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Foreign Policy

Where Are the Battle Lines?

Aug 10, 2021
  • Ma Xiaoye

    Board Member and Founding Director, Academy for World Watch

US China chess.jpg

The importance of relations between China and the United States is self-evident for the whole world. In the next step, however, people have rather different views on how the two countries will define that relationship. With the release of the new U.S. administration’s strategic documents and the stalemate in China-U.S. interactions over the past six months, the number of optimists has only decreased. Official interactions have taken on a stern face, and media coverage has been focused on discord. The Western media are full of shouting and spluttering, with tones similar to a wartime mobilization. Little optimism about the future appears in official statements, private chats and academic views.

The situational changes in China-U.S. interaction so far cannot simply be described as the sole result of Donald Trump, the deviant president. Rather, they seem to constitute an essential process of trial and error by both countries, each of which is on its own evolutionary path in relations with the rest of the world. As this mega trend gains momentum, no sensible political leader may have the ability to stop it.

If and when China and the U.S. enter a stage of moderate strategic competition, the world may be different but it will not be so dark. In international political discourse, there is no uniform definition of systemic competition, and various interpretations exist. Each party speculates about the other’s intentions and behavior. In this connection, communication remains important. 

I. Strategic competition and competitive escalation 

When we talk about the concept of competition, the first common scenario that emerges involves business. In essence, competitors supply better products and services to gain a greater market share, and as a result, they make progress. Third parties also benefit. In this scenario, competition is benign, drives progress and is welcomed by most people in a world of limited resources. This basic concept of neutral or benign competition is not equally accepted in different business cultures.

Progressive questions can be asked. Does strategic competition exist only between enemies? Is strategic competition between states necessarily unfriendly? Is systemic competition necessarily vicious? As the size of the Chinese economy gradually catches up with that of the U.S. — and as trends in the thinking of both countries have led to changed approaches in domestic and foreign relations and increasingly divergent proposals to address international problems — the two sides have started to talk about competition at the strategic level. One manifestation of strategic competition is increased investment or preparation of the strategic resources necessary to win.

Is strategic competition a one-way street leading to all-out confrontation? If the behavioral pattern in competition enters into an interactive escalation of stimulation and reaction, the parties involved may, under stress and step by step, put more strategic resources into the competition in a wider scope. When competitive investments exceed the expected gains from the competition, they are beyond the limit of rationality and will inevitably further reduce the space for win-win cooperation. Only when strategic competition goes beyond reasonable limits, will the result be mutual harm. At this point, competition deviates from the winner providing better public goods and better development conditions for the world. It lands on both sides with the active aim of harming the other party’s interests.

As China and the U.S. cautiously address major bilateral issues, both may have views already established on these ultimate questions, but neither has found an opportunity for open discussion. During this phase of historical adjustment, they may need to try the stimulation-reaction model for a while, which is a popular form of entertainment in both societies. The problem is that such a model tends to lead to fundamental misreading. 

II. Strategic competition versus a battle for supremacy 

Perhaps we need to approach this issue from a different angle and make our thinking more effective by adding a dose of reality.

The other extreme, the opposite of benign competition, is the battle for supremacy. A fight for hegemony, no matter who wins it, will be neither be good for the winner nor for the rest of the world.

When the U.S. and Soviet Union fought for supremacy after World War II, Soviet leaders spoke of a peaceful contest between two opposing camps. But history has taught us that this was mere rhetoric, and the parties prioritized actions to react despite their declared objectives. A peaceful contest was never reality, but the battle for hegemony was.

In the struggle for hegemony between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the former seemed to win as the latter disintegrated and its camp collapsed. The world may have benefited from the fact that the U.S. suppressed the outbreak of nuclear war in the course of securing and maintaining its hegemonic status. But the world paid a price, including the perennial instability in regional security situations and incessant small-scale conventional wars. These impose a very high cost on world development. The battle for hegemony has slowed the progress of human society and the improvement of life in many regions. History does not repeat itself, nor should the history of hegemons be repeated. Many people of vision in the U.S. have made it clear that the U.S. should not treat China as it did the former Soviet Union. 

Deng Xiaoping, the former Chinese leader, once said in a public speech on an international occasion that China will never seek hegemony. In his view, if one day China pursues hegemony, the people of the world should unite to resist it. Deng’s loathing of hegemony was palpable.

Is there an objective boundary between strategic competition and the battle for hegemony? How can we judge where that boundary is? Such questions are worth reflection and articulation. In a strategic competition between two countries, each with its own institutional characteristics, they may always criticize and learn from each other. If the outcome of the game leads to better and more diverse public benefits for the progress and development of the world, it is an acceptable positive change. It may even be an option for promoting the integration of global resources and common progress of humanity.

If, in strategic competition, both parties apply existing resources and expect returns regardless of cost. They are willing to gain a competitive advantage at the price of their own economic interests and social development potential —  as well as third countries’ development opportunities. This steps over the boundary line of strategic competition and into the realm of hegemony for world domination.

China has officially said it does not strive to displace any other country. This is consistent with Chinese philosophy and practice since the beginning of the reform and opening-up policy. It focuses on its own development and makes contribution to the world by doing its own things well. The U.S. has also expressed its desire to cooperate where possible, compete where needed and confront only where necessary.

Given the current state of bilateral interactions, some positive expectations are still possible regarding whether the two, which are determined to engage in strategic competition, will be rational enough to stop before fighting for hegemony. Such expectations come from the judgment that a new battle for supremacy is irrational, unjust and doomed to exact a substantial global cost.

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