China-US relations

How a Sino-US relationship reset would help make America great again

Andrew Leung says the rising anti-China sentiment in the US is not constructive and America stands to gain from China’s rise if it eschews confrontation in favour of collaboration

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 February, 2018, 5:40pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 February, 2018, 7:24pm

Breaking with tradition, US President Donald Trump chose to personally launch the National Security Strategy in December. He named China and Russia “revisionist powers”, “attempting to erode American security and prosperity”. While conceding the need to cooperate with China, he vowed to make the US, including its military, more competitive and stronger, always putting America first.

This was soon echoed in the 2018 National Defence Strategy, which asserts that “great-power competition”, not terrorism, must be the focus of national security. The road map aims to sharpen military lethality, including nuclear weaponry, and expand America’s military alliances.

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Some American opinion leaders have regretted that the US supported China’s entry into the World Trade Organisation, which has helped China’s economic rise. There is bipartisan consensus that attempts to mould China into a “responsible stakeholder” of the US-led world order have been unsuccessful. A more robust anti-China mindset seems to have moved centre stage.

Under a new “Indo-Pacific Strategy”, Trump has re-energised a quadrilateral strategic alliance of the United States, Japan, Australia and India, all not so friendly towards China. Various Chinese investments in the US have recently been blocked. A 30 per cent tariff has been imposed on Chinese solar panels, an ominous first salvo of what could escalate into a trade war. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently warned Latin America against dependency created by China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”. A storm seems to be gathering in US-China relations.

China-US relations in the Trump era

It is easy to lose sight of the paradox of China’s rise. As China grows into a 10,000-tonne panda, it can no longer follow Deng Xiaoping’s dictum of “hiding strength and biding time”. Even its own avowed benign behaviour has not prevented smaller neighbours from hedging strategically.

Paradoxically, a stronger China may well offer greater opportunities to keep America safer and more prosperous. Trump once said the US should have kept the oil in what turned out to be an unproductive war in Iraq. Nevertheless, even with geopolitical rivalry with China, there are ways for America to gain.

Examples abound. First is China’s capacity for stabilising the Korean peninsula. With Kim Jong-un’s Winter Olympics overtures towards South Korea, China could broker a verifiable non-aggression deal between North Korea and the US, perhaps backed by security guarantees from China and other members of the six-party talks.

Second, the South China Sea is China’s artery of trade and resources. China is therefore unlikely to disrupt the normal flow of civilian and commercial navigation. But China’s “island building” with military installations diminishes America’s military flexibility. Nevertheless, apart from symbolic yet provocative “freedom of navigation operations”, the US could select suitable sea routes for regular joint patrols with the Chinese navy to send a strong signal for regional peace and stability.

The US could also explore jointly developing with China and other countries the vast energy reserves in the South China Sea, subject to environmental safeguards. A US-China joint initiative for sustainable fisheries management would do wonders in minimising regional conflict, while adding to the soft power of both countries.

Engaging China more constructively would capture the ‘oil’ in China’s rapid development

Third, a strong and prosperous China presents many opportunities for American investments and expertise. As an energy-surplus nation, America can sell vast quantities of natural gas to China, the world’s biggest energy customer, to help reduce coal-fired pollution. China has recently removed foreign investment restrictions in a host of industries and services. According to a McKinsey report, China investment opportunities in 2018 include the middle-class consumer market, the digital economy, electric vehicles, the green economy, pharmaceuticals, wealth and asset management, and other financial services.

Last, America’s strongest card is its robust institutions and legacy of moral and ethical values. Although much of this has been squandered by “America First” Trumpism, the reservoir of American soft power remains.

For example, instead of resisting China’s belt and road, the US could participate in some much-needed regional infrastructural projects. This would enable it to set an example in good corporate governance including transparency, accountability and sustainability. An analogy is the China-initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Its membership includes a host of American allies. Its more transparent and inclusive organisation structure and its development of good governance along with the World Bank are instructive.

However, all the above opportunities would be compromised if US-China relations become strained.

China’s ambassador to the US, Cui Tiankai, recently alluded to strategic misjudgment of China in some US quarters. Still beset with a mountain of economic, financial, social and environment obstacles, China has neither the global military capacity nor the geopolitical willingness to displace the US in world leadership.

In a closely knit “global village” facing common challenges including climate change, energy security and terrorism, China’s fate cannot be unbundled from the rest of the world, least of all the US. Hence, President Xi Jinping’s call for abandoning a binary cold-war mindset and forging a “new era for international politics” with a view to building a global “community of common destiny”.

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With major historical, cultural, socio-economic and political differences, China’s choice of development path and its core interests must be respected. Its desire for more regional elbow room and international influence projection must be accommodated.

Fixating on thwarting China’s inevitable rise will not enrich the US. On the contrary, engaging Beijing more constructively would capture the “oil”in China’s rapid development. It would keep America safer and more prosperous. It would also be a smart way of leveraging China’s rise to make America great again.

Andrew K.P. Leung is an international and independent China strategist