooperation with others can a country upgrade the technological level of its industries. No country can master the most advanced technologies for its high-end industries all on its own, as shown by the semiconductor industry.

On the other hand, the big picture of centennial changes brings the shock of fragmentation, confrontation and factions. China’s rise and development represent the most important of all centennial changes, and it has led the U.S. to attempt to suppress China’s development. U.S. strategy for competition with China is nearly final after years of adjustments, one highlight of which is to decouple and break supply and industry chains, erect blockades and thereby throttle China’s long-term momentum by decoupling in technology, industry and trade. The outbreak of the Ukraine crisis in February 2022 only further intensified the major power confrontation.

The decision-making elites in the U.S. have sharp eyes. Over the past 40 years, China has achieved conspicuous development in an interconnected world and the American decision-makers are determined to exclude China from that world and don’t hesitate to pay a certain price for it. The Biden administration has organized various flexible alliances and partnerships surrounding such things as military security, ideology, and semiconductor industry chains. It has transcended geographic proximity to formulate the Quadrilateral Dialogue mechanism with Australia, Japan and India, the AUKUS with the UK and Australia, the “summit of democracies” and the Chip 4 Alliance.

British scholar Susan Strange put forward the concept of “structural power” in the 1980s, emphasizing capabilities for shaping and determining the international political and economic structure. American scholar Anne-Marie Slaughter proposed in 2009 that world politics involves networks, and a particular actor’s power in a networked world is determined by the degree to which it is interconnected with the rest of the world. American policymakers seem keenly aware of this. The Biden administration’s moves are all meant to weave a network around itself and to exclude China.

The strategic picture of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation requires that we stay closely connected with the outside world, especially developed countries. Amid the centennial changes, however, the U.S. is doing everything possible to cut off our connections. We need to properly handle both pictures

Yet, the forces behind them are diametrically opposed, which creates tensions between the two big pictures. What is worth particular attention is that when facing U.S. bullying and the sabotage of Chinese interests, we inevitably will choose to upgrade security precautions, and make countermoves when necessary — all based on the need to preserve national dignity, interests and security.

Meanwhile, when we upgrade security precautions under U.S. pressure, the possibility arises of over-securitization, which could suffocate the economy, society and innovation. It is therefore justified and reasonable for us to fight against decoupling, but our countermeasures may also accelerate decoupling from the opposite direction. In this sense, the danger of America’s current China policy lies not only in the anti-China moves themselves but also in its attempt to drive China out of the international political and economic network, while at the same time inducing and provoking China to commit the strategic mistake of overreaction. 

Offset subtraction with addition 

The CPC has always highlighted broad systems thinking. From the perspective of systems theory, realizing the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation involves a complex mega system, while the challenges from the adjustments made in America’s China strategy are both an external condition for our national rejuvenation and a component of the complex system. The relationship between the two is one of system and element.

From the perspective of systems, the relationship between the two big pictures is clear: A part must be subordinated to the whole. Handling relations with the U.S. must serve the overall picture of national rejuvenation. In handling China-U.S. relations, we should do our best to minimize the damage to China’s global connectivity. The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation demands this.

Some may argue, it is not that China does not want to maintain its connections with the world, but that U.S. decision-makers want to cut them off. However, we also need to see that compared with 51 years ago, when China-U.S. relations thawed, or 44 years ago, when the two countries established diplomatic relations, one of the biggest changes in bilateral relations has been the dramatic rise in Chinese national strength, the country’s close connection with the rest of the world (which has given China greater ability to shape the relationship), and more options and larger space for maneuver. The challenges the U.S. strategic adjustments have brought to us are strenuous, but the Chinese side is fully capable of and have room for doing the “addition and subtraction” well. It is by no means no choice.

First, on issues concerning Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity, political security and such core interests as fundamental systems, the U.S. does subtraction. China, therefore, has no option other than subtraction. China has no room for compromise on such issues, but has to take resolute and forceful countermeasures.

Second, the U.S. government has done a lot of subtraction in such fields as science and technology, economy, culture and people-to-people exchanges. We need to conduct precise evaluations of the extent and effects of the U.S. side’s subtraction, and look for room for consolidating connectivity. For instance, in China-U.S. relations, a buzzword in China — “stranglehold” —doesn’t always mean completely cutting off connectivity but rather creating huge difficulties for connectivity. It doesn’t mean there is no room left to maneuver, only that more precise assessment is needed to identify where “stents” or “bypasses” are needed.

When it comes to decoupling, as another example, experience from the past few years shows that even if the U.S. pushes for decoupling, as long as China can cope with it properly and make targeted efforts, it will be difficult to achieve. China’s connections with the outside world are highly complicated, so we shouldn’t assume there is no room for maneuver at the mere mention of a stranglehold. We should never assume that there is no room for more effort in connectivity, even though the U.S. is trying to cut off China.

Third, as the U.S. does its subtraction, we should do more addition with Europe, the Asia-Pacific and developing countries. China does have differences with many of these countries, yet systems thinking allows us to distinguish between our primary and secondary contradictions with foreign countries. ASEAN countries, as well as U.S. allies and partners in Europe and the Asia-Pacific, deserve special attention and to be differentiated from the U.S. In light of China’s relations with these countries in recent years, they don’t want to take sides, and even some U.S. allies are not in lockstep with the U.S. when it comes to China strategy.

Fourth, the U.S. is not a singular actor. We need to be fully aware of the complexity and diversity within the U.S.

1. As the U.S. does subtraction in one realm, we can still do addition in other realms. Currently, China-U.S. contradictions are more conspicuous at the bilateral or regional level. The U.S. still needs to cooperate with China on macro economic stability, climate change and public health. China-U.S. cooperation on global issues is not only in both countries’ interest but also conforms to the world’s expectations.

2. The U.S. Congress may do subtraction, but we can try to do addition with U.S. executive branch led by the White House. Even if the entire U.S. government does subtraction, we can still do addition with the U.S. business community in states, localities and academic circles. By optimizing the business environment at home, enhancing China-U.S. cultural and people-to-people exchanges and promoting exchanges between Chinese provinces and U.S. states, we can cultivate more cooperative forces that are more friendly to China.

The 20th National Congress of the CPC required the whole party to “carry forward our fighting spirit,” which is also reflected in doing the addition and subtraction well in dealing with the outside world, including the U.S.. It needs special emphasis that the “struggle” or “fighting" that communists accentuate is a concept at the level of Marxist philosophy, which must be distinguished from those of everyday life.

According to Marxist views, contradictions can exist anytime, anywhere, and the struggle is the process of old contradictions being resolved and new ones arising. In his famous “On Contradiction”, Mao Zedong said, “Confrontation is just one form of contradiction and struggle, rather than the only form of contradiction and struggle.” We should not consider struggle simply as toughness and confrontation: Struggle has diverse forms, which may include both fierce confrontation and roundaboutness, compromise and cooperation.

Finding out the method most conducive to resolving contradictions is an example of being good at struggling, which is emphasized by CPC. The essence of the CPC’s emphasis on “fighting spirit” is that carrying forward the spirit of rising to challenges — to resolve one contradiction after another — is being tough in different situations.

In January 2021, General Secretary Xi pointed out at the Davos Agenda dialogue of the World Economic Forum: “It is important that we stick to the cooperation concept based on mutual benefit, say no to narrow-minded, selfish beggar-thy-neighbor policies and stop the unilateral practice of keeping advantages in development all to oneself.

“Equal rights to development should be guaranteed for all countries to promote common development and prosperity. We should advocate fair competition, like competing with each other for excellence on a race-course, not beating each other in a wrestling arena.”

Facing fundamental adjustments in America’s China strategy, it is not in China’s long-term interest if we are trapped in a bilateral tit-for-tat. A big country like China has every possibility to transcend China-U.S. competition at the bilateral level, unswervingly concentrate on enhancing the connectivity of the overall strategic picture and achieving the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation — especially with developed countries, including the U.S. We will truly win in the track-and-field contest if we can do this. 

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