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Foreign Policy

Sino-American Relations Must Not be Zero-Sum. Leaders Should Realize This.

Oct 20, 2022
  • Brian Wong

    Assistant Professor in Philosophy, HKU and Rhodes Scholar

Looking at the present headlines characterizing Sino-American relations, one would be hard pressed to find room for optimism. 

The sweeping regulations introduced by the U.S. against China on fronts concerning chip and semiconductor manufacturing, sensitive technologies at large, and Chinese firms seeking listing in America, have imposed substantial barriers and costs on Beijing as it seeks to maintain its internationalization and economic reform efforts amidst treacherous headwinds. From the American perspective, there is a growing bipartisan consensus that China is a threat – reversing such perceptions would be difficult, though not impossible. 

These measures have in turn both confirmed and reified the wider Chinese suspicion that the American political establishment is determined to permanently stall the rise of China as a competitor on the world stage. The turn towards inward economic and supply chain consolidation, and increasingly trenchant nationalism projected by the country, are predictable – although neither seems necessarily in the interest of the country’s people, nor conducive towards de-escalation. 

On the other hand, domestic discourse in China appears to be giving off more mixed signals. Contrary to portrayals of China as being unequivocally hostile towards the United States, official statements have often called for more “communication on […] important issues such as coordinating macroeconomic policies, keeping global industrial and supply chains stable, and protecting global energy and food security.” (Xi Jinping’s call with Joe Biden on July 29), “win-win cooperation” (Wang Yi’s September 22 speech at Asia Society), and collaboration with the United States over mediating in the ongoing war in Ukraine (Wang Huiyao’s op-ed in New York Times, on March 13). 

Such conciliatory and constructive appeals are paired with far sterner affirmation of China’s official positions on matters such as Taiwan – which Beijing views as a domestic and internal affair concerning its sovereignty. The tensions over the Taiwan Straits in early August 2022 have exacerbated long-standing differences and pushed bilateral relations towards new nadirs. 

One thing is clear – there exist two views that cut across both sides of the Pacific. The first view holds that China and America are fundamentally zero-sum, even negative-sum, total rivals locked in an inevitable slide towards confrontation. A comprehensive conflict is all but necessary, and – one way or another – the winner of said conflict should emerge to lead a unipolar order for the years to come. 

Whether it be American attempts to curtail Chinese innovation and technology, to restrict Chinese access to American markets and capital; or the continued push from China towards modernizing military capabilities and lobbying vocal criticisms (perhaps most bellicose during 2020 and 2021, the first two years of the pandemic) at the U.S., it is clear that amongst the few things these respective individuals in Beijing and Washington agree upon, it is that the quasi-stylised construct of the ‘Thucydides Trap’ is but inevitable. 

Yet there is another view – one that few voices dare speak out loudly in defending, and thus is espoused publicly by only giants such as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (most notably, at a recent speech in Asia Society on October 3) and Chairman of Asia Society John Thornton – that is worth considering. 

Sino-American relations need not be zero-sum. They could be positive-sum. There are three reasons why this is the case. 

The first is the large volume of existential risks that the world is confronted with today. From climate change to pandemics, from global terrorism to macroeconomic stability, countries across the world need the two leading economies to pool resources, coordinate efforts, share research, and engage in dialogue oriented around solving problems. The positive sum arises from not economies of scale (both are large enough economies on their own to sustain and equate a multitude of medium-sized economies), but from the distinctive fruits of bricolage and organic clashes between the Chinese and American people. The joint efforts of scientists and doctors can and do make a difference – but only if there aren’t witch hunts launched against them, or prohibitive travel restrictions that render face-to-face collaboration and conversations all but impossible. There are problems that urgently require resolution and foresight, but we won’t get that when the intuitive reaction to any and all suggestion of collaboration is that it is akin to admitting and embracing defeat. 

The second are the dangers of zero-sum thinking in relation to geopolitical instability and tensions. This plays out in two ways: between China and America, the Taiwan Straits and South China Seas loom as two ‘gray rhinos’ in which a minor military confrontation could easily snowball into devastating military conflicts. For decades the world has averted the direct confrontation between two major nuclear powers – and there is a reason for that: such conflicts tend to be particularly unpredictable, destabilizing, and could wreak vast destruction upon the peoples of both sides and beyond. 

Then there is conflicts and tensions beyond China and America – take the war in Ukraine, for instance, where had there been more strategic trust and empathy between both Beijing and Washington, there could very well have been a far swifter and targeted response to the crisis that would have prevented it from morphing into the ongoing stalemate and tragedy. Open lines of communication between partners willing to take on the mantle of joined global governance, as opposed to seeking to one-up one another through talk of the prophesized ‘rise’ and ‘fall’ of ‘great powers,’ or unhelpfully Manichean framing of autocracy vs. democracy, would certainly have been welcome. Zero-sum thinking risks over-politicising everything, in ways that preclude cooperation. 

Finally, and it goes without saying – though seems often neglected. At the core of the Sino-American relationship is people. Ordinary civilians, students, youth, families who have long benefited from a world of greater cultural cohesion and resonance. It is not human nature to seek conflict, violence, or instability. It is not in the interests of civilians for there to be war. The slippage of the world into disintegration and fragmentation does not hurt war-mongers, or hyper-nationalists; it only hurts those who neither deserve, nor can weather, the storm ahead. 

President Joe Biden and Xi Jinping have amongst the strongest interpersonal ties and experiences of one another in the long history of Sino-American relations. Biden has repeatedly noted that he has spent more time with Xi than any other counterpart in the world. Xi addressed Biden as an old friend in their first video meeting since Biden took office. It is not too late for leaders in Beijing and Washington to reorient their foreign policies and approaches to one another around the above, but time is running out. 

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