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Foreign Policy

How to Avoid “Murphy's Law” in Sino-US Relations

Jun 21 , 2019
  • Li Zheng

    Assistant Research Fellow, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

A dangerous trend has recently emerged in Sino-US relations. After the stagnation of trade negotiations, contradictions between the two sides in other fields are also heating up. In the areas of human rights, geopolitics, export control, and technology, some previously dormant issues are now becoming prominent problems. Some of the most extreme concerns are becoming a reality, while even the most destructive recommendations seem likely to be adopted by policymakers. Sino-US relations are likely to follow the trajectory of “Murphy's Law”: that is, “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.”

If Murphy's Law of Sino-US relations comes true, it means that the two countries may produce the worst-case scenario: comprehensive confrontation and isolation. This scenario will not only have a disastrous impact on the people and businesses of the two countries, but also likely change the course of history itself.

After the Cold War, economic and cultural ties of countries worldwide have become increasingly close, while the living standards of developing countries have significantly improved. The new technological revolution has provided a new impetus to globalization. Both developed and developing countries are expected to take their economies to a new level and solve the problems caused by insufficient development. The marginalization of geopolitical factors is the main reason for the development of globalization, but comprehensive confrontation between China and the US will fundamentally change this factor. This means that the dividends and economic growth expected to emerge from the technological revolution will no longer exist.

Some strategic thinkers have seen this dangerous trend. At the Shangri-La Dialogue, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivered a deep speech on Asian countries’ concerns about this risk. Lee’s speech explained the mechanism of Murphy's Law in Sino-US relations. He suggested that the main reason for the major changes in Sino-US relations was that the two sides did not look at the issue from each other’s perspective to complicate their understanding of mutual differences. The actions of one side may be regarded as provocation by the other, which the causes a counterattack as a response. In the US, the negative view of China has penetrated the system, and while believers in compromise have been marginalized.

In fact, these strategic mutual suspicions between China and the United States have existed for a long time. However, in the past, based on mutual understanding, the two parties were able to abide by rules and agreements, and would not unilaterally take actions to change the status quo. Today, the United States has changed. As the world has undergone significant changes due to globalization, the US began to look at the world in a perspective similar to the Cold War. It intends to divide countries into two hostile camps to hinder the flow of capital, technology, and personnel. In addition, the US makes the most extreme speculations in looking at other countries' behaviors, ignoring logic and other moderate interpretations. These changes have caused the Sino-US conflict to escalate in mutual suspicion.

The main reason for the occurrence of Murphy's Law is that there are hidden defects in the bilateral system that will be exposed during long-term operation. For the current Sino-US relationship, this hidden defect is America’s strategic imagination that has been solidified by historical memory and conservative thinking. The former US administration tended to use a creative imagination to look at Sino-US relations. The two countries hoped to surpass the "Thucydides trap" through innovative means. The US government today lacks the impetus to design a new framing for Sino-US relations.

This lack of imagination is similar to the view of the US diplomat George Kennan on the Soviet Union in his famous Long Telegram. Kennan believed that the Soviet Union could not conceive of a world of two systems and two big powers coexisting, nor did it think that other countries could choose a different development path from those of the two major powers. This lack of strategic imagination was an important flaw in the strategic design of foreign policy, which shackled Soviet policy choices.

Regrettably, this unimaginative strategy has not only been accepted by the US government, but has also begun to influence the US strategic community's views on the future of Sino-US relations. Innovative ideas and solutions are no longer taken seriously, while revenge and persecution have become mainstream opinion.

In order to prevent "Murphy's Law" of Sino-US relations from coming to fruition, the two sides need to change the current mode of interaction. The logic of Murphy's Law is that as the bilateral system continues to change, the probability of defects becoming a problem rises. If there is a mechanism for the system to be suspended and refurbished, then diplomatic “maintenance personnel” could have the opportunity to discover hidden defects in the system. Sino-US relations now require a period of maintenance, and both sides need to establish a buffer and a cooling-off period. Both sides need to be aware that trade issues are difficult to resolve in the short term. At the same time, the United States needs to stop continuing to escalate conflicts in other areas, to avoid a vicious circle of retaliation between the two sides.

Both sides’ governments, academic circles, and media need to use this cooling-off period to conduct extensive dialogue, continue discussions on the shifting landscape of Sino-US relations, and explore innovative ways to solve the current problems. The strategic circles of the two countries need to reimagine various possibilities for the bilateral relationship, and provide some positive and constructive narratives of the future for their respective governments and public alike. In this process, China and the US also need to listen to the opinions and suggestions of third-party countries.

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