The past four years of Donald Trump’s presidency have seen the U.S.-China relations take a drastic turn for the worse. From the unprecedented trade war to the dog-whistling rhetoric employed by Trump against Chinese nationals and students, to the staunch rebuking of journalists and authors perceived to be affiliated with the West by Beijing, relations between the world’s two largest economies have sunk to new lows.
A Legitimacy Dilemma
Accounting for the escalating tensions requires a closer examination of bilateral relations. Both Chinese and American investment in expanding and consolidating, respectively, their presence in the Pacific, has increased significantly in recent years. China’s defense spending rose by $11 billion this year (its fifth-highest increase ever), in preparation for the expansion of its Indo-Pacific sphere of influence and consolidation of its naval presence in the South and East China Seas. On the other hand, Trump repeatedly slashed domestic programs in order to prop up his hike in defense spending, avidly pursuing – contrary to his rhetoric – a continuation of the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia. In 2018, Trump pledged to deploy several thousand Marines to strengthen naval activity in the East China Sea, while renewing economic and political ties with key regional players including the Philippines, Thailand, and Malaysia. One may thus be tempted to conclude that a classic security dilemma is at work – where both countries seek to one-up each other in military capacity, in an attempt to preempt and deter each other from engaging in total war.
Yet this is a rather simplistic view. Neither country, for all their bombastic rhetoric, is particularly keen on a war. The U.S. Navy no longer possesses a decisive strategic advantage over its Chinese counterparts, especially in the waters lying within the first island chain. With a slowing economy that has reached a bottleneck in its transition, China can also ill-afford to engage in elaborate warfare with one of its most established trading partners. Hence the motivation for the bellicose rhetoric cannot be reduced into simplistic military competition. Instead, it represents a legitimacy dilemma.
Trump’s political legitimacy stems from his avowed commitment to disrupting the political order and re-centering the country’s denizens at the core of American foreign policy. Expressive, cathartic, and one-off strikes against China have hence emerged as his go-to weapons in distracting the American populace from domestic turmoil and economic grievances. On the other hand, Xi Jinping’s legitimacy stems from upholding his vision of China as a torchbearer of an alternative governance model to the Western liberal order. Both leaders portray their governance as defensive – Trump claims that he is defending America from “migrants,” “the Chinese virus,” “communists and socialists,” and “foreign influences.” On the other hand, Xi has doubled down on the increasingly salient nationalistic rhetoric, under which China must resist “foreign interference” and “American imperialism” and pursue the distinctively neo-legalist Chinese Dream – hence the official emphasis on “cultural confidence.”
In their respective pursuits of political legitimacy, the two governments have inadvertently (perhaps even intentionally) ended up in a legitimacy dilemma – a negative-sum game where the legitimating narrative of each party is dependent upon detraction from the other. To back down from haranguing Chinese migrants would be an active setback to Trump’s ethno-nationalistic stance; to concede to Western prescriptions and demands on core issues (even concerning the periphery, such as Hong Kong and Taiwan) would make China seem weak and capitulatory. The seeds for a new Cold War have hence been sowed, as both parties view and portray the other as the offensive agent, while reifying their existing belligerence as merely defensive. The legitimacy dilemma is a perfect example of how domestic politics and culturalist imaginaries can amplify tensions induced by the security dilemma.
Yet it’s not all doom and gloom. Beijing is both pragmatic and cognizant of the red lines that it cannot transgress in international politics. Through a roster of past and present diplomats who have conventionally been viewed as “moderates” within the Party – for example, Fu Ying and Yang Jiechi – China has sought to extend an olive branch to its international allies. Joe Biden’s victory in the U.S. presidential election offers China the perfect opportunity to thoroughly reset its U.S. policy, and to turn a new page in the bilateral relationship. Even if Biden pursues a hawkish line on China, as expected, it is likely that he will do so with more restraint.
What principles, then, should China adhere to? Many may be familiar with Graham Allison’s invocation of the “Thucydides’ Trap” as a model for how the U.S.-China relationship could deteriorate; fewer can probably recall the specific prescriptions he outlined in his book “Destined for War.” While Allison wrote his book primarily with an American audience in mind, the Chinese Foreign Ministry could perhaps take some of his advice.
First, China ought to begin with structural realities. The Chinese military is unlikely to overtake its American counterpart in strength by 2030; yet China holds a distinctive upper hand when it comes to the size of its consumer and capital markets, access to rare earth minerals, and continued possession of sizable proportions of the national debts of nations and entities ranging from the U.S. to the Eurozone, from African states to Southeast Asia. China’s best “weapon,” so to speak, remains its economic prowess. China should turn to consolidating the Belt and Road Initiative and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, by assuaging critics’ worries concerning debt traps, corruption of government-to-government loans, and the micro-level yet significant frictions between imported and local labor. More importantly, China must wield its economic capital with diplomatic aplomb in engaging with the European Union, identifying room for compromise and concessions on issues close to European voters’ hearts. None of this is to say that it is in China’s interest to fully capitulate – for that, too, would contravene the structural reality tenet – yet the country must pick its battles, in order to win them.
Second, China should apply the lessons of history. Diplomatic relations are best fostered in an environment in which both parties speak and understand the language of the other. Allison has astutely noted, as with Henry Kissinger, that the West is bent on reading China through the historicist lens of democratic liberalization, something that is both erroneous and impractical. Yet the same could be said of China: there certainly are strands of imperialistic hegemony in Western political discourse, but such strands are by no means mainstream. Ganesh Sitaraman’s timely article has highlighted an important distinction between “corporate hawks” and “liberal hawks” on the China question: the former worry about the threat of Chinese economic growth; the latter about the state’s erosion of liberal values globally. These groups were the swing bloc that underpinned the Nixon-Kissinger initiative in thawing bilateral relations. If China could assuage critics’ worries about its economic expansionism and adopt genuinely mutually beneficial strategies (e.g. de-conditionalizing aid, ameliorating frictions and transactional costs in investment, and further opening up Chinese markets with more transparent regulatory protocols), then this could pave the critical path to a more sustainable Chinese ascent – one that lifts all boats at once, as opposed to only the Chinese ship.
Third, China must renew and improve upon its distinctive governance model, in ways that do not ideologically concede to the West yet nevertheless leave it open for continued organic evolution. Allison aptly berates Washington over its post-Cold War China strategy, noting that Washington mistakenly assumed that China would trend, eventually, toward democracy. This is by no means an inevitability. From models of meritocracy (a la Daniel Bell) to constrained technocracy, there exists much room for China to re-imagine and re-articulate a model of governance from which other states could both infer and learn. Yet a prerequisite for this is value pluralism and tolerance. There is merit in pursuing less antagonistic, less angry rhetoric targeted toward the regime’s critics; much of the irrationally zealous dissent would die, if only it were permitted to.
Fourth, China should look to establish more qualitatively robust and quantitatively plural ties with the West in domains ranging from environmental issues and climate change, to educational and technological exchange, to sharing responsibilities for global governance. It must also recognize that not all of the West’s demands should be swept under the carpet, or dismissed as nefarious imperialist ploys. Above all, both countries should fully understand that the best means to avert war is via deepening interdependence and preventing economic decoupling. Domestically, Beijing should commit to progressive economic reforms and structural transformations in order to cater to the disenfranchised and disempowered. Fixing governance is crucial, but it cannot be done without the increased inclusion and involvement of the “underbelly” of society.
A fresh start under Biden is possible. Biden’s victory promises a return to normalcy in Washington, whether it be in terms of domestic affairs (less racism, more competence, and greater willingness to serve constituents beyond the 1 percent) or foreign policy. Concurrently, as Beijing looks toward consolidating its self-sufficiency, it should also recognize that diplomacy should not be seen as a mere gesture necessary for buying time, but also a tool for the renewal of the country’s economic strength.
Beware the Unknowns
Last but not least, here are a few remarks concerning the unknowns, of which Beijing and the world at large must beware. As former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once noted, there are known unknowns. For instance, it remains unclear if Trump will exit the White House in January. It is also possible that the 45th president decides to escalate tensions with China over the next two months, as a means of diverting the public’s attention from his electoral defeat and the outright illegality of his refusal to concede. It remains unclear whom Biden’s staffers and appointees would be, and how closely affiliated they will be with the hawkish anti-China establishment.
Yet there are also unknown unknowns, “black swans” whose mere existence could easily trigger a world war. Such swans could emerge from the Taiwan Strait, from China’s internal politics, or from the U.S.’ fraying relations with the European Union over the U.K. and COVID-19. Alternatively, they could also erupt spontaneously, through the domestic politic maneuvering of actors on both sides of the Pacific.
Many have asked if I genuinely believe that the above prescriptions could ever come to fruition. I remain optimistic – both China and the United States have withstood worse crises, and emerged stronger as a result. Democracy remains resilient in the U.S. and the efficient governance heralded by some remains China’s forte. Yet concurrently, we cannot afford to be blindsided by romantic jingoism that takes one country’s model as superior, and its rivals as innately inimical to the country’s interests. The China Model has yet to supplant the Western Model – nor should it seek to. Such negative-sum thinking precisely reinforces the aforementioned legitimacy dilemma, and benefits no one.
China and the U.S. are destined to be rivals, competitors, friends, and sometimes foes. Yet neither of these parties should seek war. In order to prevent a conflict, both parties must act – and as the U.S. undergoes some of the most turbulent times yet since its founding, it is high time for Beijing to take the lead.