On Sept. 3, 2019, Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee delivered a speech during the opening ceremony of a training program for young and middle-aged officials at the Party School of the CPC Central Committee, on the topic of “struggle.” Although it was not a speech about China-U.S. relations, it is still considered a bellwether of Beijing’s stance on its relations with Washington.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China and the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the United States. During the first two of the past seven decades, “struggle” and related discourse set the tone for the China-U.S. relations. This period was starkly marked with revolutionary diplomacy and the division between friend and foe. All efforts in contacts with foreign countries were to serve revolutionary diplomacy until the CPC’s breakup with the Soviet Union. As a result, China abandoned the “Leaning to One Side” policy and turned to the United States for support to combat the threat from the Soviet Union.
Since President Nixon's visit to China in 1972, the rivalry between Beijing and Washington has abated. “Cooperation” gradually dominated their relations as China's reform and opening up has advanced and relations between the two sides have improved. The wish to be friend and partner with the United States has also been warmly received nationwide, thus influencing the ways to handle various difficulties between the two countries. However, even at the best stage of their relations, the structural contradictions between Beijing and Washington still existed. When the United States has taken actions that could harm China’s interests and dignity, China continues its diplomatic struggles to oppose them, albeit with restraint. Moreover, China’s policies towards the United States have always stressed "the combination of cooperation and struggle." Nevertheless, the focus of struggles in previous decades chiefly lied in issues concerning China’s national sovereignty and security, such as the Taiwan issue and Tibet issue, as well as America’s interference in China's internal affairs under the pretext of human rights.
Today, “struggles” show up again in the context of CPC’s call for a sprint for the nation’s rejuvenation, which states, “Developing socialism with Chinese characteristics is a long-term arduous task of historic importance, and we must be prepared to carry out a great struggle with many new historical features.”
The frame of “struggle” reentering China-U.S. relations is not spontaneous, but rather has accumulated over the years. At the end of 2009, Beijing disappointed Washington’s hopes that China would increase imports from the United States and grant American companies in China pre-establishment national treatment. As a result, the argument that China was a free-rider of the U.S. economy began to gain popularity in the United States. The Obama administration retaliated against China time and time again by meeting with the Dalai lama and selling arms to Taiwan. After 2010, intense frictions occurred in the South China Sea and the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone between the two countries. It was therefore believed in the United States that China began to follow an “aggressive diplomacy” and “Triumphalism” stance to push the United States out of the Western Pacific region. Soon after, Washington unveiled its Asia-Pacific Rebalance Strategy, which is virtually against China.
After Donald Trump came into power, his administration labeled China as America’s first “strategic competitor.” President Trump declared that the United States had entered a new era of great power competition. This in itself is a preemptive action. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. administration, the military and the “deep state” forces implemented measures one after another to contain the increasingly competitive China. These include the United States launching the trade war, provoking the Huawei incident, investigating Chinese Americans affiliated with China’s Thousand Talents Program, intervening and restricting Chinese visitors, issuing the Indo-Pacific Strategy, and increasing military deployment against China — all of which translated Uncle Sam’s aggressive words into practice. The attempts of the extreme right in the United States to define China-U.S. disputes as “a clash of civilizations" have made the atmosphere even grimmer. The U.S. approach has caused severe damage to China's interests and reputation, forcing China to respond and plunge China-U.S. relations into a vicious downward spiral.
In the ongoing China-U.S. trade war and technology cold war, the Trump administration has made several unreasonable demands including urging China to fundamentally amend its current laws and regulations. By inconsistently increasing tariffs on China’s exports to the United States, the Trump administration has repeatedly broken bilateral agreements reached through negotiations, and abused its judicial power by suppressing China’s high-tech enterprises, such as Huawei and ZTE. These actions have advanced China’s “struggles” with the United States, arousing passionate patriotism and nationalism among the Chinese people, including intellectual elites. Since May 2019, People’s Daily, CCTV, Xinhua News Agency and other state media have vigorously covered America’s bullying behaviors in trade and “surrenderism” in China. With unprecedentedly high frequency and harsh words since the reform and opening up, the media clearly signaled China’s stance of “talk or fight, take your pick.” This is not an emotional outlet, but rather a sign of China’s change in policy orientation.
The discourse of “struggles” has indisputably returned to China-U.S. relations, as China views the United States as a growing threat to its development. As a result, China’s modern foreign policies towards the United States, established in the 1970s, will see a major adjustment.
The adjustment is an inevitable response to increasingly uncompromising U.S. strategies towards China. China’s point of view is that despite internal differences on specific strategies, the U.S. government has reached a consensus to impose cross-party and cross-tenure restrictions on China’s development. Under these circumstances, if China does not accordingly adjust its own strategies and tactics, it will be forced into a passive position and fail people’s expectations. In some ways, the United States has driven the adjustments carried out by China.
The adjustment will further revise China’s mechanism of decision making and reaction towards the United States. The Chinese government realizes that in the future, competition and struggles against the United States will be multi-faceted. Every issue can produce a far-reaching effect on China’s domestic politics and overall diplomatic policies, so it will become unlikely for China to curb the effect of the issue within its own scope through political ideologies as what used to happen. The era of department-to-department diplomacy in China-U.S. relations since the reform and opening-up will come to an end. Instead, there will be a new vertical operation mode whereby the president will be in charge while the foreign affairs office and the National Security Committee (focusing on internal affairs) will work closely with each other, and finally all departments and industries will competently carry out the policies. Through this way, China’s policies towards the United States can be more effectively implemented and coordination within the Chinese government will be improved.
A wide-ranging game is started by the adjustment. In the past, China focused on keeping a stable relationship with the United States and merely aimed at facilitating economic development. However, China will jump out of this inertia and effectively deploy policy instruments of politics, economy and trade, military, humanities, science and technology, etc., with a more active, flexible and inclusive attitude in competition with the United States. From the Chinese side, despite its status as a superpower, the United States is confronted with many domestic problems as well as external constraints. It is not invincible; it can even be said that its power has already started to wane. In the face of the current America, China is not a weak country anymore. Instead, it has become an increasingly strong global power which will play a greater role on the world stage. No matter what China says or does, the global strategic outlook and international power conception of the United States has determined that it will not allow China to rise as an equal power. Nor will it cede power or space to China in the current international system. The United States will try every means to restrict the rise of China. To serve its core interests and keep its overall favorable situation, China needs to avoid excessive admiration or fear of the United States, and instead, fearlessly struggle with the United States. A new balance between the powers will not be achieved without struggle. China needs to be able to withstand the temporary loss of China-U.S. cooperation so as to overcome their rival in the long run.
There is no denying that once the game between a rising power and an established power is on, it will not end in the short term. Rather, it is destined to be a century-long competition of will, patience and wisdom. China has its own central agenda and will not be led by the nose by its counterpart. From China’s perspective, struggles against the United States must be carried out in a controlled manner. Therefore, “struggling without breaking” will still be a crucial principle so as to avoid the outbreak of another Cold or Hot War. However, this is not entirely determined by China’s will; if the United States is determined to fight at all costs, China shall not flinch.
Many Chinese strategists are trying to find out if the struggle is merely the means or the ultimate aim, and for what China is struggling. Half a century ago, China’s “struggles” towards the United States was revolutionary and idealistic. Underneath the passionate slogan of “overthrowing all domestic and foreign reactionaries” lied an internal pursuit of the emerging regime to break through the siege of the United States to stand out on the international stage. Yet, China’s current “struggles” towards the United States have been built upon its present national strength, international reputation and international relations. Fundamentally, they are rivals among large nations, but to be the only winner is not the aim. Rather, the aim is to struggle with the United States for the space and right of rising in the international system, to find a new paradigm to peacefully co-exist and mutually move forward. This new paradigm can neither be formed amid constant conflicts nor be built by blind compromise. “We must unite all forces that can be united, mobilize all positive factors that can be mobilized, striving for unity, cooperation and win-win outcomes through struggles,” as emphasized by President Xi in his address on September 3, 2019.
In this new era, more discourses and actions of “struggle” will be used by China in dealing with the United States. At the same time, China will pursue peaceful development and engage in global governance to demonstrate to other countries that China has never tried to, nor will it seek the transfer of power, compete for hegemony or expand geopolitical reach.