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Foreign Policy

Preparing for the Worst, Hoping for the Best in Sino-American Relations

Mar 21, 2023
  • Brian Wong

    Assistant Professor in Philosophy, HKU and Rhodes Scholar

The state of Sino-American relations is, to say the least, most worrying. 

Past the imbroglio involving an alleged spy balloon, both Washington and Beijing alike have become increasingly explicit about the role they envision the other as playing – or not playing – in their respective worldviews. Upon postponing his pre-scheduled visit to China, Secretary of State Antony Blinken took up and amplified unverified rumors concerning China allegedly supplying lethal aid to Russia, while during the recently concluded Two Sessions, the Chinese leadership explicitly panned the American political establishment for its attempts at “containment, encirclement, and suppression” of China. 

As much as both sides have independently emphasized the importance of preventing the Sino-American relationship from descending into an all-out new Cold War or a hot war, even, such rhetorics appear to have been little more than mere lip service in face of the increasing acrimony that is stacking up across all dimensions of bilateral relations. Financial and capital raising has been weaponized and politicized as American regulators seek to further limit access by Chinese companies to Western capital through American markets, and China aims to thwart the dollar hegemony by proactively promoting the RMB as an alternative currency of circulation. 

Much as I have long been an advocate and fan of greater, deeper Sino-American relations, the nationalistic and isolationist voices across both sides of the Pacific are unfortunately winning out, and it behoves any sensible pacifist to recognize the daunting challenges ahead, in order to navigate the frothy waters with due care. 

There is little we can do in shaping the governments of either China or America - both are institutions with their internal governing logics and interests, and that cannot be easily engaged or nudged in particular directions. We must be realistic, and feasible. As academics, businesspersons, and investors, we must prepare for the worst. In practice, this entails three key, direct prescriptions. 

First, we need to scenario-plan and conceptualize thoroughly what the possible worst-case scenarios are. From flashpoints such as Taiwan and South China Seas, to tail-end risks involving economic downturns and persistent recessions, we need to map out clearly the full range of possible outcomes - and the movements in the window of possibilities - in order to mentally prepare for their occurrence. Denial is not an option, especially given the demonstrated rapidity and thoroughness of financial blockades and economic sanctions mounted in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

Second, while we could do little in persuading Beijing or Washington to act otherwise, we can exercise our role as bridge-builders and connectors in advising prominent regional blocs such as ASEAN and EU on how to maneuver and maintain resilience amidst the treacherous times. Corporations should start diversifying into non-aligned countries, such as Indonesia, which have repeatedly affirmed their desires to not take a concrete and restrictive side amidst the increasingly fractious global environs. Preventing spillovers into these regions would in turn require policymakers and politicians in these countries to remain vigilant against foreign interference and co-optation efforts. 

Third, as citizens, and as people, we must adjust our mindsets to brace ourselves for a protracted period of Sino-American rivalry, confrontation, and antagonism. This does not mean that we forego the long-standing trade and investment agreements that have made our economic relationship so fundamentally enduring; or the people-to-people exchanges that have sublimated the Sino-American relationship with largesse and authenticity. If anything, it means that we must take these opportunities for engagement and dialogue more seriously - for each and every backchannel conversation held, could well be enabling indirectly the aversion of a walking disaster due to happen. These three prescriptions comprise ways by which we must engage in sensible, measured, albeit necessary ‘worst-case scenario’ planning. 

If realism is what prevents us from total helplessness, then it is sanguine optimism in hoping for the best, that leads us to eventual paths forward. The Sino-American relationship is deeply wounded, but it is not dead. 

We must remain on the active look-out for prospective moments and spaces for collaboration, especially when it comes to mediating and managing geopolitical tensions in third-party regions (e.g. over tensions in Israel and Palestine, or the Horn of Africa and peacekeeping operations), supporting the Global South with food and medical aid, or identifying means by which global macroeconomic stability can be preserved. These are low-hanging fruits, but they are important for reasons beyond their direct impact: their successes would vindicate the view that these two disparate and occasionally rivalrous countries can and do in fact talk, and that such talk can yield constructive outcomes. 

Fundamentally, it is in neither Beijing nor Washington’s interest to frame Sino-American relations as a strictly zero-sum and ideological game. The Manichean characterization, that this is purportedly a contest between the ‘China Model’ and the ‘Western Model,’ or between so-called totalitarian and democratic regimes, does not serve anyone’s interests. We should do away with these erroneous and disingenuous labels, as opposed to getting bogged down in them. Hoping for the best, I suppose, requires us to be willing to think and dream with more audacity. 

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