By Dr. Tao Peng
The key problem that makes the tension between the United States and China, or the East and the West, intensified and difficult to ease is the lack of sufficient will and ability on both sides to establish and maintain a set of international behavior rules and order that all parties (at least) basically agree on. In this regard, both the United States and their allies, and China are resistant to meeting each other halfway, as well as unwilling to change their own policies and adapt to each other's behaviors and habits.
The current US-China relationship is actually a relationship characterized by confrontation. The space for communication and cooperation between the two sides is getting smaller and smaller, and the possibility of military conflict due to misjudgment and uncompromising behavior is unprecedentedly high. In the face of the U.S. containment strategy, Beijing has adopted tit-for-tat countermeasures, which has caused the U.S.-China confrontational relationship to spiral upward, leaving little room for maneuver. Faced with this dangerous situation, neither the United States nor China is willing or able to find a suitable solution to untangle and get rid of the crise. Washington has adopted a strategy to comprehensively contain China's rise and catching up with the United States in order to maintain its world hegemony in economic, technological, military and other fields. In an atmosphere where China is unwilling to change/reform its political system and the United States is unwilling to admit defeat (in competition), the U.S.-China relationship has no bright future in competition and confrontation, but only a life-and-death Thucydides trap.
How to get out and avoid falling into this trap? What plans and solutions are more conducive to easing and alleviating the escalating confrontation between the United States and China? Why is the model of “compete, collaborate and confront as needed” among major powers unsustain able?
The U.S. and China fall into the strategic trap of confrontation
The current American strategy toward China has three main points, as U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said: “Our relationship with China will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be. The common denominator is the need to engage China from a position of strength“. These three points are contradictory and cannot work at the same time. Because "cooperation" and "confrontation" are two incompatible behaviors. In an atmosphere of confrontation, cooperation cannot be effectively implemented.
Regardless of logic or experience, it is impossible to establish and maintain a relationship of "cooperate while fighting" between two parties at the same time. From a conceptual point of view, "confrontation" means “a life-and-death struggle”. It does not allow the slightest room for compromise, and there is no possibility of cooperation. Just imagine, will two people who hate each other and are beating each other think about the common interests of both parties at this moment? This kind of "cooperate while fighting" strategy is a naive, speculative and unrealistic plan, and it will not achieve the desired result of the decision maker in the end. The problem is that it not only defeats the opponent, but also forces the opponent to "cooperate" with itself.
For example: due to the escalation of confrontation between the United States and China, the only climate negotiation between the two countries with a large space for global cooperation has been seriously hindered.
In August 2022, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, visited Taiwan under the strong opposition of the Chinese government, which caused China to suspend the Sino-U.S. climate change negotiations and put the work of the China-U.S. Climate Working Group on hold.
Qin Gang, the former Chinese ambassador to the United States at the time, said: To restart cooperation, the United States should seriously reflect on its actions on the Taiwan issue and refrain from taking any actions that would lead to escalation of tension. The countermeasures taken by the Chinese government also include launching the "Siege of Taiwan" military exercise, canceling the phone call between the leaders of the Chinese and American military theaters, the Sino-U.S. Defense Ministry working meeting and the Sino-U.S. Maritime Military Security Consultation Mechanism meeting, and suspending the Illegal immigration repatriation cooperation, Sino-U.S. cooperation in criminal judicial assistance, Sino-U.S. cooperation in combating transnational crimes, and Sino-U.S. cooperation in drug control.
In the geopolitical competition between great powers with different rules and values, only a clear and well-defined strategy can effectively achieve its goals: either adopt a full-scale confrontation strategy without fear of losing major economic interests, or put aside of ideological conflicts and various differences between each other and seek the symbiosis opportunity of "harmony but not uniformity". That kind of speculative strategy that needs both gaining benefits and saving face will not work.
In fact, judging from the current situation of Sino-U.S. tension and mutual intransigence, the U.S. strategy toward China, which is characterized by confrontation, has made basic cooperation and communication between the U.S. and China "difficult."
Although there may be a certain space for the strategy of "collaborate while competing" between competing opponents, at least one prerequisite must be met, namely: both competitors must compete "fairly" under the same rules and order. In addition, the competing parties cannot see each other as adversaries and mortal dangers. At present, the United States requires China to deal with the West in accordance with Washington's rules and order, but China is unwilling to follow the baton of the United States and wants to compete with the United States according to another set of rules and order. In the situation where two different orders coexist, it is impossible for China and the United States to have a common or similar behavior, and it is difficult to get rid of the situation of confrontation. Nor does world history give a similar paradigm. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were not affiliated with each other and did not operate under the same rules. Therefore, they competed against each other and there was no possibility of cooperation. This is a historical example.
Taking the current situation of Sino-U.S. relations in recent years as an example, China has not seriously cooperated with the United States since the United States launched a trade war against China during the Trump presidency and regarded China as the most dangerous opponent. Especially since the Biden administration has implemented the above-mentioned strategy of "compete, collaborate and confront as needed", Beijing has refused to seriously cooperate with the United States in almost all fields.
Not only that, but Washington's demand for high-level dialogue with Beijing has not received the response it deserves. The reason is obvious: the United States has imposed comprehensive sanctions and suppression on China in the fields of trade, technology, finance, and military affairs, and Washington regards China as the most dangerous opponent of the United States. This makes it impossible for Beijing to maintain a cooperative and normal communication relationship with Washington.
As Beijing complains, it is impossible for China to accept the United States' practice of besieging and suppressing China while demanding the establishment of "guardrails" to avoid conflict. According to Beijing's parlance, this is the kind of double-dealing approach of "say one thing and do another."
There can be no confrontation if the two countries are going to cooperate, and they cannot cooperate if they are going to confront each other. This is a realistic portrayal of the current tit-for-tat tense and inability to communicate normally in Sino-U.S. relations.
From Beijing's point of view, the containment strategy adopted by the United States against China is essentially just a kind of "vicious competition" and a “straight-ball-duel confrontation" strategy. Under this, there is little willingness and space for win-win cooperation. If this mode of confrontation does not change, serious conflicts and even wars between the United States and China are bound to break out, such as in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger believed that the current level of danger in Sino-U.S. relations is very similar to the trend of mutual intransigence among European powers before World War I. The confrontation between China and the United States may finally be resolved by a war. In an interview with the media, Kissinger warned that China and the United States have embarked on a path of conflict, and a nuclear war may break out between the two countries. The conflict in Taiwan could escalate in ways beyond anyone's control. Kissinger emphasized that China and the United States must change the current trajectory of their relations. The two countries are “standing on the top of a precipice”, and both sides should take a step back from the confrontation.
Judging from the current situation of U.S.-China relations, the possibility of a better relationship between the two countries is far less than the chance of a bad one. Because Washington is unwilling to give up its strategy of containing and suppressing China, and Beijing will not accept the so-called "bullying" and "coercion" of the United States. Neither side will make substantive concessions to the other in areas they deem critical. Therefore, the relationship between China and the United States will only get worse and worse, and it is difficult to make any major changes.
Although China-U.S. relations have recently turned diplomatically, for example, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken successfully visited China from June 18 to 19 and was met by Xi Jinping. However, the situation of tension and confrontation between the United States and China has not been substantially changed. After the meeting, the two sides still talked past each other without any substantial concessions. On June 20, at a presidential campaign fundraiser in California, U.S. President Joe Biden compared Chinese President Xi Jinping to a "dictator." His statement triggered a sharp counterattack from the Chinese side. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Mao Ning called it an "open political provocation". However, the U.S. has not retracted the comments. Vedant Patel, principal deputy spokesperson for the State Department, said on June 21 that President Biden's remarks comparing Xi Jinping to a dictator should not be surprising. "We won't hesitate to call out areas where we disagree or to be blunt and forthright”, he told reporters. "One of those areas that the president and the secretary have been clear about is the differences between democracies and autocracies”. Biden and the U.S. State Department’s remarks have created another turmoil in U.S.-China relations.
Following Blinken's visit to China, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen also visited China from July 6 to 9. During the visit, she emphasized that Washington does not seek to "decouple" from the Chinese economy, because this is disastrous for both countries and will also destabilize the world. But her emphasis on not seeking "decoupling" with China does not prevent her from insisting on "de-risking" and "reducing dependence" in dealing with China. However, Yellen also stated in her public speech that due to national security considerations, the United States has to impose restrictions on the export of high-tech products to China's advanced technology companies.
Beijing believes that she is "trying to rationalize and justify the actions of the U.S. side", and China will not agree to such an approach. The Chinese side clearly pointed out that generalizing national security is not conducive to normal economic and trade exchanges. This shows that the differences between the two sides on this issue are still sharp, and they still insist on their own positions. Some Chinese analysts said: "If the United States does not make substantial improvements in this area, the improvement in the atmosphere and the 4-day visit may become a waste of time."
In response to U.S. restrictions (such as Japan and the Netherlands implementing export controls on Chinese semiconductor equipment in cooperation with U.S. policies), China announced restrictions on the export of rare metal raw materials such as germanium and gallium during Yellen’s visit to China. This caused a strong backlash from the United States and Western countries, which said that they would launch corresponding countermeasures. The confrontational restrictive behavior between the United States and China in the fields of economy and trade, high technology, and raw materials has not stopped and slowed down because of the resumption of high-level contacts between the United States and China. On the contrary, there are signs of continuous escalation.
If both China and the United States continue to adhere to their confrontational and uncompromising strategies, that is, if China does not change its authoritarian regime model and meet the West, and the United States does not allow China to surpass and become stronger than itself, Sino-.US. relations will eventually be hostile. It is impossible for the two countries to cooperate in a true sense, and "symbiosis" in competition will become very awkward and uncomfortable. The United States' attempts to "engage with China in a diplomatic and responsible manner to manage tensions, eliminate misunderstandings, and avoid miscalculations" will not be effective. In this situation characterized by confrontation, it is not ruled out that China and the United States will eventually decide to determine who wins and who loses (that is, who replaces whom) in the form of war. The outbreak and outcome of World War I and World War II are two historical precedents.
How can the US and the West change China? (Do the U.S. and China have an option to get out of the strategic trap?)
This leads to the following question, that is, how can the United States and Western countries change China? From the perspective of historical experience, there are two completely different models for the West to change China: 1. engaging with China in a confrontational manner, that is, the West hinders China’s development and deepens internal conflicts in the CCP through confrontation and blockade, which in turn leads to social unrest and the collapse of the Chinese Communist regime. It's like Cold War mode. 2. Contact-based communication, that is, while competing, continue to adopt communication, contact, and "cooperative symbiosis" methods to gradually assimilate Chinese society and urge it to change its political model. This is like the pattern of U.S.-China relations from 2001 to 2017.
The result of the first method will largely be determined by the outcome of the war. The second method requires a long time and the self-confidence and will of the West to persist in its implementation. The latter option usually ends in a "peaceful transition". There are historical precedents to follow, such as democratic transitions after the third wave of democratization in southern Europe in the mid-1970s, and the drastic changes and democratic transitions in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe from 1989 to 1991. However, at present, the second option is not the first choice of both the ruling and opposition parties in the United States, and European allies are also losing confidence in changing China in peaceful ways (such as color revolutions). Preventing and defending against China's threat is becoming the strategic basis for Western countries to deal with China.
Members of the Western democratic world, especially the political circles in the United States, generally believe that the engagement policy with China over the past three decades has "declared failure", so they have begun to consider decoupling and confrontational methods to compete with China. This is a manifestation of the West's loss of full confidence in its own system and value (soft power) advantages. The West even believes that the authoritarian culture and value chain of the East is eroding and weakening the Western value system based on democracy and human rights.
Not only that, the hard power (such as economic and defense strength) of the United States and Western countries has also been challenged by Eastern authoritarian countries represented by China, making the global geopolitical center of gravity and pattern begin to tilt to the East. This trend, which Beijing calls "rising in the east and falling in the west", has caused strategic anxiety in the United States and the West. They worry that their dominant position in the world will be replaced by China, and the Western way of life and system will be eroded and damaged by authoritarianism.
Therefore, the United States and Western countries are in a dilemma: China cannot be changed from the outside, nor can it be changed from the inside. From the perspective of market interests, the West cannot fully confront China. It can neither change China's political system, nor is it able or willing to engage in direct confrontation, complete decoupling, or even military confrontation with China.
The most fundamental reason for the rapid decline in the relationship between the United States and China lies in the huge differences and conflicts between the two sides in terms of institutional models, strategic goals, and value demands. The continuous deepening of China's political autocracy and its increasing aggressiveness abroad have caused serious strategic anxiety and distrust of Beijing in the United States and the Western world.
Under the circumstance that the United States and China are unable or unwilling to adjust or change their strategic goals and value appeals, the outcome of their game depends on how the relative strength of the two parties will go up or down. If China and the U.S. (including the West) could maintain an evenly matched situation in terms of strength (that is, neither side could beat the other), the two have to communicate with each other, possess the ability to cooperate under the rules and framework of the United Nations, and are able to effectively deal with the differences and conflicts between the two sides, then the United States and China can co-exist while maintaining a relationship of competition and partial cooperation.
But this needs to meet a prerequisite, that is: the two sides do not take eating each other as their strategic goal and have the willingness and ability to manage and control the contradictions and conflicts that exist between them.
Whether China and the West can avoid direct conflicts and wars and survive together in the future depends on whether China can continue to be strong in the game with the United States, and Whether the world order dominated by the United States and the West will not be eroded or even replaced by the "Beijing model" in the competition with China.
The crux of the problem and the solution
The question left by the United States and the West is: Does the West still have enough confidence in the superiority of the universal values ??it adheres to? Is the strategy of abandoning or once again refusing to engage and interact with an authoritarian state like China a manifestation of Western countries losing confidence in their own values ??and soft power? This is a question of how the geopolitical landscape of the East and the West will change. If the West loses confidence in its own soft power, it means that it believes that its soft power is no match for the confrontation of Eastern autocratic values ??in the context of market globalization.
The fact and the reason are that in the process of globalization of the industrial chain and supply chain, the hard power of the United States and Western countries has been weakened and challenged by the growth of China's power and influence. The decline in overall competitiveness and influence has forced Western countries to be strategically anxious about the continued rise of China's power. Especially after the three-year COVID-19 spread and the outbreak of the Russo-Ukraine War, the United States and the Western world have a serious sense of crisis over the dependence of eastern authoritarian regimes such as China (including Russia) on resources and key product supply chains, and they have strengthened and expanded Its restrictions and precautions against China. From the perspective of geopolitical competition, the security anxiety and measures taken by the United States and Western countries to "de-risk" and reduce dependence are understandable, because the Western democratic world is unwilling to lose its dominance in defining world order and rules. However, it is not a long-term and wise strategy to give up efforts to influence and change China's social politics through contacts and exchanges. Because, the coping strategy based on repression and decoupling is not only impossible to play a positive role in the change of Chinese politics, but also will increase the distance and resistance of the Chinese ruling and opposition parties to the United States and the West, thereby reducing and blocking the channels for China to accept Western values and lifestyles.
Therefore, the question worthy of prudent and rational consideration by the United States and Western democracies is: Which strategic plan is more conducive to the maintenance of their own rules and more in line with the reality of the globalization process? Is it to promote a confrontational Cold War model or a post-Cold War program characterized by normal contact and relatively fair competition? Should the United States and the West adopt a strategy based on the long-term goal of changing China, or a strategy based on short-term geopolitical interests?
Judging from the current Sino-Western relations characterized by conflicts, the US and Western countries' strategies toward China are not fully mature and in line with their long-term interests. The United States and the Western world must re-examine and consider the decoupling and confrontation-based strategy toward China that they are keen to implement, so as to prevent Sino-Western relations from repeating the history of complete hostility and confrontation between Russia and Western countries.
The consequences of the Russia-Ukraine war have brought serious damage and challenges to the international community, including Western countries. If the United States and its allies and China also fall into a predicament similar to the “straight ball duel” confrontation between the West and Russia, it will bring far greater and more serious disasters to the world economy and security than the Russian-Ukrainian war.
Therefore, it is particularly important to establish and abide by the most basic rules and orders recognized by both the East and the West. This is the only magic weapon to avoid and weaken the confrontation and even the escalation of wars caused by geopolitical competition and ideological differences among major powers.
Disputes and conflicts between the East and the West (including within Western countries) in the fields of economy, trade, technology, and security are all due to the fact that each party only acts according to its own rules and principles, instead of dealing with disputes and conflicts arising in bilateral and multilateral relations in accordance with international law and the rules under the framework of the United Nations.
Tao Peng earned master's and doctoral degrees in political science from the University of Münster, Germany, and works as an independent political analyst and senior columnist.