The coronavirus crisis has killed more than 2,200 people, virtually all of them in China. Fears that the virus will metastasize to countries incapable of containing it, and knock the wind out of a bustling world economy in the process, have gone far in ensuring that the crisis remains the world’s Big Story this February.
While Chinese social media shows widespread fear, grief, and anger at the Communist Party in Beijing for its inept handling of the crisis, and for punishing journalists and ordinary citizens for “spreading rumors,” i.e., the truth, party leader Xi Jinping has called on officials within the nation’s powerful propaganda apparatus to “strengthen the guidance of public opinion.”
The Chinese Communist Party’s firm determination to shape the narrative of important events for its own people, and for the world, is at the heart of another story with the potential to make the coronavirus crisis seem like small potatoes: the simmering rivalry between China and the United States for geopolitical dominance of Asia and the Pacific. Defense and foreign policy analysts are increasingly concerned that that a misstep by one party or the other in the seas off Taiwan, or on the South China Sea, might trigger a shooting war.
They worry that the Chinese party leadership’s abidingly negative views of the United States, and its emerging strategy for dealing with the China’s rise, could lead to a military clash that neither side wants. If mutual understanding plays a role in preventing great power competition from sliding into war—and of course it does—then understanding China’s views of its strategic rival is crucially important.
To say that Chinese policymakers, military officers, and academics take a dim view of America is a colossal understatement. A close examination of recent speeches and writing about the United States by such authorities reveals a clear consensus: America is not merely a strategic rival. America is an adversary. America is not to be trusted.
And it’s a dangerous adversary, because it’s bent on preventing China from taking its rightful place in world affairs and preserving America’s “provocative” military dominance of Asia.
Cynicism about the United States runs very deep among China’s elite, and a massive domestic propaganda campaign concerning American intentions has greatly eaten away at the generally favorable opinions most ordinary Chinese once held about the United States.
As Beijing sees it, American foreign policy since World War II has been invariably self-serving and exploitative, not only toward China, but toward the entire developing world. Even America’s post-Cold War policy of engagement and openness toward Beijing, which has contributed significantly to China’s astonishing economic rise, is interpreted by Chinese political leaders and scholars as having served first and foremost the interests of Washington.
America’s international support for human rights in Hong Kong and within the PRC, claims leading Chinese Communist Party member Li Quiu, is little more than a “pretext to influence and limit China’s healthy economic grown and prevent China’s wealth and power from threatening American hegemony.”
Official statements intended for the outside world call attention again and again to China’s peaceful intentions and respect for order in pursuing a more assertive foreign policy. In fact, though, Chinese military and political leaders have been flagrantly violating the rules-based international order on a regular basis since 2012, intimidating and coercing neighboring powers with economic blackmail and military intimidation.
In July 2016, an independent arbitration tribunal established under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) published a clear and binding ruling against China’s claims vis-à-vis the Philippines in the South China Sea. China’s response at the time was to dismiss the ruling as “nothing more than a piece of waste paper.”
The current international system, according to the senior leadership of the Communist Party, is rigged in favor of the United States and her closest allies. “One of the things that fascinated me about the Chinese,” writes the former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Army General Martin Dempsey, “is that whenever I would have a conversation about international standards or international rules of behavior, they would inevitably point out that those rules were made when they were absent from the world stage.”
Now that China is indisputably back on that stage, President Xi Jinping and his senior colleagues have allocated trillions of dollars to create alternative international institutions and rules to those of the current system. The China Development Bank, not the World Bank, is now the leading financier of international development projects. China’s Belt and Road Initiative, an ambitious effort to link the economies and cultures of more than 60 countries in Asia, Europe, and North Africa with fast trains, state of the art airports, fiber optics, and favorable trading terms, is already roughly 12 times the size of America’s post-World War II Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Europe. It’s sure to continue to grow for quite some time.
Taken together, said Xi Jinping in a recent speech, these initiatives offer “a new option for other countries who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence.”
Yuan Peng, a leading PRC expert on international relations, believes China must now seize the opportunity to “modify unreasonable international mechanisms… including international or regional organizations, regimes, and laws” to reflect Beijing’s increasingly influential place in world affairs.
Writing in Debating China, a fascinating anthology of short essays on various aspects of the U.S.-China relationship by American and Chinese experts, Wu Xinbo asserts that the great threat to stability and prosperity in Asia is not China’s refusal to play by the rules, but America’s current effort to strengthen its alliances in the region and sell sophisticated weaponry to Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, among others. If the United States truly wants peace, writes Wu, it should stop “fanning the flames of dispute in the South China Sea.”
Ironically, China’s seizure and subsequent militarization of seven small islands in that Sea has greatly alarmed many of its neighbors, causing them to seek reassurances and closer ties to the Washington.
“China doesn’t like the U.S. self-proclaimed leadership [in Asia],” opines Wu Xinbo, “which compromises the aspirations of other regional members … Beijing also suspects that Washington’s intended role of balancer serves only to check a rising China, undermining its legitimate interests in the region.” America, he says, should strive to be a partner rather than the dominant military power.
In July 2019, Beijing issued its first major statement on military strategy since 2015. China’s National Defense in the New Era is clearly a rejoinder to Washington’s 2017 National Security Strategy, which identifies China’s new, aggressive foreign policy and rapid military buildup as the foremost threat to American national interests and stability in Asia. The new Beijing white paper turns that critique on its head, identifying the United States as the rogue nation:
The US has… provoked and intensified competition among major countries, significantly increased its defense expenditure, pushed for additional capacity in Nuclear, outer space, cyber and missile defense, and undermined global strategic stability … The US is strengthening its Asia-Pacific military alliances and reinforcing military deployment and intervention, adding complexity to regional security. The deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in the Republic of Korea by the US has severely undermined the regional strategic balance and the strategic security interests of regional countries.
In a recent speech clearly meant to be heard loud and clear in Washington, Xi Jinping seemed to suggest that the United States, which has guaranteed the freedom of the seas in Asia for more than 70 years and played a key role in China’s rise, ought to pull up stakes and get out of Asian affairs all together: “In the final analysis, it is for the people of Asia to run the affairs of Asia, solve the problems of Asia, and uphold the security of Asia.”
When Graham Allison, a Harvard professor who recently penned a bestselling book on the U.S.-China relationship called Destined for War, asked a Chinese colleague what China’s “essential message” for the United States was, he proffered this reply: “butt out!”
What seems to gall Beijing more than any other single issue between the two great powers is the Trump administration’s refusal to “butt out” of Taiwan. The depth of the PRC’s desire to unite Taiwan with the mainland is hard to overstate. Beijing blames the United States for preserving the island’s political independence by selling large quantities of sophisticated weapons systems, and committing itself, albeit ambiguously, to defending the island in the event of any attempt by China to take it by force.
Indeed, President Donald Trump has gone out of his way to express solidarity with Taiwan’s democracy of 23 million people, the vast majority of whom would rather be dead than come under Beijing’s control. George W. Bush and Barack Obama refused to sell F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan for fear of upsetting Beijing. Trump approved the sale of 66 aircraft to Taiwan’s air force.
In March 2018, Trump signed into law the Taiwan Travel Act, a bill that gives the administration the legal right to shift U.S. policy toward Taiwan in a way that was guaranteed to stick in Xi Jinping’s craw. The legislation permits U.S. government officials at all levels to travel to Taiwan and to meet with their Taiwanese counterparts, while high-level Taiwanese officials are permitted to enter the United States “to meet with U.S. officials, including officials from the Departments of State and Defense.”
Beijing is infuriated by American “interference” in what it sees as an entirely internal matter. The island’s continued independence, writes Jia Qingguo of Peking University in Debating China, “is an enduring symbol of China’s weakness and humiliation… Unifying the country has become a most cherished aspiration of the Chinese people.”
The July 2019 defense white paper delves deeply into the Taiwan problem, expressing great impatience with Washington about the issue, and goes on to confirm that Beijing stands ready to use force if necessary and hints that it may do so in the not-too-distant future.
Which brings us back to Allison’s book, Destined for War. The professor examined no less than 14 cases in history when a rising power challenged a dominant state or states. Alarmingly, in 10 of the 14 cases, major wars resulted, including the two most costly wars in human history, when a rising Germany was defeated by great powers twice in the 20th century, and a rising Japan was crushed by the United States in the Pacific in 1945.
Historically speaking, then, strategic rivals have had a difficult time escaping “Thucydides’ Trap”—the phenomenon first identified by the Greek fifth century BC historian who wrote, “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.”
The good news is that Allison joins many other leading scholars in believing the United States and China can escape the Trap. But doing so is going to take a tremendous effort on both sides. Multiple channels of communication must be opened and nurtured in order to manage what is sure to be an intense political, economic, and military competition. Particularly on the military front, the two powers must develop a wide-ranging set of procedures and protocols for operating in the same seas and managing and containing emerging crises. And they must continue to work together, as they have long done, on global problems of mutual interest like climate change, piracy, terrorism, and international commerce.
Just as U.S. policymakers need to accept that China’s rise entitles it to greater influence in international affairs, so the Chinese must develop a less cynical, more realistic picture of American intentions and motivations. Preserving peace is next to impossible to maintain when you demonize your rival, and that is precisely what the current party line from Beijing has been doing for a number of years now. Each power has to accept the existence of the other, and work in good faith to avoid a potentially catastrophic war.
Odd Arne Westad, a professor of Global Affairs at Yale, made an interesting suggestion in a recent article in Foreign Affairs. Perhaps the enormous challenges posed by the rise of China to the United States will unite a polarized and frustrated American body politic and give the country a badly needed sense of mission and purpose. But worse things could happen—and they will—if China doesn’t also take a more measured and realistic view of America’s intentions in the global arena.