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China-US new cold war can be avoided

Published: August 25, 2019 17:15:40


The China-US trade war, the stagnation and ups and downs of trade negotiations between the two major global powers have gained a lot of attention. I would like to discuss the background and the causes behind the disruption.

US President Donald Trump is a typical transactional leader. He believes that if the US cranks up the pressure, China will yield, because Beijing desperately needs the US market. And Trump is really eager to reach a deal with China as he is currently at a critical point in the 2020 election cycle.

Trump has two strategies to deal with China through trade negotiations. On the one hand, he is tough on China. If China compromises, he can say he is the one that can let voters get what they want. Even if China does not compromise, he can tell the voters that only he can be tougher on China than his predecessors. Trump's extreme pressure on China can be beneficial in both ways.

The trade dispute between China and the US is after all a geopolitical and geostrategic contest. China-US relations are experiencing unprecedented and dramatic changes that have not been seen in the past 40 years since ties were established.

First, previous confrontation and competition between China and the US were mainly at the policy level, but today they are in a contest for their overall national power. The US has seen the rise of Chinese power rather than differing policies a threat.

Second, the Trump administration has changed its engagement policy to disengagement or decoupling in the fields of science and technology, economy, trade, academics and culture when dealing with China.

Third, there were always debates between hawks and doves on the US policy toward China and it had never been monolithic. However, the moderates nowadays are satirized as "panda hugger" and their voice has become increasingly weak in the US.

Fourth, the beneficiaries of China-US relations, including business people, academics, and even some policy researchers, have been an important force in maintaining the stability of China-US relations for many years. But today, few people in the US feel that they can benefit a lot from the relationship between the two countries.

Fifth, separate and specific issues or events were usually the reasons that caused the crises between China and the US, which would not affect China-US relations. But today other issues, such as the Taiwan question and South China Sea issue, have also been involved in the trade war, which cannot be resolved by crisis management of a specific problem or event.

Therefore, there were many ups and downs in the China-US trade war and their relations have entered a long-term confrontation, competition and crisis.

So which party has caused such a stalemate and who should take the responsibility? The answer is both as it takes two to tango.

My former PhD advisor, Professor Susan Shirk, used a topic in a speech, "Overreach and Overreaction," that she thinks China is strategically overreached and overconfident, whereas the US is overreacting.

Therefore, I agree with the phrase "strategic overdraft" used by Shi Yinhong, professor of Renmin University to explain "overreach." Strategic overdraft means that one country's strategic goals cannot be aligned with its national power. China's overconfidence has set tongues wagging for the American hawks.

On the other hand, the US is becoming less and less confident, secure and tolerant. 9/11 attacks and the 2009-10 subprime mortgage crisis hit the US badly and led to an increase in anti-immigrant sentiment. After the two historical strategies, the American society has become extremely divisive, generating democratic dysfunction that the US government cannot reach a compromise on many divisive issues.

So will China and the US end up in a new cold war? There are possibilities that worth paying close attention to.

The first one is geopolitics. After the World War II, the US has always been in a superpower status, but the rise of China has made the geopolitical and geostrategic struggle between the two countries inevitable.

The second is the conflict on ideology and development path. China has achieved great economic success on its own development path. The US, however, sees socialism with Chinese characteristics as an authoritarian system or a threat to its liberal values.

The third is the economic zero-sum conflict. The reason why the US wants to decouple economically with China is because it believes that the two countries share weaker and weaker economic complementarity while their economies are getting increasingly competitive.

So will China and the US slip into the potential new cold war? It is possible but we should try to do our best to avoid the possibility. There are some favorable developments that are helpful.

First, although the competition has intensified, the importance of bilateral relations has not been reduced because the interdependence between China and the US is still strong.

The damage caused by the US-China trade war to both sides is serious. Although the US claimed that it has cut off China's industrial chain and investment is now leaving China, the investment did not return to the US either. The biggest beneficiaries are countries, such as Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Second, the contemporary international environment is different from the one during the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union when countries were distinctively divided into socialist camp and the capitalist camp. Now almost all countries are reluctant to choose to be on only one side and they don't have to make the difficult choice. They have tried to benefit from both sides.

Third, China does not have the ability and willingness to replace the US. China benefits a lot from the existing international order led by the US and has no incentive to change the order. Moreover, while the US hegemony is difficult to maintain, China is pursuing a multipolar world other than a unipolar world dominated by its own.

Fourth, China is constantly developing and changing. Many of the problems inside China raised by the US are actually the ones that China has to face in the course of its development, and they need to be resolved under China's reforms. Nevertheless, when and how to work out those issues is only based on China's own development, not according to the US timetable or in accordance with the US requirements.

Last but not the least, the enemy of China is not the US, and the enemy of the US is not China. Both Chinese and Americans care more about their domestic issues. If each side manages its own affairs well, the conflict between China and the US may be eased or even be avoided.

Therefore, it is possible that China and the US can prevent from falling into the trap of the conflict between big powers, and both of the two countries should strengthen cooperation, understanding and exchanges between them to avoid entering the new cold war."

The article is an abstract of a speech delivered by Zhao Suisheng, professor of Chinese politics and foreign policy at the University of Denver's Josef Korbel School of International Studies, at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing recently.

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