On Sept. 3, Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party of China 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. The topic was “struggle.” Although it was not a speech about China-U.S. relations, it has been seen as a bellwether of Beijing’s future approach to 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 decades after the founding, “struggle” and related discourse set the tone for relations. This period was starkly marked by revolutionary diplomacy and the distinction between friend and foe. All efforts related to contact with foreign countries aimed to serve revolutionary diplomacy up until the CPC’s breakup with the Soviet Union. As a result of that split, China abandoned its “leaning to one side” policy and turned to the United States for support to combat the threat from the USSR.
Since President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, the rivalry between Beijing and Washington has abated. “Cooperation” gradually became the hallmark of relations as China’s reform and opening-up advanced and the tenor improved. The wish to be a friend and partner of the United States has also been warmly shared nationwide, thus influencing the solutions to various difficulties between the two countries.
Yet, even at the best stage of their relations, the structural contradictions between Beijing and Washington continued to exist. When the United States has taken actions that could harm China’s interests and dignity, China continued its diplomatic struggle in opposition, albeit with restraint. Moreover, China’s policies toward the United States have always stressed a “combination of cooperation and struggle.” Even so, the focus of the struggles of previous decades chiefly was on issues concerning China’s national sovereignty and security, such as the Taiwan and Tibet issues and America’s interference in China’s internal affairs under the pretext of human rights.
Today, struggle is showing up again in the context of the CPC’s call for a sprint toward national rejuvenation. “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,” it has stated.
The frame of struggle reentering China-U.S. relations is not spontaneous. Rather, it has accumulated over the years. At the end of 2009, Beijing disappointed Washington, which had hoped 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 on the back 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 between the two in the South China Sea and in the air defense identification zone established by China. It was believed in the United States that China had begun to follow a path of “aggressive diplomacy” and a “triumphal” stance to push the United States out of the Western Pacific region. Soon after, Washington unveiled its strategy of rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific, which is essentially against China.
After Donald Trump was elected, his administration labeled China as America’s first “strategic competitor.” Trump declared that the United States had entered a new era of great-power competition. This in itself was a preemptive action. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. administration, the military and so-called 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 in visas and restricting Chinese visitors, issuing the Indo-Pacific Strategy and increasing military deployments 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 it to respond and plunging China-U.S. relations into a vicious downward spiral.
In the ongoing trade war and technology cold war, the Trump administration has made several unreasonable demands, such as 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 judicial power by suppressing China’s high-tech enterprises, such as Huawei and ZTE. These actions have animated China’s struggles with the United States, arousing passionate patriotism and nationalism among the Chinese people, including the intellectual elites. Since May this year, People’s Daily, CCTV, Xinhua News Agency and other state media have vigorously covered America’s bullying behavior in trade and “surrenderism” in China. With unprecedented frequency and harsh words since the beginning of reform and opening-up, the media have clearly signaled China’s stance of “talk or fight, take your pick.” This is not an emotional outlet but a sign of China’s change in policy orientation.
The notion of “struggle” framework has unquestionably returned to China-U.S. relations, as China views the United States as a growing threat to its development. Its modern foreign policies toward the United States, established in the 1970s, will see a major adjustments, which are an inevitable response to the increasingly uncompromising U.S. strategy regarding 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 adjust its own strategies and tactics accordingly, it will be forced into a passive position and fail people’s expectations. In some ways, the United States has driven China’s adjustments.
These adjustments will further revise China’s decision-making mechanism and its reactions to the United States. The Chinese government realizes that in the future, competition and struggle against the United States will be multifaceted. Every issue can produce a far-reaching effect on China’s domestic politics and overall diplomatic policy, so it will become increasingly unlikely that China will curb the effects within its own scope through political ideology, as in the past. The era of department-to-department diplomacy in China-U.S. relations since the start of reform and opening-up will come to an end. Instead, there will be a new vertical operation mode whereby the Chinese president will be in charge, while the foreign affairs office and national security committee (focusing on internal affairs) will work closely with each other, and in the end all departments and industries will competently carry out the policies. In this way, China’s policy toward the United States can be more effectively implemented, and coordination within the Chinese government will be improved.
A wide-ranging game has begun. In the past, China focused on maintaining 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 the policy instruments of politics, economy, trade, military, humanities, science, technology, etc., with a more active, flexible and inclusive attitude in competition with the United States.
From the Chinese side, despite the U.S. status as a superpower it appears to be 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 that will play an ever-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 will not allow China to rise as an equal power. Nor will the U.S. cede power or space to China in the current international system but will try every means to restrict its rise. To serve its core interests and maintain its overall favorable situation, China needs to avoid excessive admiration or fear of the United States, and instead fearlessly struggle with it. 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 if it is to overcome the rivalry 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 wills, patience and wisdom. China has its own central agenda and will not be led by the nose by its counterpart. From China’s perspective, the struggle against the United States must be carried out in a controlled manner. Therefore, “struggling without breaking” will continue to be a crucial principle in avoiding the outbreak of war, whether cold or hot. However, this is not entirely determined by China: If the United States is determined to fight at all costs, China will not flinch.
Many Chinese strategists are trying to find out if struggle is merely the means or the ultimate aim, and to understand what China is struggling to achieve. Half a century ago, the struggle with the United States was revolutionary and idealistic. Underneath the passionate slogan of “overthrowing all domestic and foreign reactionaries” lay an internal pursuit of the emerging regime to break through the siege of the United States and to stand out on the international stage. Yet, China’s current struggle has been built upon its present national strength, international reputation and international relations.
Fundamentally, the struggle involves a rivalry between large nations, but to be the sole winner is not the aim. Rather, the aim is to struggle with the United States for the space and right to rise in the international system, to find a new paradigm for peaceful coexistence and to mutually move forward. This new paradigm can neither be formed amid constant conflict nor 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,” President Xi said in his address on Sept. 3.
In this new era, more discourse and 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 that demonstrates to other countries that it doesn’t seek to transfer power, compete for hegemony or expand its geopolitical reach.