Historical readjustments have taken place in major-country relations amid the new centennial changes, mainly manifested in the following aspects:
First, the post-Cold War world has entered a new era of globalization. Major-country relations are often considered to feature both conflict and competition, yet an important question remains: Which is more important, conflict or competition? With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the cooperative aspects of China-U.S. relations have grown continuously. Major-country relations in the era of globalization had begun to drift away from the so-called major-country rivalry. Now, however, the most essential characteristics that regularly define major-country relations in history are again coming back.
Then what does today’s major-country confrontation mean? No doubt it means a new Cold War is also coming back. The suppressive moves by the United States against China, conflict and collaboration with China and so-called strategic moves against China under U.S. standards all boil down to the truth that the United States has already begun to bring a new Cold War into regional and global industry chains.
Meanwhile, American warfare against China in science, technology, trade, economy and markets, including digital, media and public opinion wars, are deepening continuously. The return of major-country relations to strategic confrontation means a certain degree of the Cold War is back already.
The second important historical change involves major-country relations in new camp confrontations. Changes in the international system had evolved, along with the geopolitical divisions surrounding two superpowers and the subsequent all-around ideological conflicts after WWII. Although a new Cold War has begun, will a geostrategic standoff and dichotomy re-emerge between the East and West?
So world politics has once again reached a worrying moment of possible camp confrontation induced by the major-country stalemate.
The third characteristic involves neoliberal theories from the Cold War era. Mutual interdependence may weaken security competition between countries, promote sociopolitical communication and exchanges and effectively ease the endless conflicts over humans rights, interests and wealth in traditional major-country relations. In the 31 years since the Cold War ended, economic and social interdependence between China and the United States had been unprecedented. The two countries have not only been the world’s largest economies but also each other’s No.1 trading partner.
But despite the breadth and depth of China-U.S. interdependence, the Trump and Biden administrations have continued churning out suppressive policies against China. The U.S.-defined strategic confrontation is again putting security above mutual economic and social cooperation. In this sense, major-country competition in an era of mutual dependence is taking on a new look, new characteristics and new trends. In both theory and empirical studies, what changes will there be in major-country confrontations at a time of high mutual interdependence? History is returning: Present-day U.S. strategic suppression of China shows that world politics is going back to a time of realism, while the basic theoretical assumptions of traditional neoliberalism have collapsed completely.
The fourth outstanding change lies in the reemergence of ideological conflict. Ideology represents a country’s choice of political values, which reflects priority choices its people have made about political and social development and systems. In a time of globalization, however, internationalization, computerization and socialization have resulted in increasingly frequent and broad exchanges between people of different countries.
The process has promoted an exchange of ideas, developed values dependence and elevated mutual knowledge and understanding of each other’s ways of production and life to unprecedented levels. Therefore, confrontations over culture and values in the era of globalization is often believed to have undergone substantive changes. Yet since the Biden administration again launched an ideological war against China, ideological conflict is coming back.
Soon after assuming office, the Biden administration began to emphasize that current international competition mainly takes the form of competition between the democratic camp represented by the U.S. and the West and authoritarian states like China and Russia — a confrontation between two camps of countries. This indicates that competitive, mutually conflicting frameworks and mechanisms of domestic political operation remain the most decisive variables in major-country relations.
Given the basic characteristics of the aforementioned aspects, the U.S. has changed its approach to China. Substantive changes have taken place in its China strategy. So then is it possible to ease major-country relations today? This year marks the 50th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s China visit. Over the five decades, China and the U.S. have moved toward reconciliation, but it has also been 50 years of China continuously opening up and integrating with the international community. It has been 50 years of global power shifts, tremendous growth of wealth and of revolutionary accumulation. What does it mean if major-country relations of those five decades go back to their past state?
First, substantive changes in China-U.S. relations will prove to be the heaviest long-term international challenge for China in its rise as a major power. China and the U.S. have engaged in various wars of words on the diplomatic front and in efforts to sway public opinion. A basic fact is that the China-U.S. relationship will never return to its past, and the present policy direction of the U.S. will last at least 10 to 20 years. Facing us now is the question of how China should cope with the changes in relations and the confrontational U.S. policies in the long-term.
Second is how to cope with the Thucydides trap. There have been at least been 16 cases of major countries rising in the 500 years since the beginning of the Age of Exploration. Of those, more than 80 percent involved wars. More than 90 percent of the rising powers ultimately failed to rise, as the fundamental cause was the basic logic of power competition in international relations. This has continued, and it has been difficult to resolve.
On the other hand, the historical fact of the “country in second place ending up in failure” over the past 500 years was the result of those countries being too anxious to sink into conflict and confrontation with the incumbent power. Thus, for China, in the face of changed U.S. policies, it may be a choice between slowing down the historical process of a major country rising, or facing a landslide collapse of the anticipated rise. In this sense, China-U.S. relations entering a new phase of strategic competition may be defined as a state of strategic stalemate between the two countries. From another perspective, China faces unprecedented strategic tests in the historic process of its rise. The issue for us now is whether we have carried out thorough, complete and mature deliberations in the face of such abrupt changes in the strategic environment.
Third, from the perspectives of both international relations theory and history, the catalyst in a time of major-country competition and conflict is not only a game of strategy and strength but also extremism in domestic politics and the confrontation of political philosophies. The momentum of “involution” that originated from domestic political and social divides in the U.S. has actually promoted support for tougher China policies, against which we must fight.
On the other hand, we must also be vigilant and take precautions against the constantly spreading populist feelings at home that have been on the rise along with the harsh and complex international conditions. Based on the reality of domestic political involution, leftist, centrist and rightist forces in the U.S. all call for more forceful China policies. They frame China as America’s foremost foreign rival to shift the blame for domestic turbulence and division. At the same time, they are seeking to upgrade domestic social and political cohesion, taking advantage of efforts to hype up and materialize “China threats.”
The Biden administration is promoting a foreign policy supposedly representing the interests of the middle class, striving to facilitate the re-industrialization of high technology and reinvestment in the US. Such crazy suppressive moves as tech and trade wars are targeted at increasing white-collar jobs and incomes att the low and intermediate levels while increasing investments in American manufacturing and infrastructure, preserving U.S. advantages in science and technology — as well as high-end, precision and cutting edge technologies and industries — and dominating global supply and industry chains.
The Biden administration’s present China policy attempts to coordinate and synchronize diplomatic, security and domestic policies and make comprehensive headway. Current U.S. domestic politics has, by and large, cut off policy space for improving relations with China. Yet a rapid all-around showdown with China doesn’t conform to the interests and goals of the Biden administration. Easing and managing China-U.S. confrontation calls for strategic wisdom and long-term vision, rather than just single-minded strategic resolve and readiness to fight.
Historic changes are taking place in global politics and major-country relations, leaving those relations again at a critical crossroads. The challenges and pressures that a rising China faces today are unprecedented, not only since 1978 but even since 1949. The U.S. had for a very long time taken Russia as its biggest strategic rival after the Cold War. But today it has firmly identified China as the No.1 strategic rival and potential threat.
Chinese academic and policy circles should conduct a comprehensive evaluation and an in-depth analysis regarding the strategic risks China faces. They should explore countermeasures in a scientific, objective and cool-headed way to make sure China’s historic rise proceeds steadily and unstoppably. This is an unprecedented challenge and a formidable test for China in the new era.