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Foreign Policy

From Cooperating Rivals to Competing Rivals

Aug 24, 2018
  • He Yafei

    Former Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs

Related article: Partners or Rivals? The Future of the US - China Economic Relationship

Why has the China-U.S. relationship taken a nose dive in the past two years, especially since President Donald Trump took office? With the China-U.S. trade war as a hallmark, bilateral relations have continuously deteriorated, bringing into even more sharp focus the two countries’ distinctive strategic orientations and interests as a rising power and an incumbent one. A China that is bent on peaceful development and national rejuvenation has been interpreted by Washington as a major strategic rival that is set to challenge U.S. global interests, and the U.S.’ China policy has hence evolved from the alternate use of engagement and containment to a new state, where containment has taken center stage and willingness for cooperation has taken a nose dive. Western scholars phrase this as a turn from “cooperating rivals” to “competing rivals” and doubt whether the two countries can continue cooperating.

What is the correct way to appreciate a China-U.S. relationship that is undergoing historic change? What will China-U.S. relations look like in the future? Will China and the U.S. fall into the trap of confrontation on many fronts? To answer these questions, first we must review the past four decades, when the two were “cooperating rivals.”

In the second half of the 20th century, the world witnessed two major events: the end of the decades-long Cold War between the U.S. and Soviet Union, after which the U.S. became the world’s sole superpower (a “U.S. moment” lasting 20 years, from 1990-2009); and China’s reform and opening up process, globalization, and rapid economic growth within the current international system.

For 40 years, the U.S.’ China strategy alternated between cooperation and containment, as “internationalists” who sought to impose U.S. liberal democratic ideals on China came up against the predecessors of today’s “America First” proponents, who sought to gain the maximum possible benefit from the Chinese market. American elites, largely “internationalists,” hoped that economic cooperation between the two countries would lead China towards free market mechanisms, the liberalization of capital and trade, and most importantly for them, guide the evolution of the Chinese political system in an American-set direction.

During this period, China’s process of reform and opening up evolved and was a great success. Under the Communist Party of China’s leadership, the Chinese people have followed a path of peaceful development that is consistent with national and global conditions and worked diligently in the tides of globalization. Meanwhile, the country’s relations with other major countries, mainly the U.S., were generally stable, and the U.S., Japan and other western nations by and large welcomed China’s progress.

The outcome is that China has integrated itself within the global production chain through reform and opening in the relatively favorable environment of international peace. Its economy has taken giant strides to become the second largest in the world. Though there still is a long way for China to go before becoming a global superpower, its status as a major global player is already unshakeable. This is no exaggeration.

For the past four decades of China and the U.S.’ diplomatic relationship, despite differing political systems, strategic interests, and cultural traditions, the two countries remained largely cooperative. We can refer to China and the U.S. in this period as “cooperating rivals,” united by the “ballast” of economic cooperation. The relationship was two-way and brought both parties tremendous dividends. To develop, China needed U.S. cooperation to enter the U.S.-dominated global free trade system and markets, while the U.S. attached considerable importance to the business opportunities the Chinese market afforded.

China and the U.S. established diplomatic relations in 1979 because of common strategic needs. When this common strategic goal faded out in 1989/1990 as the Cold War ended, “win-win” economic cooperation became an important cornerstone for their continuous cooperation. Since they were in different positions on the global value chain, the competitive aspect of their economies was not as prominent. Geopolitical and ideological differences did exist, but both parties were rational and pragmatic.

So why have both countries begun to view each other today as “competitors” or “competing rivals,” rather than “cooperating rivals”? This is closely related to the changes in U.S. domestic politics and significant shifts in the U.S.’ perception of the present-day world.

After the Cold War, an ambitious U.S. was determined to transform the world, but had to make significant readjustments in what it identified as strategic threats following the unprecedented 9/11 terrorist attacks. The policy of aiming to prevent the rise of other major powers then conspicuously gave way to the global “war on terror.” In the first decade of the 21st century, the U.S. launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, making major strategic mistakes, then in 2007/2008 suffered a major blow from the global financial crisis that originated on Wall Street. The U.S. witnessed a severe drain of both its hard and soft power. In the meantime, China’s rapid rise acerbated the U.S.’ “strategic anxiety,” re-igniting its impulse to prevent and contain a new, rising power.

The U.S. government and public began to reflect on the excessive expansion of U.S. foreign intervention, as well as “mistakes” in the orientation of its China strategy. This round of retrospection is comparable to the major debate in U.S. strategic and diplomatic communities over “who lost China” upon the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The final conclusion of this debate was that the U.S. had made “strategic mistakes,” needed to refocus its foreign strategy, withdraw from the Middle East and concentrate on coping with emerging powers which may challenge U.S. global hegemony, especially China. Both the latest U.S. National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy have officially identified China as a “major strategic rival.” This is not the outcome of an impulse on the part of President Trump nor his “hawkish” advisors. Rather, it is a strategic judgment the U.S. government and American public have made after meticulous deliberation, and may not change in the short term.

Given that China and the U.S. have explicitly deemed each other “rivals,” much international attention has been focused recently on the future course of their relationship. Is it possible that the trade war is the first step toward a long-term path of confrontation?

This possibility certainly cannot be excluded, and the likelihood of this is high in the absence of proper management of the bilateral relationship. However, there is no historical necessity for confrontation between China and the U.S. The two countries’ economies are increasingly interdependent in the globalized community of shared interests, and both China and the U.S. are nuclear powers. No matter your perspective, it is clear that China and the U.S., as two global and nuclear powers, must avoid all-out confrontation, and stride over or fill up the “Thucydides’ Trap.” It is of critical importance for the two parties to begin cool-headed evaluations of their behavior, achieve a fair understanding of the world we are living in, and assume their due responsibilities to the rest of the world as major powers.

Here arises the debate over whether China and the U.S., as “rivals” (or following the U.S. logic that defines China as a major strategic rival) can continue to cooperate, and, if so, how. My answer is: rivals can certainly cooperate, and in the age of globalization, there is ample room for future China-U.S. cooperation. The principle that China and U.S. will both win when they cooperate and both lose when they confront each other has not changed just because the latter has classed the former as a rival. Rivals are not enemies. Yet as rivals, U.S. competition with and suppression of China will become a mainstream policy, and if the situation is mishandled, the likelihood of the parties turning from rivals into enemies will be dramatically higher.

As the conclusion that China and the U.S. can still cooperate as rivals is tenable, we should not be optimistic, or pessimistic, or blame troubles on others, or lose confidence in the bilateral relationship. What demands serious contemplation now is an evolution in the “space” for China-U.S. cooperation against the backdrop of changes in both countries’ strategic postures. Under such circumstances, how should China and the U.S. cooperate? This can be analyzed from several angles.

The first is security. As permanent members of the UN Security Council and nuclear powers, China and the U.S. shoulder a special responsibility for promoting world peace and security in accordance with the UN Charter. They also have important responsibilities for preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons and technologies under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. China and the U.S. have had recent effective cooperation on UN peace-keeping missions, the Iran nuclear issue (though Trump has withdrawn from the Iran nuclear deal), and the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue. Such cooperation may, and should be, continued.

It would be disastrous for both countries and the entire world if China and the U.S. engages in confrontation or a “cold war” in the security realm. Currently, the U.S. is preoccupied with enhancing its military alliances and maintaining its overwhelming military pressure on China in the Asia-Pacific. This isn’t “competing rivals,” but “rival’s confrontation,” which has no future. China is both a continental power and a maritime power with the capabilities to handle a confrontation, while the U.S. has lost its magic wand to maneuver global solidarity.

The China-proposed principle of cooperative, collective security and the idea of a community of a shared future based on a network of global partnerships is the correct direction for China-U.S. cooperation in the security field. Collective security is, after all, a common wish of all countries. The U.S. should not expect to build its own absolute security on the basis of others’ insecurity. That time has passed.

China and the U.S. need to strengthen pragmatic communication in the security field, clarify bottom lines (such as Taiwan), identify concrete realms for cooperation, and at a minimum, remain restrained and clear-headed so as to manage potential conflicts and avoid being dragged into an accidental military conflict.

Secondly, the global economy needs to maintain steady, continuous growth and a global free trade regime based on universally-accepted international rules by all countries, especially major trading powers like China and the U.S. The international community is badly in need of policies that prevent and control the accumulation of financial risks, so as to avoid another financial crisis. Moreover, various global challenges, like climate change, energy security and the cross-border spread of epidemics have emerged over recent years, and as no country can remain unaffected, international cooperation is indispensable.

The existing global financial order, which has proven successful over the decades, serves both countries well, and calls for China and the U.S. to lead international cooperation. Even from the perspective of American interests alone, China-U.S. cooperation is indispensable.

If a country single-mindedly pursues its own interests and doesn't mind harming other nations' interests and flouting international rules with trade wars and other protectionist measures, it will inevitably result in a global recession. Seeking to exclude China while making new international rules, like former President Barack Obama's proposal of the TPP, or to completely overthrow China-U.S. bilateral agreements and conventional practices, as Trump is doing now, is inadvisable and will not succeed.

As the world's largest and second largest economies, the U.S. and China have the responsibility and obligation to promote world economic growth, preserve the international economic system, and prevent the spread of protectionism. Both parties should go back to the negotiating table. The U.S., which is stubbornly going its own way, is responsible for determining what the next step will be. China can't and won't surrender, because there is no such word in the Chinese people's dictionary. China must stay cool and not provoke further conflict, but will not shy away from conflict and will cope accordingly. China will increase collaboration with other nations who seek to preserve the world economic order and global free trade and increase positive energy and countries' confidence.

Thirdly, a third industrialization movement is sweeping the world and promoting progress globally. China, the U.S. and other countries are all striving to seize the significant historical opportunities of technological advancement, in search of major scientific and technological breakthroughs that could drive the world economy to another round of growth. The U.S. leads the world in science and technology, while China lags far behind in core technologies. However, globalization has also made technological development a global phenomenon, and it is impossible for technological progress in one single country to drive global economic development.

In this respect, China has invested heavily in basic scientific and technological research projects over many years and has already reached globally-advanced levels in certain areas. The U.S. has serious prejudices against China's "Made in China 2025" program. Its plan to obstruct Chinese economic progress by containing its scientific and technological development doesn't belong to the era of globalization. China and the U.S. may conduct cooperation in hi-tech areas, but they should choose fields where both can benefit. U.S. concerns about problems regarding intellectual property rights protection in China have been exaggerated. China is a responsible manufacturing power and is fully aware of the importance of IPR protection for indigenous and world technological innovation. It has already made great strides in developing the legal parameters for technological innovation and in law enforcement, and will continue doing so. If the U.S. aspires to suppress Chinese progress in hi-tech areas, it will only score regional wins that won't last. The pace of China's economic, scientific and technological progress is unstoppable. China has the capacity and tenacity to develop the core technologies necessary for Chinese manufacturing: it is only a matter of time and input.

Therefore, despite apparent difficulties, there is space for China-U.S. hi-tech cooperation. For instance, every year China spends more on importing chips than on oil, among which American-made chips are the majority. Proper China-U.S. cooperation in hi-tech areas could prove instrumental in reducing the U.S. "trade deficit.”

Lastly, perhaps most importantly, is mutual tolerance of the Chinese and American political systems and cultures. Since the founding of the U.S., Americans have considered themselves God's chosen few, and the beacon and fortress on the hill. In their support of U.S. liberal democracy, they are accustomed to look down on the rest of the world from a moral high ground. The concept of the “conflict of civilizations,” has consistently guided U.S. foreign policy. Neither Samuel Huntington nor John Mearsheimer, neither American neo-conservatism nor internationalism, has gotten rid of the shackles of ideological confrontation. The U.S. has perceived and distrusted China's political system, socialist path and development model as “alien.” As an old Chinese saying goes: "How can an outsider be allowed to sleep soundly beside my bed"?

It may not be easy for the U.S. to forsake its way of thinking and prejudices, increase its tolerance of other civilizations and ideologies, and engage in peaceful competition with other political systems. Of course, only history can make the ultimate judgment. The success of China's path of development has demonstrated that diversity of both world civilizations and development models has always been a trend of history. The world is colorful and diverse, and no country can make the world its backyard, where only flowers of one color are allowed. China and the U.S. should respect and tolerate each other. Only a country's own people are in the position to judge whether its political system and ideology are suitable. As President Xi Jinping has said, one won't know whether a pair of shoes fit before putting them on.

China won't export its ideology, nor will it impose its development model on others. Each generation of Chinese leaders have made the solemn pledge to the world that the country will never seek hegemony even when it becomes strong. President Xi proposed the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013 under the principle of "achieving shared growth through consultation and collaboration," in a bid to promote economic development in under-developed nations by enhancing infrastructure inter-connectivity, and expanding trade and people-to-people exchanges. The initiative seeks to create a solid foundation for lasting peace in the region and the world. China is ready to contribute more, and share the dividends of its own development with other nations. China and the U.S. can cooperate in many aspects in this regard, the "China-U.S.+" model will not only benefit both countries but will be a great help to other developing nations.

Despite the considerable difficulties in the transition from "cooperating rivals" to "competing rivals,” cooperation is fully achievable, and a pragmatic and feasible historical choice for the two countries.

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