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Does the US Have ‘Trump Cards’ Over China?

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China Power

Does the US Have ‘Trump Cards’ Over China?

The idea that the U.S. has several “trump cards” to use against China ignores the complexity of U.S.-China relations.

Does the US Have ‘Trump Cards’ Over China?
Credit: USA & China disagreement image via Shutterstock

Although the war bugle has yet to be sounded, the increasingly confrontational tensions between China and the U.S. over a series of regional issues seem to indicate that both sides are trying to test the other’s red lines. Each side hopes to be able to lay significant strategic weights or threats on the other side without being actually dragged into a war. In a recent meeting, Vice Chairman of China’s Central Military Commission Fan Changlong directly expressed his disapproval of U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s remarks in Tokyo on the East China Sea dispute. “The Chinese people, including myself, are dissatisfied with such remarks,” Fan said. Such open and face-to-face criticism is not common in the history of China-U.S. relations.

In recognition of increased tensions, a recent article on Financial Times’ Chinese language site describes a “storm approaching” in current China-U.S. relations, indicating that the probability of a violent conflict between these two countries has been significantly increasing. This article also emphasizes that the U.S. has two trump cards to play: “First, [the U.S. could] utilize the fact that Chinese society is going through a grand transition that has brought about frequent incidents of social unrest and intensified confrontation between the public and the ruling party. [The U.S. could] seek a color revolution using the weapon of democracy. Secondly, [the U.S. could] obstruct China’s economic transformation by using its supremacy in global trade rule-making processes.”

However, analysis of these two so-called trump cards may in fact suggest that these are two weaknesses for the U.S. as it tries to balance the rapidly emerging China. At the least, it’s hard to prove that the U.S. has distinct advantages on these two matters.

First, it is a fact that conflicts and resistance in Chinese society have been increasing at an astonishing rate after years of social and economic transformation. According to The China Society Yearbook (2013) published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, recently there have been tens of thousands or even over a hundred thousand incidents of social unrest in China each year. Of these incidents, approximately 50 percent are caused by inappropriate land acquisitions, 30 percent are caused by environmental issues and labor disputes, and 20 percent stem from other various disputes. The question is: will these pockets of unrest directly and definitely lead to a color revolution in China?

The turmoil and shock brought by the “Arab Spring” did not trigger similar social and political shifts in China, although some might have wished for a bottom-up change in China to end the standoff between the general public and the ruling regime. However, in spite of an ongoing democracy offensive from the West and the ever-changing international environment, Beijing managed to stabilize its regime.

Meanwhile, the Chinese economy has been going through a long period of high-speed growth despite domestic and international distractions such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, the 2008 global financial crisis, and the Arab Spring. Obviously, economic growth and the subsequent benefits to a certain degree have eased the general public’s political appeals. Political action in China has remained relatively innocuous.

What’s more, recent incidents of social unrest in China seem to have a common aspect: people are quite often seeking to protect their own economic interests. In pursuit of this goal, people are particularly targeting corrupt cadres rather than directly challenging the whole political system. China’s mass incidents are not intended to give substantial criticism of the nation’s political system or to mark a return to the calls for Western “freedom” and “democracy” that were common in the 1980s. Rather, discussions related to politics are limited to a relatively small number of elite groups and scholars who focus on fairly mild issues such as the rule of law or constitutionalism.

Hence, social unrest in contemporary China shows that people, sometimes in desperation, are trying to appeal to a higher level of government. Such protests particularly target collusion between government cadres and businesses. In this case, Chinese political culture, rather than a Western democratic awareness, is the major motivating factor.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that Beijing won’t have to worry about social injustice. Quantitative changes definitely may lead to a qualitative change if various kinds of social injustices continue to prevail. Subsequently, we may start to see more serious consequences in the future. However, these changes will not necessarily come from an increased awareness of democracy due to enlightenment from the West. Rather, it’s more likely that change would arise from people’s desperation and their disappointment in the central government’s inability to solve social justice problems. A color revolution driven by calls for Western democracy is still unlikely in China so far.

As for the second trump card, has the U.S. secured supremacy in global trade rule-making processes? Presently, the U.S. seems to be more interested in regional trade deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) than in the reform and transformation of the current international trade system at the global level. Does this imply that the United States’ long-existing supremacy in the world trade system is declining?

In fact, one of the most important factors behind China’s rapid economic emergence is that China rose within the global system, including the world economic system, built under U.S. leadership over the past decades. Though various structural problems remain, after decades of economic growth, the Chinese economy has become an important generator for world economic recovery and growth. Could the regional trade deals pursued by the U.S. still secure its global economic supremacy while excluding China, the world’s second largest economy and the biggest trading country?

The strategic game between China and the U.S. is still ongoing, and a lot of variables are bound to change as this game goes on. The West and the U.S. cannot promptly and freely create another color revolution in China by utilizing the accumulated contractions in Chinese society. Meanwhile, the singular focus on TPP and TTIP seems to indicate that the U.S. now is more like a regional great power rather than the supreme global leader that had long been responsible for creating the contemporary world system.

These topics are not “trump cards” for the U.S. in its strategic competition with China, but they can help us understand the complexity and constancy of China-U.S. relations. We might be far away from realizing a “new type of great power relations,” but an instant showdown obviously contradicts with both countries’ strategic interests.