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Foreign Policy

The Centennial Bottom Line

Mar 31, 2022
  • Ni Feng

    Deputy Director, Institute of American Studies, CASS

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The world is witnessing changes unseen in a century — changes that have been accelerated by the COVID-19 outbreak at the end of 2019. Amid the changes and the pandemic, the international order is undergoing in-depth adjustments, and the world is experiencing dramatic turbulence, showing the following characteristics:

First, the already slowed process of economic globalization continues to be frustrated, seriously constraining endogenous motivation for global economic growth. Economic globalization is a complicated process of interaction involving all countries, yet the world economy and politics have generally tended to be conservative. Motivation for economic globalization has weakened, and protectionism, populism and nationalism are on the rise in the West. With the outbreak and continuous fermentation of the pandemic, the already weakening global connections have met with physical isolation. As a result of the need for pandemic containment, countries have placed more weight on supply chain resilience, market disintegration, restrictions on investment and technology blockades which have become a new normal. The spread and repeated fluctuation in pandemic situation has led to mismatches in global demand and supply, persisting longer than anticipated. With supply stagnating, commodity prices continue to increase, while global supply chains continue suffering disruption, driving up inflation pressure worldwide. In general, before the pandemic is controlled globally, it will be difficult for the process of globalization to return to its previous level.

Second, global governance deficits remain high, while the existing global governance regime is unable to respond to countries’ needs by integrating international resources. Thus it has lagged seriously behind the demands of our time. COVID-19 has worsened South-North gaps.

There has also been a “vaccine gap” between North and South. Over 60 percent of people in advanced economies have been vaccinated, while about 90 percent in low-income countries have not. A health crisis and economic crisis are evolving into a development crisis of lasting impact. Most low-income developing nations are unable to maintain strict pandemic containment measures in the long-term because large numbers of people are struggling just above the lowest standard of living.

In addition, they have no access to international assistance. The pains inflicted by the pandemic will damage their long-term development prospects, worsen inequality, and destroy the poverty reduction achievements of the past dozen years overnight. The World Bank has made the pessimistic prediction that unless rapid, significant and substantial policy measures are taken, the global poverty rate may reach 7 percent by 2030, making it impossible to fulfill the global goal of eradicating poverty.

The existing global governance regime was established with the U.S.-led West playing the dominant role, which mainly serves Western interests. For instance, against the backdrop of Western politics getting conservative, the G7, which has long been active in international affairs, has become a tool for preserving hegemony and excluding and suppressing other nations. The more “united” the United States and West are, the more divided the world will be, and the more ineffective the global governance regime will become.

Third, the measures countries have taken to cope with the pandemic have resulted in a serious overdraft of socioeconomic resources. Compared with the 2008 global financial crisis, the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are even more severe. For the U.S., for example, the financial crisis mainly caused economic losses and social problems, while the pandemic has resulted in great human cost in the form of illness and death.

Since the beginning of 2020, the U.S. has experienced at least five rounds of large-scale spread of the coronavirus. Cumulative confirmed cases have surpassed 50 million and deaths have exceeded 800,000, more than all lives the U.S. lost in all the wars since its founding.

It is predictable that as pressures from domestic issues mount, the U.S. will show decreasing interest in participation in international affairs. The Biden administration’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan may be a prelude to further U.S. strategic contraction.

Fourth, the United States is suppressing strategic rivals, including China and Russia, in a comprehensive manner and asking allies, partners and neutral forces to take sides, seriously disrupting normal exchanges in the international community. Because of domestic political and economic considerations, the U.S. has engaged in constant strategic contraction, yet to sustain its hegemony and prestige it is focusing on “key threats” and comprehensively suppressing China and Russia.

Following its withdrawal from Afghanistan, the U.S. has made an all-around strategic shift, promoting NATO’s eastward expansion, upgrading the U.S.-Japan-India-Australia quadrilateral mechanism, setting up the AUKUS trilateral security partnership, injecting strategic resources in the Taiwan area and concentrating on confining Chinese maritime influence. The mounting U.S. pressure on allies, partners and neutral forces will have a considerable impact on the future international order.

The essence of the great changes is change in comparative international power. The China-U.S. relationship is closely related to these changes and to a great extent one of the core factors affecting the orientation of such changes. Starting with Donald Trump’s presidency, America’s China policy has seen the broadest and deepest change since Richard Nixon’s 1972 China visit. In terms of basic positioning, the U.S. sees China as its foremost competitor and a “revisionist state.” It has determined that the China policies of successive U.S. administrations since Nixon — which centered on engagement — have all failed.

In economy and trade, the U.S. launched a trade war against China on an unprecedented scale, carrying out a technological and scientific blockade, suppressing Chinese high-tech companies, plotting a China-U.S. financial war, forcefully pushing for decoupling the Chinese and U.S. economies and conducting so-called industry and supply chains reorganizations.

With regard to Taiwan, the U.S. has repeatedly touched China’s bottom lines, supporting forces for independence on the island, promoting relations with Taiwan as government-to-government, normalizing arms sales and preserving Taiwan’s so-called diplomatic space.

In the South China Sea, the U.S. has strengthened its military, diplomatic, political and strategic deployments, escalated “freedom of navigation” operations and militarized, internationalized and slanted South China Sea issues.

Politically, the U.S. attacks China’s political system and domestic policies, attempting to separate the Chinese people from the Communist Party of China, directly threatens Chinese political security. It has also interfered with Chinese domestic affairs, taking advantage of matters involving Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet. And it has been hyping up such groundless accusations as Chinese political infiltration in the U.S., obstructing normal people-to-people exchanges between the two countries and incriminating China on pandemic-related topics.

When it comes to geopolitical strategy, the U.S., with its Indo-Pacific Strategy as a handle, has enhanced security cooperation with Japan, India and Australia and joined other countries to try and balance the rapid growth of Chinese maritime strength and undermine the implementation of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, especially the Maritime Silk Road that China has proposed.

Organizationally, the U.S. has put forward the idea of “all of government, all of society” mobilizing all resources for strategic competition with China. As a result of the Trump administration’s reckless maneuvering, China-U.S. relations have plunged to the lowest point since 1972.

First, Joe Biden differs little from Trump’s anti-establishment approach when it comes to the methods he has adopted regarding China. He has simply placed more emphasis on handling disputes between countries with traditional diplomatic tools. Biden has been less reckless than Trump, so normal exchanges between the two governments are gradually being restored. There have also been signs of a thaw in people-to-people exchanges. The current U.S. administration doesn’t exclude cooperating with China on certain significant global and regional hot spot issues, but judging from its performance in the past year, continuity outshines any changes between the Trump and Biden administrations when it comes to China.

There is actually a harsher perception of China in the United States now. The Trump administration defined China as America’s foremost strategic competitor, and Biden has personally stated that China is the “most serious competitor” the U.S. faces. He has argued for “extreme competition” with China, and has urged European allies to carry out long-term, strategic competition, along with the U.S. Ranking officials of the Biden government have frequently used the word “threat” to define China. 

Second, U.S. foreign policy is more focused on China. The Trump administration’s principles in foreign policy were interest-driven, engaging in trade wars with multiple countries, including China and the European Union. The Biden administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, however, claims China “…is the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system.” The Biden government attempts to rebuild America's global leadership, which was undermined by Trump. The attempts to upgrade cooperation with allies are to a great extent aimed at China.

The Biden administration’s China policy has at the same time shown some outstanding new characteristics.

First, more emphasis on scientific and technological competition. Differences in Chinese and American population sizes and development stages determine that the U.S. cannot prevent China from catching up in economic volume. Therefore, the Biden administration has concentrated the strategic competition with China more on the field of science and technology, attempting to offset China’s quantitative advantages with generational gaps in technology, to slow down the rhythm of China’s catching up and to make deployment beforehand so as to mitigate actual influences when China does catch up in terms of economic volume.

Second, more emphasis on ideological means. The Biden administration tends to pay more attention to the ideological “threats” China brings to the U.S., and makes greater efforts to hype the “democracy vs. autocracy” rhetoric. Biden claims that China believes that American democracy cannot win in the 21st century. What the U.S. does now is aimed at proving that democracy is efficient. Thus the U.S. is mounting ideological pressure on China, conspicuously increasing the importance of such topics as human rights and democratic values in its China policy, denigrating China on such subjects as Xinjiang and Hong Kong, holding the so-called “Summit of Democracies,” diplomatically boycotting the Beijing Winter Olympics, attempting to gain advantage against China by enhancing the alleged moral authority of so-called freedom and democracy.

Third, strategic competition with China has become more systematic. More emphasis has been put on legislation to facilitate strategic competition with China. Soon after Biden assumed office, the executive arm of the government collaborated closely with Congress to formulate comprehensive, systematic legislation to compete with China, so that policies in all fields can find a legal basis, and America’s China policies can be institutionalized. In addition, the Biden administration has highlighted its alliance system’s functions as an “amplifier.” The U.S. enhanced the Quad’s role as a pillar of its Indo-Pacific Strategy, maneuvered NATO and the EU to intervene further in Indo-Pacific affairs, formed AUKUS, pushed for the “values alliance”, convened the so-called “T12” to prevent core technologies from being transferred to China via third parties, and tried to hedge the Belt and Road Initiative with the B3W.  

The basic reality of the Biden administration’s China policy again proves that China-U.S. relations have entered a new era of strategic competition. Such competition is significant in interest goals, which not only concerns the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and preservation of U.S. hegemony but also concerns the fundamental transformation of relations between the West and non-West, as well as the restructuring of the world power system. The competition will be long-term, and may accompany the entire process of the centennial changes and rejuvenation. The competition will be comprehensive and will involve such fields as economy, technology, ideology, geopolitics and global governance; the competition will have an all-around impact, the outcome of which will determine the ultimate direction of centennial changes.

Over a fairly long period of time, China and the U.S. will remain in strategic stalemate, wherein contradictions abound. The “shoulder-rubbing period” in the two countries’ comparative strengths will be the most dangerous moments in bilateral ties. We must be fully prepared for that.

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