Since the rapprochement between Beijing and Washington in the early 1970s, especially since the establishment of China-U.S. diplomatic relations 40 years ago, both nations have gained tremendous security and economic benefits. Meanwhile, mutual understanding between the two peoples has deepened, as reflected in the expansion of educational, humanitarian, and science and technological exchanges between the two sides. Only a couple of years ago, the growth of trade, people-to-people exchanges, and tourism across the Pacific Ocean appeared to be unstoppable and irreversible.
However, China-U.S. ties suffered a rapid downward spiral in 2017 and 2018. While much public attention is paid to the widely reported trade disorder, malaises are not confined to the economic sphere but have infected almost every other dimension of the bilateral relationship. The Trump administration has issued a few authoritative documents that define China as a “revisionist power” and a strategic adversary of the United States, marking a significant shift from the policies toward China conducted by the previous U.S. administrations after the establishment of diplomatic relations between Beijing and Washington.
One of these documents, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2019, passed by both the House and the Senate of U.S. Congress, and signed by President Donald Trump in August 2018, classifies China as a “strategic competitor that seeks to shape the world toward their authoritarian model through destabilizing activities that threaten the security of the United States and its allies.” As such, the NDAA “(d)irects a whole-of-government strategy on China to address the Chinese Communist Party’s use of political influence, economic tools, cyber activities, global infrastructure and development projects, and military activities against the United States and allies and partners.”
Such a change in U.S. attitude and policy toward China is alarming, and puzzling, to many Chinese observers. It is a common understanding in China that relations among nations are determined by their national interests, especially by economic benefits in the era of globalization. Chinese officials and commentators customarily assert that “common interests between China and the United States are much greater than their differences,” that the two countries should pursue “mutual benefit and win-win result,” and that “reconciliation benefits both, while fight injures both.” Undoubtedly, China and America have gained a great deal of tangible material interests – in the security, economic, and other realms – from engaging each other in the last few decades. The cumulative trade volume between the two sides in the past ten years has exceeded that between America and Japan or between America and any of its European allies bilaterally.
However, international history tells us that enhancement of cooperation between nations is based not only on common national interests but also on similar social and political values, while clashes between two international players may be intensified if their values are in conflict. For instance, economic friction between Japan and the United States never runs the risk of resulting in a military conflict because, to a large extent, their political values and systems are akin to each other. The U.S.-Soviet Cold War was marked by their ideological competition worldwide in addition to their geostrategic competition. The American political thinker Samuel Huntington’s theme of “clash of civilizations” is controversial, but it is convincing to many observers that relations between the West and the non-West countries cannot be interpreted by analyzing only their material interests, and that religious beliefs are indeed a major factor in international politics. China-Russia trade today is only a fraction of China-U.S. trade, but their affinity in guarding against Western ideological infiltration into their respective domestic politics serves as an important bond that has strengthened ties between Beijing and Moscow.
To be sure, the grave challenges the current China-U.S. relationship is faced with have resulted from the two countries’ diverging economic and security interests. The power equation between the two giants tilting toward China is also driving the China-U.S. geostrategic contest. However, a more critical reason for their possible confrontation may be the increasingly salient clash of their political values in addition to the contradiction of interests.
Forty years ago, shared security concerns pulled Beijing and Washington together to overcome the obstacle over Taiwan in establishing diplomatic relations. China’s opening and reform thereafter has tremendously expanded China-U.S. economic cooperation. Meanwhile, frequent contact between the two peoples at various levels brings about not only more mutual understanding - in a positive sense - but also clearer recognition of how different their political systems and values are, especially in the last couple of years when both China and America have been undergoing momentous political changes at home. Viewed through prisms of different values, core national interests are defined differently in the two societies.
In China, “the Communist Party leading everything” as a political principle has been reemphasized in recent years. At the 19th Communist Party Congress, held in October 2019, a new guiding ideology, named Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, was written into the Party's constitution. The 19th Party Congress report asserts that “the greatest strength of the system of socialism with Chinese characteristics is the leadership of the Communist Party of China; the Party is the highest force for political leadership.” The Chinese leadership resolutely rejects “any attempt to abandon socialism and take an erroneous path,” which actually refers to Western-type democratization.
Beijing expressed apprehension over a series of events in world politics, including the “color revolutions” in the former Soviet bloc, the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011 followed by the downfall of the Muammar Gaddafi government in Libya, and political storms in such countries as Syria, Zimbabwe, and Venezuela. In all these cases, the Chinese saw clear intentions and actions in the Western world to interfere with these countries’ domestic affairs at the expense of their political order and stability. More sinisterly, the United States and other Western countries accused China of human rights violations in Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, and other Chinese territories. There are suspicions that Americans are instigating anti-government activities in China.
As a result, Beijing have passed laws and regulations, stepped up actions, and launched ideological campaigns to thwart any such activities. It is not surprising that in China’s official definition of its “core interests,” domestic order maintained by the Communist Party leadership is always on top of the list. In practical terms, China is trying hard to address the trade imbalance with America and sustain military-to-military dialogues with its U.S. counterparts. However, when it goes to matters concerning “core socialist values,” China is not expected to make compromises. This is a principle that the United States finds difficult to comprehend, much less accept.
In American politics, the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president reflected the rise of populism and nationalism in America and strong resistance to the traditional political establishment that holds multiculturism as a fundamental value. The undergoing political polarization has reshaped the landscape of U.S. politics and results in further ideological divisions. However, American politicians and social elites, however divided they are becoming, still share some basic values that bind the nation together and that are in sharp contrast with China’s political values. In America, individual freedom is a supreme tenet. Separation of power, checks and balances, democracy, fear of despotism and concentrated power, limited government, free enterprise and market economy, among other things, remain unshakeable principles in American society today.
These U.S. values are applied to U.S. policy toward China. In the economic dimension, such notions as “fairness,” “reciprocity,” and labels of China’s “state capitalism,” “theft of technology” are not merely related to economic profits, but to a large extent represent political principles that Americans prize. In the security arena, nonproliferation of weapons of massive destruction and “freedom of navigation” are defended as principal values that reflect “core security interests” of the United States. It would be hard for Chinese officials and social elites to accept U.S. accusations of China’s behavior based on U.S. values. U.S. pronouncements on the proper role of the state in the economy and society sound alien and incomprehensible to the Chinese.
The Harvard-based Professor Graham Allison is well-known for identifying the danger of Thucydides’s Trap, referring to a possible deadly confrontation between an established power (America) and a rising power (China). This analogy sounds like a traditional approach to depicting international relations as power struggle. But Allison’s fear goes well beyond the old-style “great power politics.” Borrowing Samuel Huntington’s peculiar notion of “clash of civilizations,” Allison compares U.S. and Chinese political values. “For Americans,” Allison proclaims, “democracy – government of, by, and for the people – is the only legitimate government. It is required to protect citizens’ rights and allow them to flourish.”
Meanwhile, the American professor concedes that “(m)ost Chinese would disagree. They believe that political legitimacy comes from performance.” “When it comes to promoting their fundamental political values internationally,” Allison continues, “the US and China have distinctively different approaches. Americans believe that human rights and democracy are universal aspirations, needing only an American example (and sometimes an imperialistic nudge) to be realized everywhere.” Proud of their achievements in turning a poor country into the second largest economy in the world within four decades, not many Chinese would be convinced that America’s democracy should be an example for China to follow. Instead, Beijing wants to show that China’s socialist path and system “have offered a new option, wisdom, and an approach to solving the problems facing mankind,” as the 19th Communist Party report pronounces.
Professor Allison is right in viewing both the power competition and the clash of values as causes of U.S.-China imbroglio that might lead into the abyss. Indeed, when the divergence of interests is coupled with increasingly uncompromising political values, China and the United States are more likely to become long-term strategic rivals.
To prevent the two giants from falling into the tragedy of the Thucydides Trap, two parallel efforts should be made. First, China and the United States should consolidate their common interests. Attempts to decouple their economic and technological connection are detrimental to both countries and the world as a whole. China-U.S. cooperation on issues of global governance, including climate change, illegal immigration, terrorism, and drug trafficking, is of great significance.
Second, those who are concerned about the relationship should pay greater attention to the widening gap of their political values and systems and find ways to cope with it. Both nations are making dramatic political experiments at home, the results of which will take years and even decades to manifest. In his address to the United Nations General Assembly in September 2015, President Xi Jinping articulated, "(a) just cause should be pursued for the common good. Peace, development, fairness, justice, democracy, and freedom are common values of mankind, and also the lofty goals of the United Nations.” Taking a long view, the peoples of China and the United State may find themselves not only sharing more real-world interests but also more spiritual ground and common beliefs. Courage and confidence are needed to make the two nations move in the right direction and attain this end.