Illustration: Craig Stephens
Andrew Leung
Andrew Leung

Seven reasons the US and China should be building more bridges not tearing them down

  • With Beijing unlikely to use military force to take back Taiwan, fears of a US decline overblown and no sign of Beijing’s hegemonic ambition, China’s assertiveness is really a defensive response
  • The US should ditch its policy of maximum confrontation and focus on constructive re-engagement, given the many areas of potential cooperation
The US-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s 539-page report to Congress, released on November 17, frames the perceived “ China threat” as nothing less than a global contest between democracy and authoritarianism, reminiscent of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilisations” thesis on post-Cold-War conflict.
To many China hawks, the threat is more pressing with China expected to become the world’s largest economy by the early 2030s. With midterm elections looming, President Joe Biden might be anxiously wondering how a US policy that Chinese analysts see as “maximum confrontation” can carry on without spiralling into a hot war.
Even as Biden held a virtual meeting with President Xi Jinping, next month’s virtual Summit for Democracy, a thinly-disguised US-led global anti-China coalition, and the potential boycott of the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics, must surely be on his mind.
The obvious flash point is Taiwan, Beijing’s Rubicon. Perhaps emboldened by military assessments that Beijing still lacks the capacity to mount a cross-strait invasion, the United States has been using “ salami slicing” tactics to push Taiwan’s independence, paying lip service to the one-China policy. In this US calculation, Taiwan could become an unsinkable anti-Beijing aircraft carrier.

But maximum confrontation is more an attitude than a strategy. Some clear-headed introspection is in order.


Taiwan deploys its most advanced F-16V fighter jets amid rising military tensions with Beijing

Taiwan deploys its most advanced F-16V fighter jets amid rising military tensions with Beijing
First, the US review commission’s report is apprehensive of the possibility of Beijing’s precipitous action over Taiwan, capitalising on recent nuclear missile capabilities. China has the world’s largest navy, much enhanced anti-access/area denial capacities, and state-of-the-art long-range hypersonic weaponry.
This apprehension is in order. But Xi has repeatedly emphasised that China has strategic patience. Unless provoked, Beijing is unlikely to take back Taiwan by force any time soon, let alone risk a nuclear conflict to try to realise the Chinese dream.
Second, the US report rightly recaptures China’s set of structural problems, including growing debt, income inequality, demographic decline and technological dependence, as well as an increasingly anti-Beijing international environment. China’s ascendancy is by no means assured.

Third, the fear of American decline is overblown. The US still possesses unsurpassed wealth, including high gross domestic product per capita, unique geography, abundant natural resources, positive demographics, advanced productivity, global military supremacy and the privileged dollar. Albeit less able to call the shots, it will remain pre-eminent and much richer than China for the next 50 years or more.

China still has a way to go before it can seriously challenge the US

Fourth, there is no convincing evidence that China would be willing and fully equipped to shoulder America’s responsibilities as world hegemon, not least amid a dearth of countries likely to embrace its ideology. Beijing is more focused on becoming a “strong, democratic, civilised, harmonious and modern socialist country” by 2049, the centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

Fifth, in many ways, China’s assertiveness is a defensive response to perceived security threats including US island chain military encirclement ( Okinawa and Guam), Xinjiang terrorism and separatism, Hong Kong activists’ subversion and separatism and Taiwan’s seeping “independence”.

Sixth, the Communist Party has proven its legitimacy by miraculously transforming the nation’s economy and the lives of Chinese people, which make up a fifth of humanity. It has over 95 per cent support from the people, among the world’s highest, according to a recent Harvard Kennedy School study. As a government, it deserves to be treated at least on an equal footing.


China joins coordinated move to release oil reserves and lower global oil prices

China joins coordinated move to release oil reserves and lower global oil prices

Seventh, America and China have entered a “new normal” of hardening competition amid deep interdependence, according to Ryan Hass of the Brookings Institution. Decoupling from China’s goods is stoking US inflation even as US investments into China continue to increase, and scientific and technological cooperation grow.

To find the right way for both countries to get along, Xi suggested to Biden a three-pronged approach: mutual respect, coexistence and seeking a win-win outcome.

Each side needs to build bridges rather than destroy them. As mutual understanding begets mutual trust, cooperative possibilities grow. Over time, these possibilities could become limitless.


China and US unveil deal to cooperate on cutting emissions, phasing out coal and protecting forests

China and US unveil deal to cooperate on cutting emissions, phasing out coal and protecting forests
Some practical possibilities could include: vaccine development, production and distribution; renewable-energy smart grids; American technologies could exploit China’s vast but geologically challenged shale gas reserves; joint naval patrols in uncontested waters of the South China Sea; selected partnerships with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, with American input in technology, financing and corporate social responsibility.
Other areas of cooperation could be in space, with China’s Tiangong Space Station under construction, similar to US space cooperation with the Soviet Union during the Cold War; enhanced academic, scientific, cultural and archaeological exchanges and cooperation; and, redoubled China-Hollywood cinema co-productions and worldwide distribution.

I call these partnerships “constructive re-engagement” as they would subtly shape China’s positive behaviour.

They should also augur well with the blueprint unveiled at recent sixth plenum for a China 3.0 to materialise by 2035, a nation that would be more innovative, self-reliant, fairer, greener and more open to the world, supported by the new development concept, dual circulation strategy, common prosperity and 14th five-year plan. Both the US and China are likely to end up with better outcomes.


What is China’s 6th plenum and why is it important?

What is China’s 6th plenum and why is it important?
At the Bloomberg New Economy Forum in Singapore on November 17, Henry Kissinger warned that, while the Biden-Xi virtual summit was a good start, US-China relations have moved from the “ foothills of a cold war” to “a precipice from which [ …] it depends which direction is chosen”. He said it was essential that both sides seek to coexist.
I was invited to the US in the summer of 1990 to share my thoughts on China’s future beyond the Tiananmen Square crackdown. As a US-sponsored “international visitor”, I was privileged to be able to talk to Fortune 500 corporate leaders, including a one on one with Steve Forbes.

I was reasonably optimistic then. I would be similarly optimistic now about both nations’ prospects if America is able to move from maximum confrontation to constructive re-engagement.

Andrew K.P. Leung is an independent China strategist. [email protected]