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Foreign Policy

Calm Down, China and the US Have Always Been 'Strategic Competitors'

Mar 14 , 2018
  • Yin Chengde

    Research Fellow, China Foundation for International Studies

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In its recent National Security Strategy Report, the US announced a shift of its strategic focus from fighting terrorism to responding to global power competition, while characterizing China as the primary national security threat and a main strategic competitor. This was quickly followed by a series of moves to ramp up military and economic pressure on China, moves that indicated a shift of America’s China policy towards one of containment. Such a development certainly gives rise to concerns among the Chinese.

But to me, some remarks on the latest US policy changes, as well as their negative impact, have gone a little too far. For example, one described the US shift as a reversal of its long-standing China policy, with the period of relative stability based on coordination and cooperation between the two countries being replaced by a period of sustained adversarial confrontation. Another argued that the two countries will fall into the “Thucydides trap” and end up fighting a cold war, perhaps even a hot war in the South China Sea or Taiwan Straits. A China-US trade war is also said to be on the cards. These remarks are totally untenable, for they fail to see the wood for the trees, mistake things’ appearance for their essence, jump to hasty conclusions, and are guilty of superficiality, one-sidedness, and claptrap.

In fact, it is nothing that special for the US to adjust its foreign policy and strategies from time to time. During the first decade after the end of the Cold War and just before the War on Terror started, the US had made geopolitical power rivalry the focus of its national security strategy. When President Barack Obama ended the Iraq War, he in fact reinstated global power competition as the focus of US national security strategy, which caused no conflict or confrontation between the US and other global powers. By the same token, it is nothing that special to characterize China as a threat or strategic competitor to the US. Ever since China overtook Japan in 2010 as the world’s second largest economy, the US has gone out of its way to call China a threat and regarded it as a major challenger to its hegemonic power. The Obama administration’s ensuing “rebalancing” strategy in the Asia-Pacific was aimed at preventing and containing China’s rise. But facts are more powerful than wishful thinking. Proceeding from its overall national interests, the US has consistently made engagement its priority in its relations with China while keeping containment on the backburner. Taking an extreme view on America’s latest China policy, even to the point of seeing an imminent cold war between the two countries, therefore, is dead wrong, for it goes against both history and reality.

What one must not overlook is the fact that the factors keeping China-US relations essentially positive all these years remain. First, America still needs a helping hand from China in a complex, fluid, and turbulent world. It is a world that is full of threats and challenges, such as the proliferation of nuclear weapons, climate change, international terrorism, financial crises, and sporadic outbreak of regional conflicts. No country can escape them unscathed, and as a country enjoying global presence and having interests all over the world, the US certainly bears the brunt of the pressure from them. Even a superpower cannot manage them all by itself. International cooperation is a must, and cooperation from China is essential. The US isn’t in great shape right now, and things would only be harder without Chinese cooperation.

Second, China does not constitute a threat or a challenge to the US. China preaches and practices peaceful development, pursuing a foreign policy of peace and following a defensive policy. China has long since forsworn global hegemony and refrained from seeking domination of any region or the world at large. This is China’s national policy, and its unshakable conviction, which makes it impossible for China to threaten or challenge the US or any other country. Though China has grown stronger thanks to 40 years of robust development, it still lags behind America economically with a GDP barely two thirds that of the US. The gap is even bigger when it comes to military capacity, science and technology, and overall national strength. China cannot possibly threaten or challenge the US. The “China threat” paranoia in the US is not based on facts, but is driven by anti-China prejudice and the selfish interests of America’s military-industrial complex. The American government, which is by and large pragmatic towards China, is not expected to contain China as confronting China would bring grave and unpredictable risks.

Third, economic cooperation is still the stabilizer of China-US relations. After 40 years of rapid development of economic relations, China and the US have become each other’s biggest trading partner and the largest source of foreign investment. What’s more, China is America’s largest creditor. Around 70% of China’s huge foreign exchange reserve, or roughly $2 trillion, is in the form of US dollars, which is crucial for the US to balance its budget, avert financial risks, and maintain the Dollar’s status as the world’s base currency. In fact, economic relations between China and the US has become the ballast of their overall relationship, where a high degree of mutual interdependence has made them inseparable partners in the community of shared interests. Thus, an imminent trade war between the two countries is a fake proposition because none of them could afford the irreparable harm that will come with it.

Fourth, one year into the Trump administration, we can see that the two heads of state have laid a good foundation for the sound development of China-US relations. They have met three times in person and called each other eleven times on the hotline, and reached important agreements on major bilateral and international issues. In particular, President Xi’s visit to Mar-a-Lago and President Trump’s visit to China both brought historical achievements. The two presidents developed a cordial personal rapport and a sound working relationship, which will go a long way towards closer and steadier ties between the two countries.

In summary, we should look at the negative changes in America’s China policy with objectively and calmly. These changes have certainly affected China-US relations. But they will not herald a fundamental turn for the worse, or a wholesale retrogression in the relationship. America’s policy of engagement plus containment with engagement as the mainstay will not change. Their shared perspectives will continue to outweigh their differences. And a China-US relationship featuring both bickering and cooperation will not change. China-US relations will continue to go forward and upward, albeit with ups and downs and twists and turns.

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