Illustration: Stephen Case
by Andrew Leung
by Andrew Leung

Why the new US ‘China scare’ is big on pressure, short on vision

  • Given how intricately integrated China is into the international economic order, a global anti-Beijing axis of ‘democracies’ is unrealistic. Meanwhile, Chinese people’s satisfaction with their government has only increased
  • More positive outcomes may be achieved by engaging and partnering with China
US China-bashing has turned increasingly muscular across the political aisle. US allies are being cajoled or pressured to fall in line, and China is now targeted as the US’ No 1 existential threat.

Gone are hopes that China could become a “ responsible stakeholder” in a US-led global order. Its alleged trade malpractices, technological and military advances, foreign policy assertiveness, and perceived regime repressiveness, have inflamed a McCarthyist “China scare”.

There is a lurking belief that “communist” China harbours a secret long-term strategy to replace the United States as the global superpower. Accordingly, China must be pushed back across the board, regardless.

For example, the US stripped Hong Kong of its special status, choosing to treat it as no different from mainland China, without waiting to see how the new national security law is implemented.
Another example is the United Kingdom’s flip-flop on Huawei. On June 25, the South Cambridgeshire District Council approved Huawei’s US$1.2 billion Cambridge research centre. Two weeks later, the UK announced that Huawei’s 5G infrastructure must be removed by 2027.

The US apparently hopes to decouple from China and derail its strategic advances on multiple fronts. But such no-holds-barred tactics against China seem strong on pressure, but short on vision, apart from being irrational, ineffective, and counterproductive.

While some strategic decoupling is happening, total disconnection is easier said than done. The UK’s seven-year timespan for decoupling from Huawei’s 5G infrastructure speaks volumes. Apart from the US, which is heavily dependent on pharmaceutical products from China, India imports nearly 70 per cent of the raw materials and active ingredients for drug production from China.

China has become much more fully integrated domestically and less dependent on the Asian regional value chain, which is increasingly dependent on China’s intermediate technology. Meanwhile, the world’s exposure to China has increased as domestic consumption now contributed 76 per cent of China’s economic growth.

Customers shop at a duty-free shop in Haikou, the capital of China’s Hainan province, on July 12. Starting July 1, Hainan has increased its annual tax-free shopping quota from 30,000 yuan (US$4,261) to 100,000 yuan per person each year. Photo: Xinhua
The US decoupling may clip China’s wings somewhat, but at the cost of massive dislocation of intricately-woven, interdependent global supply and value chains, hurting virtually all countries, including the US. It is also hardening China’s determination to fast-track self-reliance in cutting-edge technologies.

Meanwhile, China has become the largest trading partner for 124 countries, compared to 56 for the US. While some are hedging against China’s ascendancy, the vast majority do not want to choose between China and the US. The idea of forming a global anti-Beijing axis of “democracies” doesn’t appear realistic.

Asian states face stark choice in threat of China-US military clash

As for the South China Sea, it is vital to China’s international trade and access to essential commodities. It is in China interest to keep it free and open while vehemently defending its security.

Nevertheless, in the face of US-navy controlled “island chains” and “choke points”, including the Malacca Strait, China has pivoted towards Belt and Road linkages across Eurasia to energy supply destinations in Russia, Central Asia and the Middle East.

A major prong of US pushback seems to be demonising, delegitimising and hopefully toppling the Chinese Communist Party. This, however, is a serious misreading of China.

According to a July 2020 Harvard Kennedy School survey, support for the party has only increased since 2003. Rising social protests are virtually all about local issues. There is no mileage for any alternative form of government.

With memories of China’s “century of humiliation”, no-holds-barred bullying is only succeeding in rallying Chinese people’s support for the party. The Chinese people are mindful of the country’s achievements and how their lives have changed for the better. Watching Western democracies, they are not persuaded that copying them is the only route to regime legitimacy.

Why the ‘US good, China evil’ view misses the mark in the real world

China was the first to recover from the coronavirus pandemic. Comparing management of the pandemic, including preservation of human lives, the Chinese people regard their government as no less, if not more, legitimate than Western democracies, particularly the US.

The International Monetary Fund expects China to register 1 per cent growth this year and 8.2 per cent next year. The US and the European Union are expected to contract by 8 per cent and 10.2 per cent respectively.


Chinese respiratory disease expert Zhong Nanshan criticises US’ Covid-19 response

Chinese respiratory disease expert Zhong Nanshan criticises US’ Covid-19 response

Robin Wright in an op-ed column in The New Yorker on July 29 explains why “Trump will never win his new Cold War with China”. China is no USSR. It is the second-largest economy, intricately woven with the world economically.

China remains unable and unwilling to shoulder the responsibility of displacing the US as global leader. Nor would the world be prepared to emulate China’s communist ideology. Nevertheless, China considers it only right to work towards realising its “ Chinese dream” of “renaissance” as a “great power”, bettering the lives of its people.

As frenzied China-bashing seems irrational, ineffective, counterproductive and lacking a viable endgame, why is the US pursuing it? The US seems to be in denial that a Communist Party government of an alien civilisation, however successful, could play a prominent role in a US-led liberal world order.

Close Uygur camps, dial back ‘wolf warriors’: how China can win support

Overcoming this denial calls for fresh thinking. Coupled with principled pushback, more positive outcomes may be achieved by engaging and partnering with China. Jointly, international trade could be better managed. Global institutions including the World Trade Organisation, World Health Organisation, IMF and the World Bank could be overhauled. Cooperation could tackle cybersecurity, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, climate change and space exploration.

The South China Sea could become calmer through joint management of natural resources. The Taiwan Strait could be stabilised through cooperative trade, investment, scientific and research and civic exchange. China’s society could become more open and liberal as a result.


Washington’s hardened position on Beijing’s claims in South China Sea heightens US-China tensions

Washington’s hardened position on Beijing’s claims in South China Sea heightens US-China tensions
A Brookings Institution study in April argues that “If we are to prevail, we must compete rather than contain China.” It underscores the imperative of geo-economic competition in game-changing technologies like 5G and quantum computing.
It advocates federal investment in basic research and development and the nurturing of human capital in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). This suggests that American educational and research institutions should be more receptive, rather than restrictive, to top talent from China.

An intensifying all-out cold war with China benefits no one. After all, maximum pressure is no substitute for achievable vision.

Andrew K.P. Leung is an independent China strategist