Language : English 简体 繁體
Foreign Policy

What Is the U.S.-China Second Act?

Dec 23, 2020

With nearly a quarter of the 21st century behind us as we inch closer to a new year, President-elect Biden and President Xi might well pause to reflect on the type of world they plan to leave to the next generation. 

Of late, both nations seem intent on going their own way, causing ripples across the globe. The two leading economies continue jockeying for world dominance. Together they help shape the world. 

The lack of trust bordering on disdain between the two nations makes a full reset of U.S./China relations difficult to fathom. Tension continues to reign between them on multiple fronts - from 5G internet networks to Chinese activity in the South China Sea.  

Biden’s victory will likely result in a U.S. re-engagement with our world after nearly four years of backing away from friends and allies under Donald Trump. This may not necessarily be welcome news to China as Biden will likely boost ties with Asian allies to offset Beijing’s rising dominance in the region.  

The Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass made it clear that regardless of who won in November, bilateral relations face increasing friction and even mutual hostility well into 2021.  

Imagine, instead, the influence and sway that our countries’ combined leadership might have if  collaboration, communication, and coordination were the order of the day on global challenges like climate change, the global pandemic and the accompanying economic tsunami it has unleashed. Sadly, we are caught in an old bilateral game of see-saw – China or America being up even as the other is down.  

China Stood Up! 

Once upon a time, U.S. and Western powers dictated its terms to China using gunboat diplomacy. Those days are long gone.  

China has grown and stands tall as a global player. The sooner Western powers understand the significance of this stance, the sooner they might pivot to treating China as an equal – a global player of prominence with responsibilities beyond its borders to help solve world problems. There are benefits to this not only for their nation but for all humanity. 

Chinese Working to Win 

Since my first trip to China in 1989, I have witnessed remarkable changes in this country – from that of a developing nation to one that is now helping define the future of the world. This has been not unlike watching a black and white TV that suddenly switched to brilliant technicolor. 

Today, the Chinese are investing their newly earned wealth in education, infrastructure, and technology – fully embracing the future. Educated Chinese leaders understand that knowledge, technology, innovation, and creativity are the 21st century currency that propels them forward as individuals, families, and a nation. And they are investing heavily in the future. 

China’s new 5-year plan is a roadmap of President Xi’s broader ambitions of making China great again. The plan highlights the need for China’s “scientific and technological self-reliance” and a “strong domestic market” to thwart efforts by America to entangle many of China’s leading technology companies. 

Today the use of technology by average Chinese citizens – young and old – far surpasses that of Americans. The WeChat app, for example, t is analogous to the West’s Facebook or WhatsApp. 

But this grossly underestimates the power of WeChat’s 1 billion+ active users. With seemingly endless applications, WeChat is also a lifestyle, social, and economic ecosystem. Beyond its  social media functions for messaging and Twitter-style feeds, it is used for financial transactions of almost any type. Developers integrate their apps directly into WeChat, tying them into social and payment functions. It is also a translator, telephone system, and more. With its e-business card application, business associates and strangers alike share contact information electronically. And it is truly ubiquitous to the point where vendors look puzzled when you attempt to use RMB. In fact, there are places that simply don’t accept cash, only electronic payment. 

The future has arrived in China. 

China Has a Plan. America? A Messy Democracy 

Worried about America’s future? I am. As a nation, the U.S. has been divesting in the very areas we need to remain competitive. Furthermore, rather than embracing change, the future, and technology, far too many Americans seem to be running from it. Our current American strategy to “blame China will NOT solve what ails our great nation.  

As the world grows increasingly chaotic, Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer points out, “many governments and citizens around the world see China as a source of security, stability, and opportunity while Europe and America represent political dysfunction and public disgust with government”. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping is happy to promote his authoritarian, state-capitalist economic model around the globe. Watching recent U.S. presidential elections with Trump claiming, “I

won” even as reality shows him the loser of the election has not exactly been an endorsement for good governance, or indeed, democratic government. Instead, we look like a “Banana Republic” to much of the world.  

The COVID pandemic has also made clear America’s dependence on China as our primary source for many necessary products. Despite this, there is a push for Western societies to decouple from China. This will be like untangling a bowl of spaghetti - not impossible, but messy. 

Does America’s Plan Go Beyond Simply Blaming China? 

I have no qualms with China fighting to win. Nor should anyone else. America needs to stop the whining and develop its own winning plan. 

What concerns me is America has been going into the ring with its fists dangling around its waist. We are getting our butts kicked and are not doing enough to protect ourselves.  We may have little ability to control China, but we do have control over investing in our own future. That must include research and development, technology, advanced manufacturing, green energy, education, and infrastructure. All will help us prepare to be a dominant force in the world, not swamped by a rising Chinese tide. 

It is politically expedient to blame China for our ills. It is also a long-term losing strategy for the future. We need leaders who can focus on additions and multiplication for America – not division and subtraction or blaming China for our woes. 

Emily de La Bruyere, Co-founder of Horizon Advisory consultancy, recently said, ”... the power in the world is up for grabs." China’s ambition includes plans to become a powerhouse and control the future through technology, big data, artificial intelligence, and 5G. China’s aim is to direct next-generation technologies – from telecommunications to AI. Their goal is to lead change that will produce progress for China. The Chinese Communist Party is setting the stage for a geopolitical, economic arms race that places China at tip of the spear. 

Much of the world expects the United States to maintain its position as the global champion of values and the chief influencer of the international economic environment while being a counterweight to the authoritarian and economic bullying of China.  

But China’s rise need not come at America’s or the world’s demise. If the U.S. is going to lead, it must be bold, thoughtful, and strategic. Acting like there is some preordained right to remain number one simply because we have been number one is a losing strategy for America in the 21st century.  

These past few years have seen America cast as a flailing prizefighter, well past its prime. We have not stepped up to the hard task of holding our own in front of the hungry competitor eager to knock us down.  

It is well past time that U.S. leaders call on all Americans to be architects of our own collective future – not the victims of it. Anything short of controlling our future will result in China taking the lead. 

You might also like
Back to Top