America and China must manage their rivalry or risk disaster


Building trust will be at the centre of that process

May 16th 2019Print edition | Special report

ASK AMERICAN experts how a great-power competition with China might end well, and their best-case scenarios are strikingly similar. They describe a near future in which China overreaches and stumbles. They imagine a China chastened by slowing growth at home and a backlash to its assertive ways overseas. That China, they hope, might look again at the global order and seek a leading role in it, rather than its remaking.

Chinese experts also sound alike when explaining their own best-case scenario. Put crudely, it is for America to get over itself. More politely, Chinese voices express hopes that in a decade or so America will learn the humility to accept China as an equal, and the wisdom to avoid provoking China in its Asian backyard.

It is sobering that none of these experts predicts a future in which America and China both feel like winners. That should give all sides pause. The original cold war with the Soviet Union ended with an American victory. In a new Sino-American cold war, both countries could lose.

Evan Medeiros, formerly Barack Obama’s top Asia adviser, worries that China is focused on Mr Trump’s disruptive diplomacy and narrow interest in trade. Mr Medeiros, now at Georgetown University, hears a lack of understanding about how America’s mood has changed. The Chinese “are focused on the cyclical, I don’t think they have internalised the structural,” he says.

A long engagement

As for America, it needs to remember that engagement with China was not an act of charity. It has become fashionable to mock as naive the Americans who advocated engagement with China as it opened to the world. In fact, many were hard-headed realists. The US-China Dialogue Podcast, an oral-history project at Georgetown University, is interviewing veterans from 40 years of diplomatic relations. It offers an instructive reminder of how fragile and dangerous China was not long ago. In one recording Jeffrey Bader, a former principal adviser to Mr Obama on Asia policy, now at the Brookings Institution, recalls how in 1980s no issue occupied America more than China’s willingness to provide nuclear-weapons secrets to Pakistan and ballistic-missile designs to “every rogue regime in the Middle East”. After years of high-level pressure, China is now a foe of nuclear proliferation. After the brutal suppression of student-led demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in June 1989, America kept trade ties open, not in hopes of a kindlier China, Mr Bader notes, but for fear that it might slip back into the xenophobic autarky of the Mao years.

America needs to think hard about what it wants from China. Some in Washington call continued Communist Party rule an insuperable barrier to trust. Unless they see the party being overthrown soon, it is wiser to focus on Chinese behaviour. As Oriana Skylar Mastro of Georgetown University says: “If we make it about the nature of China itself, we give them no exit.”

America must avoid traps. If Chinese strategists believe what they say—that America is tired and ready to retreat—the next step is predictable. China will offer America a superficially easy life in which China is granted a sphere of influence in the western Pacific Ocean, and America settles into inward-looking decline.

There is a cold logic to isolationism, concedes Ms Mastro, though she opposes it. If America is willing to accept a world in which it no longer stands by Asian allies, then “there are no other points of military contention between China and the United States.” The price would be high: a demonstration that America feels bound neither by treaty commitments to allies nor its values.

Not long ago America and China defused crises by promising to expand commerce. It is too late for that. David Dollar of the Brookings Institution, a think-tank, represented the Treasury in Beijing. He recalls President Xi Jinping telling visiting Americans that “the economic relationship is the foundation of our relationship.” Mr Dollar demurs. Several Western allies, such as Germany, are more deeply bound to China by direct exchanges than America is. Among destinations for American foreign direct investment, China ranks seventh. A stronger case for engagement involves the unique capability of America and China to provide global public goods, such as policies to tackle climate change, he says.

Henry Paulson, the former treasury secretary, urges China and America to agree on tangible projects that their publics can see, from environmental schemes to greenfield investments that create new jobs: “To build trust it is important to get some wins.”

This report has explored many obstacles to trust. China is a curious sort of superpower: admired for its achievements but lacking real friends. At best it turns other countries into clients, drawn by its money, technology and markets. China is not to be blamed for becoming very large. But it is too big to maintain the self-interested, opportunistic, cynical worldview that helped it to rise. If it does not change, it could break globalisation, splintering world markets into Chinese- and American-led camps. In the South China Sea and other near waters, China’s assertive nationalism is raising the chances of an accidental clash with American planes or ships to a level too high for comfort. And China has built a racist police state in its north-western region of Xinjiang, locking perhaps a million Muslim Uighurs in “re-education camps” and subjecting millions more to oppressive high-tech surveillance. That will become an ever larger drag on its reputation, especially if China exports that techno-authoritarian model to other places.

America, too, has a lot to lose. Its leaders are succumbing to a crisis of confidence that risks proving scornful Chinese critics right. To compete with China, America must invest in its future, with funds for public education and high-level science, and sensible immigration policies to attract talent. Abroad, it means rebuilding frayed alliances, and remembering that other Western nations do not want to choose between China and America. No rules exist for this great-power competition. Modern history has not seen such ideological rivalry between two giant trade partners. Agreeing how to make that contest safe and constructive will be hard. But this century’s peace and prosperity depend on it.

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