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  2. U.S.-China Relations: Winter is Coming

U.S.-China Relations: Winter is Coming

Frank Jannuzi (President and CEO The Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation)

It is election season in the United States. With the predictable regularity of a migratory bird heading South for the winter, the topic of U.S.-China relations has reappeared on the radar screen of American political discourse. The Republican and Democratic Parties are competing for the title of “toughest on China,” as they have every four years ever since Nixon opened the door to Beijing. But this time-honored ritual of beating one’s chest and proclaiming that one will “stand up to China” or “put America First” when dealing with Beijing has new twists in 2020. For the first time since the United States normalized diplomatic relations with China 40 years ago, the United States government has declared China to be an  adversary in all but name. The National Security Strategy of the Trump Administration declares China to be a champion of the forces of repression, and promises to rally like-minded nations to defend a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.”[1] And popular U.S. sentiment toward China has soured, with the percentage of the population holding unfavorable views reaching an historic high of 73%.[2] U.S.-China relations are chilling rapidly, and it is not clear when or how they might warm. To borrow a catch-phrase from the popular HBO series Game of Thrones, winter is coming, and both nations appear to be manning the wall.

The political framing of U.S.-China relations by the Trump Administration exacerbates the contest underway. Washington’s framing of this great power struggle – between repression and liberty, crony capitalism and the free market, rule of law and authoritarianism – leaves little if any room for cooperation with China. It also places new pressure on nation states bordering China to “choose sides” for the upcoming contest. The looming sumo match is fundamentally different than earlier battles between Washington and Beijing for power and global influence. Until recently, the United States was clearly placing its bet on China becoming a “responsible stakeholder” of the international community, while hedging that bet with some prudent investments in alliances, multilateralism, and the rule of law. Today, the betting has shifted. Most Washington elite are “all in” against China ever transforming itself into a plural democracy. Zero-sum thinking has spread from the edges of the river of U.S. foreign policy into the mainstream. 

The profoundly pessimistic tone in U.S.-China relations is remarkable given the fact that just eight months ago, President Trump was touting the success of U.S.-China trade negotiations, praising Xi Jinping for his handling of COVID-19, and expressing optimism about China’s handling of unrest in Hong Kong.  But although the deterioration in relations has been rapid – fueled in part by U.S. criticism of China’s handling of the COVID-19 virus which began in Wuhan – one should not assume that the parlous state of diplomatic relations can easily or rapidly be stabilized once the world gets COVID-19 under control. The Trump Administration’s harsh rhetoric on China has revealed, rather than caused, the cracked foundation on which the United States and China have for 40 years attempted to build a candid, constructive, and cooperative relationship based on mutual respect and common interests. The current tensions flow from three trends that long pre-date the Trump Administration and which will endure long after President Trump leaves office:


1)       Shifting international balance of power, defined by China’s rise;

2)       Ideological struggle, fueled by China’s growing confidence in its own model of development;

3)       Waning U.S. faith in globalization and the liberal democratic order.


At its core, the current U.S.-China rivalry is an outgrowth of the dramatic transition in East Asia and the world from a decade of US hegemony – the “unipolar moment” from 1992-2001 following the collapse of the Soviet Union until 9/11 -- to a multi-polar world in which China has rapidly accumulated economic, military, and political influence, in some cases overtaking the United States. As it has gathered strength, China has also begun to flex those new muscles, particularly along its periphery.  Island-building in the South China Sea, more aggressive patrols of disputed waters in the East China Sea, the crackdown on rights in Hong Kong, and an expansive and expensive Belt Road Initiative (BRI) connecting China to Central and Southeast Asia, all demonstrate that China’s capabilities are rapidly evolving. The United States may still be the only true super power in the world, but we see China rapidly approaching in the rear-view mirror. This is the world Graham Allison describes, drawing lessons from the wisdom of Thucydides. Allison points out that China has become #1 in 20 key indices of national power[3], and reminds us that the world has never easily accommodated the ambitions of a rising great power.  China is unlikely to prove an exception to this rule.[4]


Second, many observers now perceive an ideological component to the struggle for primacy between the United States and China – a component long ignored or minimized because China’s pursuit of gaige kaifeng (reform and opening up) was accompanied by China’s signing on to many (but not all) institutional norms of the liberal democratic order. Realist school fears that U.S.-China relations might prove to be zero-sum were mitigated by the fact that China’s own interests appeared to be well served by joining the international system with all of its political, economic, and security institutions – the United Nations and its affiliated agencies, the East Asia Summit, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, World Trade Organization, Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Nuclear Suppliers Group, Missile Technology Control Regime, etc. “Sure,” this argument goes, “China’s capabilities are expanding, but their intentions are benign. Nothing to worry about.”


But even as they integrated China into the community of nations, China’s leaders also began to articulate a competing model for economic and political development – a state-directed market economy wedded to a centralized political system with resilient authoritarian elements, with power held by a single party and the rights of the individual severely constrained by the state. The Chinese Communist Party may no longer be aiding and abetting the activities of Maoist guerillas or otherwise fomenting peasant revolutions, but it does celebrate China’s accomplishments and hold them up as an example to states searching for alternatives to democratic liberalism.  Of course China has reasons to be proud of its accomplishments – lifting 500 million out of poverty in the course of modernizing the world’s most populous nation. And China has reasons to question the superiority of the Western liberal democratic order.  The “West” has failed to respond effectively to a series of challenges, from 9/11, to the 2008 Financial Crisis, to infrastructure needs of developing states in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, to COVID-19.  Moreover, as Robert Kagan argues, the leaders of China may have concluded that their position atop the Chinese state will be compromised if China truly accedes to the international “norms” promulgated by the United States and its allies.[5] Highlighting the ideological component of the great power rivalry already underway, Kagan concludes that the United States would be best served by a policy of “integration through containment and pressure for change”[6] rather than wrongly assuming China will gradually accommodate itself to U.S. interests as a natural consequence of its integration and economic development. And Kagan’s view is echoed only by conservative think tanks, but also by establishment voices of China, including the Council on Foreign Relations.


Finally, the rise in tension between China and the United States can also be traced, at least in part, to growing pressures within the United States to focus on domestic affairs and dwindling support for globalization and multilateral institutions. These trends give rise to a Chinese impression that the United States cannot, or will not, sustain its commitments to allies in Asia and to the international system that undergirds America’s global presence. The relative decline in U.S. power invites Beijing to imagine a day in which the United States is no longer capable of fulfilling obligations to partners and treaty allies. This, in turn, has emboldened China to pursue objectives – undermining the autonomy of Hong Kong, subjugating Uighurs in Xinjiang, attempting to intimidate Taiwan – that threaten U.S. interests and could fundamentally alter the security environment in East Asia. U.S. talk of “decoupling” its economy from China only exacerbates the unhealthy dynamic of an America “in retreat” to the wings of globalism, encouraging China to take center stage.


Those calculating the odds for and against conflict between the United States and China should not underestimate the significance of the shifts underway. Unlike the Soviet Union, China is not only a major military and political power, but also the world’s second largest economy and the largest trading partner for most nations on Earth.  A new “Cold War” with China will bear little resemblance to the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and there are unlikely to be any winners in such a struggle. Not in Washington. Not in Beijing. And not in any of the capitals of nations who must survive the same extreme weather to be endured by diplomats at Foggy Bottom and Chaoyang. 

What, if anything, can be done to counter these trends, and restore the foundation for constructive U.S.-China relations?  I see several promising policy priorities:

·         Strengthen the U.S. economy and restore faith in the liberal democratic order;

·         Shore up alliances and partnerships;

·         Invest in multilateral institutions and systems; and

·         Adopt a multi-faceted China policy – a blend of restraints and engagement;


The first duty – particularly in light of popular U.S. sentiment against globalization – is to make sure that the United States has an economy that works for the middle class and delivers sufficient economic growth and technological advancement to sustain the United States’ global position.  Simply put, the United States can’t compete with China or fulfill commitments to allies if its economy is broken. Investments in infrastructure, clean energy, and cutting edge technologies, if accompanied by expansion of educational opportunities, can restore American competitiveness and rebuild political support for international trade and the flow of goods and peoples across borders. Nativism and xenophobia are fueled not only by an irrational fear of the “other,” but also by the perception that the ladder to opportunity has been pulled up by those already on the upper floors of society, leaving the rest stranded.   


The second task is to shore up alliances. Obama’s much-touted “rebalance” of U.S. security, economic, and diplomatic might toward the Asia-Pacific region fulfilled a few of its key objectives – a “solid double” as one of pivot’s architects concluded.[7] Of note, President Obama upgraded U.S. military capabilities in the region, adopted revised defense guidelines for the U.S.-Japan Alliance, stabilized U.S.-ROK-Japan security relations, including intelligence-sharing, enhanced maritime security cooperation with Vietnam, the Philippines, Australia, Singapore, and Indonesia, implemented the United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS), and normalized diplomatic relations with Myanmar.  It is an impressive list of accomplishments. But President Trump has reversed or undermined much of this progress. His liberal, indiscriminate use of trade tariffs to punish both China and close U.S. allies, his embrace of dictators and his attacks on democrats, his insulting attempt to extort “protection payments” from the ROK in exchange for the deployment of U.S. forces on the peninsula, and his withdrawal from the transpacific partnership, all have diminished the credibility of the United States as a reliable security ally and trading partner.


Third, the next president should invest in multilateral institutions and SHOW UP at the region’s many consultative mechanisms. East Asia is marked by the relative absence of formal multilateral security arrangements. As Former Japanese Defense Minister Yuriko Koike observed in April, 2013, “Although Asia is the worlds most dynamic region, it has a paucity of institutional mechanisms for resolving – or at least mitigating – international disputes of the type that are ratcheting up tension across the region.”[8]  But there are a wide variety of less formal structures, and they deserve U.S. support. The East Asia Summit provides a venue for high level policy deliberations, and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) affords an annual opportunity for defense officials to meet and compare notes on regional developments.  It is true that these talk shops provide only a veneer of regionalism to an architecture still defined more by nationalism than by the subservience of national ambitions to a shared vision of regional prosperity. And it is also true that recent gatherings of East Asian security officials have proven more likely to inflame passions than to calm the waters and foster collegiality. But that does not mean that Asia’s various fora are without value.

East Asia multilateral structures provide strategic reassurance to smaller states worried about the potential consequences of the rise of China across all dimensions – economic, military, and political.  And the enduring security structure of East Asia – the U.S. “hub and spoke” system – can still provide the muscle needed to preserve peace and stability, if managed deftly. U.S. treaty allies Japan, Republic of Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, and the Philippines anchor this hub and spoke system.  Strong defense ties between the United States, Singapore, Indonesia, and Taiwan, augmented by growing security partnerships with Malaysia and Vietnam, provide additional capability to mitigate regional strife, fight piracy, and respond to humanitarian disasters. But much of this architecture is both politically and militarily antiquated, and badly in need of refresh. It was built, as Chinese critics are quick to point out, with the Cold War in mind, and is only just now beginning to adapt to the security challenges of the 21st Century.

Finally, drawing lessons from the history of great power dynamics, being clear-eyed about the ideological components to the struggle, and reflecting upon the advantages to be derived from seeking help not only from allies, but also from the strength embedded in international norms and institutions, the next U.S. President should approach China with hard-headed realism. He should challenge China where he must, and to integrate China into the rules-based international order where he can. The choice between “containment” and “engagement” is an illusion. The United States, ideally in partnership with like-minded countries and global institutions, must do both. Washington must clearly articulate those areas (such as any attempt by China to use force against Taiwan) that will trigger a resolute U.S. response, even as it pursues cooperation on issues of common concern such as climate change, pandemic control, and nonproliferation. Only this kind of multi-faceted strategy can shore up the foundation for peaceful, mutually beneficial United States relations with China.



[3] Manufacturer, exporter, trading nation, saver, holder of U.S. debt, foreign-direct-investment destination, energy consumer, oil importer, carbon emitter, steel producer, auto market, smartphone market, E-commerce market, luxury-goods market, Internet user, fastest supercomputer, holder of foreign reserves, source of initial public offerings, primary engine of global growth, and economic output (GDP, as measured by PPP).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Jeffrey Bader, former senior director for Asia, National Security Council:  https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2016/08/29/obamas-china-and-asia-policy-a-solid-double/ (accessed on November 28, 2016)

[8] Yuriko Koike, Northeast Asia on the Brink,  https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/defusing-tensions-between-northeast-asia-s-big-three-by-yuriko-koike (accessed on November 28, 2016)