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Foreign Policy

Containing China Won’t Make America Great

Mar 15, 2023
  • Tao Wenzhao

    Honorary Member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; Fellow, CASS Institute of American Studies

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At a news conference on the margins of the first session of China’s 14th National Peoples Congress, Qin Gang, the new foreign minister, made extended remarks on China-U.S. relations and China’s diplomatic policies. “If the U.S. has the ambition to make itself great again, it should also have a broad mind for the development of other countries,” Qin said. “Containment and suppression will not make America great, and it will not stop the rejuvenation of China.” His words were fair and sensible, and they conformed with the practice of modern-day international relations, hence meriting the attention of American decision-makers.

The United States, despite being a latecomer among major powers, topped the world in industrial output value by the end of the 19th century. In the anti-fascist war, the country paid an enormous price for defeating Nazi forces, together with more than 60 allies. Then, in a joint effort, they founded the United Nations and established the postwar world order. Nonetheless, the U.S. has continuously made errors in its foreign policy since the end of World War II. In particular after the end of the Cold War, Pax Americana, a vision that international peace and security should be overseen by the U.S. with its might, became the consensus of Democrats and Republicans in American politics. The difference lies only in the fact that the GOP tends to use more of the country’s military superiority while the Democratic Party prefers to capitalize on economic power.

Neo-conservatives lifted up their horns by putting forward the concept of a U.S.-focused unipolar world. Swaggeringly, they threatened to carry American hegemony forward into the next century, claiming that Washington's strategy was to ensure that a new competitor like the Soviet Union would never arise. However, as the U.S. reached the summit of its power, it embarked on an ego trip by waging two wars, the devastating consequences of which have been seen by the whole world.

At the beginning of this century, the U.S. had a budget surplus, but now its total national debt has surpassed $31 trillion because it has steadily raised its debt ceiling. The relaxation in the regulation of financial markets and the abuse of financial leverage — especially evident when the housing bubble burst — ultimately resulted in a global financial crisis. Officials of the Bush administration at the time were forced to call their Chinese counterparts for help, and the Obama government later took delight in talking about being in the same boat with China.

Realistically speaking, over the past two decades, every U.S. administration has made sufficient mistakes and mishandled enough situations in both internal politics and diplomatic strategy that they should have induced both parties to engage in a full self-examination. But today’s decision-makers in the U.S. lack the spirit of self-reflection; instead, they continue to seek answers for their frustrations in the outside world.

Across the Pacific, China has been focusing on its own development in a stabilized society. Riding the waves of globalization, the Chinese economy averaged the highest growth rate in the world, gradually closing the gap with the U.S. It has, therefore, created a sense of anxiety in Washington, which has grown averse to Beijing’s choice to stick to a development path tied in tandem to its national conditions.

In addition, identifying Beijing as its biggest long-term challenger, the U.S. government since the Trump administration has formulated various policy measures to contain and suppress China. While it claims it isn’t seeking a new Cold War, current China-U.S. ties are actually not far from one. Washington’s policies won’t stop China’s rejuvenation, however. Instead, these they will backfire. They won’t make the U.S. great.

Decades of globalization have shaped an economic pattern in which the world heavily relies on China’s industrial chains. It has now become the largest trading partner of more than 120 countries. The Chinese economy remains deeply interdependent with that of the U.S., despite American attempts to “de-Sinicize” by introducing a series of concepts from “near-sourcing” (making products closer to home) to “ally- and friend-sourcing" (making products in countries aligned with U.S. interests). It has moved supply chains away from China or even decoupled in some cases from the world’s biggest manufacturer.

In addition, the U.S. Congress and the administration under President Joe Biden have moved forward on a raft of legislation intended to bring manufacturing back to the U.S. Such actions have not only taken aim at China but have hurt other countries, including America’s own allies. Germany and France have had strong negative reactions.

It is difficult for the U.S. to shock the Chinese economy with such anti-globalization measures, nor can it damage China’s economic ties with the rest of the world. In fact, while Donald Trump’s tariffs on Chinese imports remain in place, China-U.S. bilateral trade volume has continued to soar, from some $500 billion in 201, before the trade war, to more than $690 billion in 2022. This shows that the two countries have substantial need for one another.

Democrats, despite being the most vocal in fighting climate change, imposed strict restrictions on the importation of photovoltaic products from China last year. As a result, new solar installations in the U.S. declined by 23 percent in 2022. Recently the Biden administration was forced to give a green light to these solar imports. A report by The Brookings Institution also shows that Washington’s "manufacturing return" policy hasn’t worked. Compared with many other countries, China has advantages in logistics, human capital, expertise and IP protection. This is indisputable.

Over the past six or seven years, the U.S. has escalated sanctions on China’s tech industry, in particular the semiconductor sector. But this will only encourage China to seek independence in core technology. Huawei, the first Chinese tech giant to suffer under a stringent crackdown by the U.S., has pulled itself out of its plight through a tough process of technological upgrades. Meanwhile, America's chip ban has made U.S. companies suffer. Tech stocks have slumped, with losses of over $1.1 trillion in the chip industry.

In its new National Security Strategy, the Biden administration vowed to shape China’s external environment in a way that influences its behavior; so it put forward the Indo-Pacific strategy and various policy measures to reinforce Washington’s ties with its allies, rope in Southeast Asian nations, woo India and make unprecedented promises to Pacific Island countries. But the Indo-Pacific strategy is dubious. Southeast Asian nations have realized that the U.S. is only paying lip service and have time and again reiterated that they won’t take sides. They strongly oppose a new Cold War, which could heighten regional tensions.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative has brought more practical benefits to participating countries over the past decade. It’s not an example of China “giving a gift.” Rather, it’s mutually beneficial cooperation on equal footing and guided by the principle of “extensive consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits.” The slander alleging a Chinese “debt trap” — which was fabricated by the U.S. — just collapsed under its own weight. Many U.S. allies rely heavily on the Chinese economy. A report by a German think tank pointed out that if China and Europe were to decouple, Germany’s GDP would suffer a 1 percent decline annually for a long time to come.

China will resume its high-quality and high-speed economic growth as it recovers from the pandemic. At the ongoing National People’s Congress, it set a target for this year’s GDP growth of around 5 percent, although some international organizations and rating agencies made more optimistic predictions.

The Biden administration’s hesitant and ambiguous China policy shows anything but the grace of a world power. It even failed to properly deal with a balloon. Yet, as the world’s two major powers, China and the United States will only gain from cooperation and lose from confrontation. This adage still applies to present-day circumstances. The U.S. won’t get any good results by containing China. 

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