China should welcome a strong and prosperous America – in words as well as deeds
Zha Daojiong says Beijing has more to lose if real conflict breaks out between the two powers as a result of the fighting talk by Trump and his team, so why not directly address US worries?
Is the relationship between the US and China destined to start off on a negative footing under president Donald Trump? Less than a week before Trump’s inauguration, such a question seems redundant. The pattern of the rhetoric from Trump and his foreign policy team can be likened to a team of enraged bulls charging into a china shop – pun intended.
Viewed from Beijing, where I am based, it is important to bear in mind that during the entire US presidential campaign season, “Let’s get tougher on China” emerged as a consensus message across the US political spectrum. Voices against confrontation were few and effectively cast aside.
Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate, was reported to want to “ring China with missiles”. Trump not only spoke of China in a mode that echoed America’s “Japan-bashing” fever of the 1980s, he also directly touched the most sensitive nerve of the Chinese government and people: the status of Taiwan.
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China has repeatedly stated that its position on the basis for normal diplomatic ties – that foreign governments accept the Chinese government’s “one China” principle – is non-negotiable. (The Chinese appetite for satisfying the Trump team’s demands on other matters may not be that strong, either.)
Few expect Trump to switch his government’s recognition of “one China” from Beijing to Taipei. Under his leadership, the United States is more likely to pursue policies that come across as poking Beijing in the eye. Then, the extent of Beijing’s tolerance comes into question. And the prospect of active conflict between China and the US over Taiwan seems less distant.
In my mind, the stakes are higher for China than the US. An overwhelming majority of Chinese citizens have attained a better life than that of their parents, thanks to the past 40 years of peaceful development in China. A war over Taiwan (or indeed over the islands and rocks in the surrounding seas) could destroy any hope of similar progress for our next generation.
Amid the many external challenges facing American society, is China being singled out by the US government? If one judges that by the commentaries in the mainstream Chinese media, the answer is an overwhelming “yes”. If one goes by what’s in the American media, the answer is “no”. The media in both countries are striking in their sense of self-righteousness.
The time has come for China to address Americans’ seemingly pervasive sense of vulnerability by stating that a harmonious, prosperous, powerful yet responsible United States constitutes part of the favourable external environment that China wishes to see.
At recent academic conferences in both China and the US, I floated this idea and received mixed reactions. Yet, it may well help to answer the justifiably salient question on the minds of many Americans: now that China’s capacity to compete with the US has risen in some areas and seems sure to rise further, what does Beijing want?
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One approach is to continue to urge each side to heed the lesson of history and avoid the use of force as a means of conflict resolution. The problem with this approach is that the Americans and Chinese rarely agree on the causality of major conflicts in history. In addition, each side strongly believes in its own reasoning and feels itself to be the rightfully aggrieved party in the relationship.
Sceptics of the possible impact of this approach correctly remind us that deeds, not words, matter. Furthermore, it is not for China to influence and change America.
Yet, since China has such a consequential relationship with the US – not just with the incoming Trump administration, but for years into the future – it is worth suggesting that China come up with a mega narrative – like the one suggested above – about the relationship. That should serve to guide competing interests at home and simultaneously speak to the concern in American society.
Zha Daojiong is a professor of international political economy at the School of International Studies, Peking University