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China-US relations

China must brace itself for the fallout of America the superpower losing its self-confidence

Tian Feilong warns that US inability to adapt to China’s rise may pose a serious security challenge, as a more suspicious America abandons its strategic patience and opts for more risky strategies to stifle China’s rejuvenation

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 January, 2018, 12:01pm
UPDATED : Friday, 26 January, 2018, 7:31pm

The recent 19th national congress of the Chinese Communist Party and the historical fact of China’s decisive rise have put the US on edge. After the second world war, the United States became a global hegemony by the strength of its unrivalled soft power. By the end of the cold war, it became the world’s sole superpower.

US-led economic globalisation and the third wave of democratisation, with America in the vanguard, led Francis Fukuyama to proclaim the “end of history”. America’s confidence and swagger in its strategic prowess reached a peak. With US self-confidence at a high, Sino-US relations grew strong. The two developed some camaraderie in the stand-off with the Soviet Union, and learned what it was like to be in a mutually beneficial relationship.

The Tiananmen protests of 1989, however, exposed the gulf in the two countries’ value systems. After 1989, China’s economy began to grow by leaps and bounds. So did its international clout. By contrast, the US has increasingly fallen into a state of strategic suspicion, confrontation and uncertainty, which became more evident after China put forward its Belt and Road Initiative.

With the US losing its strategic self-confidence and determination, relative to China’s, it is no longer able to face a rising China from the vantage point of calm superiority. We can see this in recent events.

First, the Trump administration labelled China a presumed enemy and competitor in its national security strategy. The US was the one to first raise alarm about the so-called “Thucydides Trap” – a view of the Sino-US relationship Beijing does not share.

Watch: China-US relations in the Trump era

Second, the passage in the US House of Representatives of the Taiwan Travel Act – a bill that encourages visits between Taiwan and US officials – not only shows rising hawkish influence in the US, but also a lack of nuance in its strategies towards China.

Third, this month the University of Texas in Austin reportedly rejected funding from a foundation helmed by Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong’s former leader, for fear that it was linked to a branch of the Chinese Communist Party. This incident, and recent spying allegations about Wendi Deng Murdoch, point to an overly suspicious mentality in the US, which raises the spectre of neo-McCarthyism.

For a long time, the US approach to China has been a mix of containment and cooperation. But this works only if a sizeable gap in power exists between the two. You feel safe when your opponent is much weaker, and making a concession or ceding an advantage can be seen as gentlemanly or moral conduct. However, when your opponent catches up, you will find that the strategic space has shrunk and you are not ready to make accommodations.

China and the US established diplomatic relations in 1979. Today, they are leading nations on the global stage, but their values and strategic interests clash. The two have yet to agree on the kind of mutual recognition promised in a “new type of major-power relationship”. The US will not recognise China’s status or its claim to its rightful place in global governance. Nor is the US willing to peacefully hand over its global or regional leadership to China.

Is war between China and the US inevitable?

On the matter of China’s economy, both Europe and the US have refused to recognise China as a market economy, based on the West’s own standards and prejudices, even though they go against the rules of the World Trade Organisation. This stance to prevent China from obtaining its legitimate rights stems from the West’s fear that it is losing its influence in global politics and economics.

The elite of European and US society are highly suspicious of China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”. The US sees the plan as an attempt to export Chinese capital and economic models to challenge US hegemony, while the Europeans believe China is attempting to “create” two Europes, dividing the richer and more powerful western Europe from the poorer and weaker Central and Eastern European states. Meanwhile, both Europe and the US believe China is boldly challenging the dominance of Western civilisation and its cultural leadership with its “Eastern wisdom”.

China must ensure it is better understood

As the US undergoes a strategic contraction and as it loses confidence in its strategic advantage, a structural crisis may break out that will adversely affect Sino-US ties as well as world peace. The crux of the problem is that the trust between China and the US is limited and not enough to hedge against the “Thucydides Trap” scenario in US imagination.

In the face of China’s national rejuvenation, the US may no longer pursue a conventional containment or infiltration strategy. Nor will it patiently count on a combination of factors to push for peaceful democratisation in China. Instead, the US may adopt a risky strategy to stifle China’s rejuvenation by exploiting the security loopholes in its periphery.

Geopolitically, China’s periphery is full of strategic risks. First, the US may capitalise on the North Korea nuclear stand-off to trigger a crisis on the Korean peninsula, which would wreck the economy and security of China’s north and northeast.

Watch: China prepares for a potential crisis in North Korea

Second, the US could encourage Japan to wage a war of attrition with China over islands claimed by both Asian countries.

Third, the US may try to undermine cross-strait ties and instigate unrest in Taiwan, prompting China to take control of the island by force.

Is China planning to take Taiwan by force in 2020?

Fourth, territorial disputes in the South China Sea have not been resolved, and claimants such as Vietnam may try to provoke China with US support.

Fifth, China’s relations with India remain the biggest strategic obstacle to China’s peripheral security and the belt and road plan. India is the fulcrum of the “Indo-Pacific strategy” proposed by the US and Japan. India’s stance on geopolitical issues, its attitude as a major power and the region’s wariness towards China are factors that will ensure Beijing faces a long-term and significant threat to its power in its southwest.

Sixth, the US may also try to capitalise on the risks of ethnic separatism and religious extremism on China’s western front, including Tibet and Xinjiang.

Not a zero-sum game: global governance must adapt to the new US-China equation

The 19th party congress proclaimed that China is closer now than ever to realising the great rejuvenation of its nation. As it grows stronger, the US is weakening. Inevitably, the Thucydides Trap looms. Although China has repeatedly stressed its peaceful intent, its reassurances cannot change US strategic thinking or remove the hegemonic genes deeply rooted in Western culture. Therefore, the US will continue to feel culturally and politically insecure.

There is little China can do in this regard. As the US takes on more strategic risks, China must carefully review and implement its national security policy and strategies to prevent and control risks.

Tian Feilong is an associate professor at Beihang University’s Law School in Beijing and a director of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau. This is translated from Chinese