China Power

Pride and Prejudice: The Drivers of China-US Conflict

Conflict between the two powers has been and will be the norm.

Pride and Prejudice: The Drivers of China-US Conflict
Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

It is not contradictory to talk about China-U.S. distrust and discord when two sides just concluded their seventh Strategic and Economic Dialogue and sixth Consultation on People-to-People Exchange in Washington, D.C. In fact, Chinese President Xi Jinping particularly expressed his concern about strategic misjudgments between China and the U.S. to his counterpart, President Barack Obama, through this dialogue. Verbally, the two sides have again reached a consensus on cooperation — the same consensus that has been reached and more or less shelved many times in the past.

China-U.S. conflicts are structural in nature. In an analysis of power dynamics between the largest two economies — and top two military spenders — in the world, power parity provides the structural conditions for conflict and cooperation. The question is, why is the incumbent United States so concerned and anxious when the rise of China has yet to fundamentally change the power structure? The most popular explanation involves  theThucydides Trap, a psychological tendency for the dominant power to take the initiative to act against a perceived opponent. Drastic structural changes may bring about significant or even violent consequences, although war is not always inevitable as the peaceful shift of leadership between Great Britain and the United States in the late 1940s shows.

Yet looking at the historical precedents of the original Thucydides Trap, China has not become a truly competitive “empire” as the Athenians were, particularly given Athens’ group of allies that would take its side in a violent standoff with the Peloponnesians. Instead, the United States is more deeply concerned about institutional challenges such as China’s founding the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) rather than compromising in the current U.S.-led financial system. Washington sees such moves as humiliations, especially in the face of traditional U.S. allies.

The China-U.S. structural conflicts may be comprehensive in some aspects, spanning politics, economics, and security. However, the Chinese economy has long been an indispensable part of the world economy, though discords have accompanied China-U.S. economic relations for decades. Meanwhile, political coordination has become more frequent between China and the United States with regard to a number of regional and global issues. Though the honeymoon of military communication and cooperation in the 1980s has long gone, a certain level of bilateral exchanges never disappeared completely. In fact, the structural conflicts are being delicately managed on both sides, although there have been moments of clashes, especially with regard to the South China Sea issue.

What truly hinders the total reconciliation between China and the U.S. for the moment is probably less structural and more psychological — pride and prejudice, to quote Jane Austen. U.S. pride comes from America’s unprecedented success in political and social developments, even though the country is not perfect. The “prejudice,” however, comes from America’s persistent demands for world-wide homogenization according to a universal standard of fundamental American values. The U.S. has an almost spiritual mandate — to spread and support democracy — that represents these values.

Meanwhile, in the past decades, the United States has welcomed and supported China’s economic reform and its international involvements, and has actually foreseen and tolerated the consequent structural changes that China has made to the U.S.-led global power structure. But all this has not brought the political changes the U.S. wants to see in China, which seems to be rather difficult for the U.S. to apprehend and accept. When U.S. ‘pride and prejudice’ collides with the Chinese people’s comparable or even more tenacious self-pride in their history and culture, clashes won’t go away easily. In a sense, China-U.S. conflicts are being driven by national pride.

On this account, Samuel P. Huntington has already proposed a solution in his book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order: “In a multicivilizational world, the constructive course is to renounce universalism, accept diversity, and seek commonalities.” This is particularly true when China-U.S. conflict has been and probably will remain the norm.