Over the past few weeks we have witnessed a rapid and (for the past half-century) unprecedented worsening of relations between the United States and China. It is uncertain, for now, whether this is the result of a deliberate shift in strategy by Washington or the cumulative effect of a series of incremental moves and counter-moves which create the impression of a dangerously worsening, fundamentally adversarial relationship.
In his remarks to the UN Security Council on September 26, President Donald Trump accused China point-blank of “attempting to interfere in our upcoming 2018 election . . . against my administration.” With Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi listening impassively only yards away, Trump asserted that Chinese “do not want me or us to win, because I am the first president ever to challenge China on trade, and we are winning on trade, we are winning at every level.” Wang subsequently tried to shrug off Trump’s charges, asserting later in the UNSC session that China’s long-standing policy is to not interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries.
The incident reflected a constant theme in this year’s UN General Assembly, “the increasingly pitched rivalry between the world´s two superpowers.” Trump’s remarkable Security Council accusation was preceded by his gutsy UNGA speech on September 25 in which he declared that Beijing’s economic policies “cannot be tolerated” anymore. Trump was much harsher on China than in his first UN address a year ago. “I have great respect and affection for my friend president Xi [Jinping], but I have made clear that our trade imbalance is just not acceptable,” Trump said.
“China’s market distortions and the way they deal cannot be tolerated . . . The United States lost over 3 million manufacturing jobs, nearly a quarter of all steel jobs, and 60,000 factories after China joined, and we have racked up $13 trillion in trade deficits over the last two decades, but those days are over. We will no longer tolerate such abuse, we will not allow our workers to be victimized, our companies to be cheated and our wealth to be plundered and transferred.”
Trump’s harsh words came one day after the United States formally imposed tariffs on another $200 billion worth of Chinese goods, prompting Beijing to hit $60 billion worth of US goods with tariffs of their own. The total value of goods between the two countries now subject to tariffs sits at $360 billion, and prompted Beijing to cancel plans to hold trade negotiations with the US. At the same time, the Administration made the unprecedented decision to sanction the Chinese government (specifically the military procurement agency and its director) for buying Russian fighter jets and the Russian-made S-400 air defense missile system. In response, China’s foreign ministry summoned U.S. Ambassador in Beijing Terry Branstad to lodge protest on September 22. China also announced a postponement of high-level bilateral military talks originally scheduled for later this month. Three days later the Chinese government denied the U.S.S. Wasp permission to pay a port visit to Hong Kong.) A government spokesman said that China’s purchases from Russia was a normal act of cooperation between sovereign countries, and the U.S. had “no right to interfere.”
Then came Vice President Pence’s big China speech at the Hudson Institute in Washington. Long billed as the address meant to provide a strategic outline of the approach to China for the Trump administration, it was both detailed and stern. Pence stressed U.S. contributions to China’s rise and elaborated on how China has allegedly betrayed American benevolence by actively harming U.S. economic and security interests. He also outlined a new U.S. approach to China, which essentially stresses competition over cooperation. On balance, however, there were no bombshell revelations or dramatic announcements.
Pence’s speech was not a game-changer of and by itself. In conjunction with everything else that has come to pass in recent weeks and months, however, it provided a doctrinal underpinning for what appears to be a new American strategy of comprehensive containment of the Asian giant. According to some China watchers, especially worrisome to Beijing was Pence’s assertion that there now exists a rising consensus on China from two major political parties in the U.S. meaning that both now want to adopt a more confrontational approach to China:
The implied conclusion is that no matter who the next U.S. president is, this new confrontational approach toward China would not change as there is an emerging U.S. version of a whole-of-government approach to China. Not surprisingly, this pessimistic view calls for active Chinese measures to counterbalance possible U.S. aggressive actions in a possible all-out conflict.
A variant of this view shares the pessimistic assessment that the U.S. now seeks to make trouble with China in all possible realms, but also believes that things will not be that ugly if other circumstances come into existence: “Such circumstances might include a different U.S. president, a more divided U.S. domestic political arena, a slowing down of the U.S. economy, and an isolated United States on the world stage, among many other things.” There are some Chinese do not seem unduly rattled by Pence’s speech and do not see a new cold war coming between the two powers, but there is reason for concern.
In welcoming the world’s leaders to the General Assembly two weeks ago, UN Secretary-General António Guterres had warned of the hazards of shifting international power dynamics, citing the political scientist Graham Allison’s theory that war between China and the United States, as with other rising and ruling powers throughout history, is distinctly possible albeit not inevitable. It is striking that Guterres should invoke Allison’s book. It deals with various examples of “Thucydides’s Trap” through history—a mostly lethal pattern of structural stress that results when a rising power challenges a ruling one—and asks whether America and China can avoid it. Allison convincingly argues that unless China is willing to scale back its ambitions or Washington can accept becoming number two in the Pacific, a trade conflict, cyberattack, or accident at sea could soon escalate into all-out war.
“I think a lot of people don’t understand exactly what’s at stake here,” Trump’s national-security adviser, John Bolton, told Fox News ahead of Trump’s speech to the UN. “This is not just an economic issue. This is not just talking about tariffs and the terms of trade. This is a question of power . . . I think all of this goes to what will be the major theme of the 21st century, which is how China and the United States get along.”
On this point Bolton is right, it is a question of power and ultimately questions of power cause wars. The only way to avoid is to accept the geopolitical consequences—including adjustments—of the shifting distribution of power. Evidently, a country’s rising economic strength is reflected in its geopolitical clout. In the 1870’s the U.S. overtook Britain as the world’s largest economy; a decade later, having defeated Spain, America took over the remnants of her empire. During the same period Germany’s massive economic growth enabled her to establish colonies in Africa and to build an ocean-going navy (which was a strategic mistake because it alienated Britain, but that is another story). Even the tiny Netherlands, having grown rich in the 1600’s, proceeded to establish a commercially-oriented empire in the East Indies, the Cape, and the Caribbean.
China’s economy is now greater in size than that of the United States, and Beijing is seeking geopolitical adjustments to that reality. Its grand strategy is focused on securing her “near abroad” inside the first island chain and securing supply chains, however, and not on acquiring legal titles to faraway lands or showing the flag for reasons of prestige. The program of building islands in the disputed areas of the South China Sea and militarizing them may be seen as a strategically defensive move to secure the vital node of China’s maritime supply chains in uncertain times, a reflection of the Confucian striving for harmonious stability rather than an audacious bid to establish regional hegemony.
The Administration seems to have decided to treat it as a threat. The stakes are becoming high. Mr. Trump has said often enough that he would seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world, with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first. Such realist view of international relations requires balancing the ends and means of his China policy in line with a sober assessment of interests involved. A host of trade and currency issues he has rightly raised with China are neither ideological nor existential. On the other hand, imposing sanctions on powerful countries in response to the purchase of Russian arms is idiotic.
The future dialogue with Beijing should be based on the art of the deal, which includes the acceptance that China is not to be bullied (the collective memory of “a century of humiliations” is still vivid), that she will not give up on the adjustment of her geopolitical clout in line with her economic might, and that in the fullness of time she will be prepared to risk a war in pursuit of those objectives. It is time to ask whether it is a vital interest of the United States to maintain full-spectrum dominance in the Pacific for ever, and if necessary at the cost of a major war.