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Foreign Policy

Setting Parameters for Future U.S.-China Competition

Aug 28 , 2020

There has been much loose talk of a new Cold War between the U.S. and China. Such a conflict would be potentially disastrous for both countries. Nor is it easy to imagine, given the extensive ties between both peoples. Even with both governments at sharp odds, the nations remain connected, much more so than the U.S. and Soviet Union. 

Nothing good is likely to occur before November 3. President Donald Trump apparently believes that he can be re-elected running against China. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has little choice but to respond in kind. The result is bad for policy, but all that both candidates care about at the moment is winning. 

On November 4, the next administration effectively will begin. Severe policy differences will remain between America and the People’s Republic of China, but the two governments have no choice but to cooperate when possible, and resolve conflicts when necessary. In essence, it will be essential to set acceptable parameters for competition, in an attempt to avoid conflict. 

Trade talks should continue, with an understanding that the two governments will address U.S. concerns over Chinese practices. Washington would be wise to include European and Asian allies, such as Australia, which share many of America’s objectives. No doubt, commercial patterns will change, especially given concern over undue vulnerability to foreign supplies of essential goods, but all parties benefit from trade. And such ties create important human connections that should help prevent a complete bilateral breakdown. 

Cyber warfare also remains a great concern. Washington and Beijing addressed this issue before, but the settlement has frayed. Online conflict risks creating an entirely new battlefield with both sides on constant offense. Traditional spying is inevitable, but commercial espionage politicizes the economic relationship and encourages governmental retaliation. Criticism of the PRC also undermines China’s reputation as a stable investment destination. The steady weakening of the economic foundation of the bilateral relationship risks a collapse which could be a major impetus toward a new Cold War. Both sides must work to preserve a positive, if not necessarily warm, relationship. 

Some level of political propaganda is inevitable. However, demonizing each other with fake news and blaming the other for intentionally creating the pandemic is sure to undermine the essentials of the relationship. The two most important nations on earth must talk with one another. Criticism and competition are inevitable. However, the two governments should rule out attacks on their underlying legitimacy. 

This means that the U.S. should avoid talk of regime change. Frankly, many friends of China wish for a change at the top, which they blame for the turbulence in bilateral relations. But Washington must deal with realities rather than dreams. Openly pushing for regime change, as Secretary Mike Pompeo has done, ensures that an already rocky relationship will only get worse. Governments fight most tenaciously for their own survival. Washington should leave the PRC’s transformation up to the Chinese people, while attempting to maintain a bilateral relationship that preserves stability and peace in East Asia. 

The two governments need a dialogue over what issues they view as important and why. Where are the most explosive sensitivities? For example, human rights will remain a fundamental disagreement. Beijing needs to accept the importance accorded by Western nations and peoples to respect for the life, dignity, and liberty of the human person. Criticism is inevitable. Washington and similarly minded governments must recognize that Beijing’s stance on human rights is part of the PRC’s political foundation. Neither rhetoric nor retaliation is likely to change Chinese policy: sanctions will usually end up being little more than a PR exercise. 

Pressure is growing in the U.S. to upgrade Taiwan’s status. That would greatly antagonize Beijing. However, China’s growing pressure on a territory with which Washington has had ties for decades also risks destabilizing the U.S.-PRC relationship. Compromises, evasions, and averted glances should be used to prevent a crisis there. 

Similar to the Taiwan situation is the status of China’s territorial claims throughout the Asia-Pacific. Beijing has a right to assert ownership arising from control, history, and agreement. The U.S. is rightly concerned about navigational freedom and peaceful dispute resolution. 

Militarization of such controversies favors no one: The PRC outclasses rivals such as Manila, but the U.S. is naturally drawn in when China increases military pressure on America’s allies. Greater Chinese assertiveness may be the most important factor which has spurred Japanese plans to rearm and become more active militarily. Beijing’s frustration at the refusal of, for instance, Japan to even discuss ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands is understandable but adopting ever more confrontational tactics is unlikely to end well. The U.S. and PRC should talk about how the respective parties can make political progress while avoiding military conflict. 

Finally, both governments—and policy-influencers advising those in office—need to consider how East Asian relations can be structured to accommodate both existing and rising powers. The essential challenge between America and China is how to ensure that the region remains large enough to accommodate both for the U.S., for 75 years the dominant power in the Asia-Pacific, and the PRC, essentially reborn after suffering through decades of poverty and chaos. 

This new order requires political understandings and involvement of important regional powers. How can we ensure the independence of smaller nations, accept the influence of a massive China, and respect the interests of a still important but more distant U.S.? What is needed is less a specific agreement filled with lists and provisions, and more a shared attitude dedicated to accommodation, compromise, and peace.

Both Washington and Beijing want dominance. Neither is likely to easily or inexpensively enforce preeminence, at least without a fight. Something neither country, nor anyone else in the region, can afford. Better to look for the modus vivendi first, without having to go through one or more wars, hot or cold. 

The future is uncertain. And it could be dangerous. However, China and America have it within their power to follow a peaceful path. If policymakers care as much for their peoples as their egos, they will work together to reach the necessary accommodation. We, and history, should judge them harshly if they fail.

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