Once again, China and the US take their rivalry into the realms of ideology

Cary Huang says the US-led West is coming to the realisation that communist China is not developing into a liberal democracy as it had expected, and the rise of an authoritarian state is a challenge it must meet head-on

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 April, 2018, 1:27pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 April, 2018, 8:34pm

On the surface, the ongoing trade dispute between the United States and China is all about economics and business.

But underpinning the conflict – which looks to be of uncertain escalation and duration – lies a more consequential struggle over ideology and global security. It pits the world’s leading free economy against the leading example of state-directed capitalism; the world’s leading liberal democracy against its last major communist-ruled state.

In fact, a host of bilateral disputes has been simmering in the five years since China’s strongman leader Xi Jinping came to power. Under Xi, China has moved away from Deng Xiaoping’s “low-key” diplomacy and embraced a high-profile and increasingly assertive diplomatic and defence policy, in an effort to compete for global leadership. 

That was why former US president Barack Obama, in his second term, reshaped US policy with his “pivot to Asia” and the now abandoned Trans-Pacific Partnership, as two main tools to contain what America sees as China’s wild rise. 

What would Chinese hegemony look like? A lot like US leadership

For years since Richard Nixon’s overture, the US-China relationship has been built on the pursuit of shared interests and a belief that an engagement policy would inevitably help China evolve, as a result of its embrace of global capitalism and the consequent greater interaction with the international community. Relations were also built on the confidence that China’s rising power would be moderated by perpetual American superiority and primacy in many areas.

However, the US, and others in the West, are getting increasingly uneasy about China’s political development and the nature of Chinese influence abroad. Ideology once again defines the terms of the US-China relationship.

Just how did Xi and Putin put strongman politics back on the map?

Washington sees China’s recent developments as a major political setback in the one-party authoritarian state, as Beijing began to embrace some elements of orthodox Leninist-Stalinist philosophy and Maoist politics. This is seen in its intensified crackdown on dissent, its suppression of freedommore draconian censorship on the internet and social media, and tighter social control in recent years. 

Externally, China is challenging an established global order of governance built on the Bretton Woods institutions and led by the US. For instance, Xi’s brainchild, the “Belt and Road Initiative”, will build a China-centred communication and trade network that will connect China by infrastructural links to more than 65 per cent of the world’s population. 

Beijing has also become increasingly assertive in its foreign and defence policy, whether on Taiwan or territorial and maritime disputes with its neighbours. Xi has called on China to become a nation of global influence by 2050.

China is also promoting its development model as a substitute to the Western model. With its success in lifting masses of people out of poverty faster than any other society in history, the Chinese development model is being touted as a new option for other countries.

Opinion: Xi Jinping creates alternative to the West through his reform plan

To be sure, China is a long way from overtaking the US economically, militarily, diplomatically and politically, in view of US superiority and primacy in the areas of science, technology, education, culture and soft power.

But China’s recent developments have convinced policymakers in Washington that they are witnessing the revival of a new Soviet empire in the cold-war era, which should be contained before it is too late. Joseph Nye, the Harvard Kennedy School political scientist who coined the term “soft power”, has begun to describe Chinese global influence as “sharp power”, and says “we must resist it”.

Beijing blasts critics who ‘smear China’ with the term sharp power

Kurt Campbell, Obama’s top China expert, in a lengthy paper he co-authored titled “The China Reckoning”, concluded that America’s nearly half a century of China policy since Nixon has failed.

For these reasons, President Donald Trump recently redefined Washington’s China policy to label the Middle Kingdom a strategic rival, which, like a rogue regime or terrorist organ, seeks to undermine the “US economy, interests and values”.

Thus, the ongoing trade dispute is just one episode in a long-running contest between the world’s key economic rivals and political adversaries, in a seemingly new cold-war era.

Cary Huang is a senior writer at the Post