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 conflict, the malaise is not confined to the economic sphere but has 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 China policies followed by previous U.S. administrations since 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 results,” and that “reconciliation benefits both, while fighting injures both.” Undoubtedly, China and America have gained a great deal of tangible material interests – in the realms of security, economics, and beyond – from engaging each other over 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, cultural, and societal belief systems 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 facing the current China-U.S. relationship have resulted from the two countries’ diverging economic and security interests. The balance of power between the two giants is tilting toward China, further 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 their conflicting interests.
Forty years ago, shared security concerns pulled Beijing and Washington together to overcome the Taiwan sticking point 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”—referring to Western-style 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 the West’s clear intentions and actions to interfere with these countries’ domestic affairs at the expense of their political order and stability. In a still more sinister light, 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 multiculturalism as a fundamental value. The ongoing political polarization has reshaped the landscape of U.S. politics and resulted 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 powers, checks and balances, democracy, fear of despotism, limited government, free enterprise and market economics, 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, notions such as “fairness” and “reciprocity,” and labels of China’s actions as “state capitalism” and “theft of technology” are not merely related to economic profits, but to a large extent represent the application of prized American political principles. 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 is hard for Chinese officials and social elites to accept U.S. accusations about China’s behavior when those accusations are based on American values. U.S. pronouncements on the proper role of the state in the economy and society sound alien and incomprehensible to the Chinese.
Harvard Professor Graham Allison is well-known for identifying the danger of Thucydides Trap, referring to a possible deadly confrontation between an established power (America) and a rising power (China). This analogy sounds like a traditional approach, depicting international relations as power struggle. But Allison’s fear goes well beyond old-school “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 great power competition and clashing values as causes of a U.S.-China imbroglio that might lead into the abyss. Indeed, when their 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 Thucydides Trap, two parallel efforts should be made. First, China and the United States should consolidate their common interests. Attempts to sever 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, remains of great significance.
Second, those who are concerned about the relationship should pay greater attention to the widening gap between the two nation’s political values and systems, and find ways to address the divide. 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.