The history of China-US relations over the past four-plus decades offers a better example than our contentious present. We can look back on the relationship’s past with nostalgia: China-US confrontation ended with President Nixon’s 1972 visit to Beijing, a friendly period that lasted until 2008. China, keenly aware of Mao’s disastrous radicalism in governance, focused on domestic development and liberal economic opening combined with “diluted” (as it were) political reform. These steps were largely compatible with America’s liberal expectations for China at a time when the US strongly believed in liberal values on both the domestic and international front. Moreover, China, with its deficiencies in national strength had limited aspirations to superpower status, instead focusing largely on “local politics and local political economy” on the international stage before 2008. This domestic emphasis was paired with a rather prudent foreign policy and conservative military build-up. There were few US worries of “Chinese expansionism” whether in economic, geo-strategic, or ideological terms.
Since the 2008 global financial crisis and economic recession, in the vitally important context of the West’s relative decline and dysfunction, China was encouraged to doubt liberalism in its “original form” for the first time since the launching of liberal economic reform. This shift began to stimulate Chinese triumphalism, with a strong awareness of the ongoing power transition between China and the US — though this transition has ever since been somewhat overestimated among more and more Chinese elites. Aspirations for global power followed this transformation in perspective, reflecting more and more bold visions and a willingness to striving for an economic presence overseas.
Toward the end of 2012, this vision was greatly broadened and became almost the chief national objective of state policy. A surge in national strength and resources began to be mobilized and expensed for that purpose. Ideological belief in China’s national greatness and in the Communist state’s role through a command structure permeated by the Party has strengthened all of these changing attitudes.
So, together with profound and dramatic changes in the US since its 2016 presidential election campaign, has come the stark present. China-US rivalry since 2018 plays out across all three major fronts: strategic, trade, and ideological. Compared with Anglo-German rivalry in 1907, the current geopolitical picture seems even starker!
The discourse of the Thucydides Trap has become a common “paradigm” for many observers in analyzing this strategic situation and predicting its future. But too many thinkers lack knowledge of the original Thucydides Trap 2500 years ago in ancient Greece. This ignorance creates misperceptions in both China and the US. The basic facts were that Athens overlooked the increasingly heavy impact on Sparta of Athens’ brutal imperialist rush to dominate the Greek world — meanwhile Sparta overlooked Athens’ consistent intension to maintain a long-term amicable relationship with its fellow city-state.
The grand strategy China should have in the present new era, which has been partly redefined by dramatic changes in relations with Washington since 2018 (and less dramatic shifts in China’s domestic economy), has been discussed in the previous section. Now we should consider a hopeful future based on observations of emerging Chinese policies.
A fundamental fact should be noted here. That is, China’s strategy is just beginning to make positive moves towards strategic retrenchment and improvement in trade and business practices. Why? Three recent factors explain the change: (1) a new definition of the strategic situation given by Chinese top leadership, i.e., official discourse declaring that “China’s economy faces new pressure” towards a downturn and its “external environment has profoundly changed” in an ominous direction; (2) a new assessment of national resources and available capability, conditioned by a protracted reduction in national revenue accompanying a long-term slowdown of GDP growth, together with enormous increase in needed state expenses in various major fields; (3) a review of ongoing major national projects in terms of cost-effectiveness, with the only unquestionably positive example being only the strategic military build-up. Therefore, changes in strategy are already an imperative. Sign of such shifts, actual or potential, have already been seen across different fronts including the Belt and Road Initiative, behavior in the South China Sea, peripheral diplomacy, and trade talks, for example.
The vitally important question then is: What should the United States do? If there are real retrenchments and improvements on the Chinese side, the US government should recognize them without taking the same picky approach that has led to collapse of the US-North Korea summit in Hanoi. The US government should send encouraging signals, and try to have a realistic dialogue or negotiation with China, for at least a temporary truce and partial solution to tensions, based on clarifying each other’s real vital interests and respecting them as much as possible.