The following has been excerpted from Daniel Wagner’s book, The America-China Divide on why US must build a foundation for future cooperation with China.
The balance of power in East Asia has clearly shifted in China’s favour over the past decade. China has enough ground-based ballistic missiles, aircraft, and ships to have military superiority in its neighbourhood, and its missile force is formidable enough that US air bases and aircraft carriers in the Pacific can no longer claim supremacy in the region. Beijing has the potential to surpass the United States militarily in several decades, if it were to continue to devote as many financial and other resources to that task for a sustained period. In that regard, China is likely to become more of a military match for the US than the former Soviet Union had ever become. While Washington ultimately buried Moscow by devoting greater and greater resources to building its military might, which Moscow could not match, that will not happen in this case, and Washington knows it.
In much the same way, Washington used to be able to brush Moscow off by noting the inherent contradictions of its ways and revelling in its belief that capitalism would inevitably trump communism. But China’s version of socialism (with Chinese characteristics) is far superior to the hardcore Leninism that the Soviet Union pursued, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been smart enough to pivot when necessary to adjust to new economic and political realities.
In much the same way, Washington used to be able to brush Moscow off by noting the inherent contradictions of its ways and revelling in its belief that capitalism would inevitably trump communism. But China’s version of socialism (with Chinese characteristics) is far superior to the hardcore Leninism that the Soviet Union pursued, and the CCP has been smart enough to pivot when necessary to adjust to new economic and political realities. Few would have guessed that Xi would become the strongest Chinese leader since Mao, or that nationalism would be deployed as effectively under Xi as it was under Mao to support the CCP and its objectives. Similarly, the US is using nationalism to whip up anti-Chinese sentiment as if to prepare the American people for a long battle, though most Americans do not see the conflict in anything other than economic terms.
The truth is that the trade war—and competition in the political, military, and technological spheres—are evidence of a potentially, even likely, permanent state of American-Sino relations. There is little reason to conclude that the gridlock that has come to characterise bilateral relations in the Trump-Xi era will either change or end any time soon. Comprehensive rivalry between the two nations has become an organising principle of both nations’ political, economic and security policies. As a result, there has been a coalescence of opinion in Washington about the necessity of putting an end to what is seen as China’s predatory commercial, industrial, and technological strategy, and its comprehensive approach to spying at all levels of American society.
It was never realistic to have imagined that China would have become the democratic, liberal, open political system that many Americans, and people from around the world, would have liked to imagine it would eventually become, but its failure to do so has made it easy for politicians of diverse persuasions to coalesce around the idea that China will never change, it is an enemy, and it must be contained and/or defeated. The problem, of course, is that, under Trump, there is even less likelihood that China will ever be “contained” because America cannot do so on its own, and while containment eventually worked with the former Soviet Union (FSU), it will not work with China. The US needed many allies to join together for a common purpose to defeat the FSU; America’s allies are less inclined to join it in such joint ventures for as long as Trump is in power and American foreign policy remains rudderless and prone to erratic and unpredictable change.
America’s win-at-all-costs approach for political, economic, foreign, military, and technology policy is obviously unsustainable and unattainable, when faced with such a formidable adversary. Trump’s approach has seriously undermined US leadership, which is not to America’s advantage. A more accommodating, moderate approach to policy is appropriate and welcome. This does not imply that Washington should “cave” in areas of core focus and importance, but rather, when it sees a genuine opportunity to reach across the Pacific where there is alignment—such as on environmental policy—it should do so, to build a foundation for future cooperation and collaboration.
China is acting exactly as one would expect a rising global power to act, and not too differently than America did when it became a superpower: strengthening its position, spreading its influence, and building its military power. Instead of taking offence, America should be doubling down on its own ability to do the same. Many in the US Congress are acting as if China’s rise was a personal challenge to their own sense of self-worth—as if, rather than two nations acting on a global stage, this was two children jockeying for position on the playground and refusing to play together in the sand box.
The thing is, China has already mastered how to play chess on the Western chess board. If America and the West aren’t careful, Beijing will soon seize the advantage. It has already proven it can beat the West at portions of its own game. What if it became strong enough to not only master the rest, but to impose its own game on the rest of the world? Who would stop it from doing so? As America continues down its isolationist path—established under Barack Obama and perfected by Trump—what are its prospects for turning the situation around as China continues down its path of multilateralism? Not good.
It is ultimately in America’s, and the world’s, interest to pursue a path of genuine collaboration where it can and engage in full throttled competition where it must. America should abandon its unrealistic expectations that China will change anything about itself or its approach to engagement with the world. From the Chinese perspective, what it is doing has worked quite well. After all, China’s capacity to adapt, evolve, and reinvent itself has already made it the second most important country in the world.
Chinese planners had no way of anticipating the disruption that would follow Trump’s election or the commencement of the trade war with America. It forced the CCP to inwardly reflect, as well as modify its strategic planning sooner than had been anticipated. In the next five-year plan, the CCP will undoubtedly chart a course that views America as a permanent enemy and place self-reliance as an even greater necessity. At this critical juncture, it would have been greatly to Washington’s benefit to be positioning itself to compete more effectively with Beijing on the global stage. Sadly, that may not happen for many years.
Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions and author of the new book The America-China Divide. This is an excerpt from the book.