Can the US-China crisis be stabilized?

As US-China relations reach a crisis point, strategic thinking is dangerously absent

Chinese staffers adjust U.S. and Chinese flags before the opening session of trade negotiations between U.S. and Chinese trade representatives at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019. Mark Schiefelbein/Pool via REUTERS - RC16D7D1C040

This week President Trump will meet with China’s leader Xi Jinping at the G-20 summit meeting in Japan. The media is focusing on whether the two leaders can restart trade talks or at least call a “trade war” truce. But far more is at stake. The entire U.S.-China relationship is now in a dangerous downward spiral. Can the Trump-Xi meeting stabilize things?

Unfortunately that’s unlikely because the crisis in U.S.-China relations now exists in virtually every part of the relationship. Even more troubling and dangerous, there is a growing sense in each country’s government that the other is a pervasive adversary. Here are just a few areas of conflict:

Trade war: The current trade war is having large negative consequences in both countries—with huge tariffs in place, more tariffs promised, and collapsed negotiations that have become so publicly politicized in both countries that a deal will be very difficult to achieve.

Tech rivalry: The U.S. and China have escalated their tech rivalry, each believing that hi-tech will determine who dominates the future global economy and military power. The Chinese leadership believes that U.S. actions like placing Huawei on the “Entity List” (banning it from buying components from U.S. companies without U.S. government approval) reveals a U.S. goal to gravely wound China’s economy. Many in the U.S. government favor “decoupling” our two economies to protect us, in spite of radical effects this would have.

Taiwan escalations: Taiwan, the single most sensitive and militarily dangerous issue in the U.S.-China relationship for more than 50 years, is newly fraught on both sides. In a striking departure from the “One China” principle, a Department of Defense report recently referred to Taiwan in a category of “countries.”  Senior Chinese officials, meanwhile, have spoken in seemingly stronger tones about “reuniting” the mainland and Taiwan, “reserving the option of taking all necessary measures.”

Asia-Pacific militarization: China’s growing military power—and its occupation, reclamation and militarization of various South China Sea land features (in violation of international law as determined by a UN arbitration tribunal)—have produced intensified U.S. patrols and freedom of navigation operations, creating real risks of military conflict, with weakened crisis management procedures making escalations from accidents and individual incidents much more likely.

Ideological clashes: Open ideological shouting matches have increased. On the U.S. side, Acting Secretary of Defense Shanahan recently described the U.S.-China relationship as a “geopolitical rivalry between free and repressive world order visions,” and a senior State Department official recently called it a “clash of civilizations.” China’s authoritarian leaders have not only more bluntly criticized the inequalities and disarray of U.S. democracy and U.S. “bullying,” but domestically have more firmly imposed CCP political control, slowed down liberalizing economic reforms, and more branzenly committed human rights abuses, most disturbingly with the massive detentions in Xinjiang to “re-educate” the Uighur population.

Visa wars:  Each country is undermining the stabilizing power of people-to-people exchanges by denying visas to people from the other country. One rationale on the U.S. side was stated by FBI Director Christopher Wray, who calls China’s espionage and influence activity a “whole of society” effort, making every potential Chinese visitor a person of suspicion.   China’s intimidation of foreigners, including its shocking ongoing detention of several Canadian travelers, is on the increase. 

International system conflict: In different ways, both China under Xi and the U.S. under Trump are challenging the international system that has generally provided remarkable global stability over the last 70 years, and challenging each other’s role in the system. The system is rapidly weakening, with no significant efforts underway to adjust and strengthen it.

These are just some specific examples. The deeper problem is a more fundamental change in each government’s perception of the other. U.S. government officials are now openly calling China an adversary, seeking to undermine and displace U.S. power and global leadership. China’s leaders have publicly used more moderate language but clearly have concluded that, at least under the Trump administration, the U.S. is China’s enemy and is seeking to weaken China and to bring about regime change of Chinese Communist Party rule. Perceptions are becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, as each country is taking actions that reflect its perceptions of the other’s hostile intentions, and these reactions themselves reinforce the other country’s sense of enmity.

Fundamental attitudinal shifts will get even worse if the relationship is not stabilized. Global dynamics will change. China will continue moving closer to Russia —an inherently unstable but dangerous coalition, especially as our ties with our own allies are weakening. Other countries caught up in this escalating rivalry but not wanting to take sides can easily stumble.

This terrible downward spiral must be stopped.  But can it be?

Of course it can.  Government policies and actions are made by human beings.  Structural forces affect history, but human agency—not “destiny”—determines history’s outcomes. Whether human beings with power will in fact make appropriate choices or blunder disastrously is a separate question. Despite the rhetoric of systemic forces and historical trends common on both sides, we must focus on the fact that human beings in the United States and China will shape the future of the U.S.-China relationship, and neither country is synonymous with its leader or even with its government. There is debate and fluidity in both countries about the relationship.

Very significantly, the genuine enmity that is developing is very much in the government-to-government relationship, with much more nuanced and even constructive thinking about the relationship widely held among people of all walks of life within each country. But the latter voices in the United States, numerous and respected voices, are often marginalized—and very regrettably the media in the United States largely focus on the harshest, loudest voices and often wrongly suggest that they reflect a new U.S. consensus.

These more nuanced voices in the U.S. are part of the real new U.S. consensus—that things have changed with China and we need to push back much more than in the past to advance our interests, but not that China is our enemy. They see an historic turning point because the balance of power between the United States and China has changed.  China, a country of 1.4 billion people, has become powerful. It has an authoritarian political system and state-led economy very different from ours, and has been using China’s new power in various disturbing ways.

Our interests often diverge, and the United States needs to push back frequently, deter forcefully, and stand up consistently for our interests and values. For example there is a wide and bipartisan U.S. consensus that China’s economic behaviors over decades have been unfair.  Even though many disagree with President Trump’s “tariffs strategy,” including the U.S. business community, almost all agree that we need to push back strongly on China’s very unfair and non-reciprocal economic practices, including the U.S. business community. (Although the business community wants strong push back and is no longer cheering China engagers, it wants a vibrant economic relationship of fair competition with China and certainly not national enmity.) There is a wide consensus that, with China’s growing military power, we need to develop new and better approaches to deterring and blocking potential military threats. There is a wide consensus that the U.S. needs to stand up for our democratic values.

But that does not mean that China is our enemy or adversary. It does not mean we are or should be entering a “new Cold War” with China—analogizing the U.S.-China relationship to the relationship between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the second half of the 20th century.

The “Cold War” comparison is a poor one. The U.S. and China have interdependent and mutually beneficial economies, whereas the Soviet Union’s economy was not significant in our relationship. The U.S. and China have a huge number of people-to-people exchanges in every walk of life; the U.S. and Soviet Union did not. The Soviet Union’s leaders told the United States “we will bury you” and the Soviet Union invaded and occupied numerous foreign countries; China may be a tough competitor, but it is not seeking to destroy us, is not an existential threat to us, and is not invading other countries. Its leaders are proud of what China’s system has achieved, but do not seem to be aggressively trying to export it to other countries, at least not yet. Our Cold War strategy with the Soviet Union was “containment,” resting on the ultimately correct assumption that the Soviet Union would collapse from within; but it’s very unlikely that an awakened and powerful China of 1.4 billion people will self-destruct if we try to “contain” it.

As important as any of the above, U.S. and China cooperation is urgently necessary to address problems that do pose existential threats to both countries and the entire planet.  We need to cooperate with China if we are to have any chance of effectively addressing climate change, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and pandemic diseases, to give three particularly salient examples. (The Trump administration has rejected both the Paris climate accords and the Iran nuclear deal, each partly a product of U.S.-China cooperation, so it does not treat these achievements of cooperation as actual benefits to U.S. interests and a strong reason we should manage our differences with China in a way that preserves such cooperation.) China and the U.S. will have many differences and will compete in many dimensions.  But along with tension and competition and even rivalry, we need to cooperate. And to have that necessary cooperation we must effectively manage our competition.

The challenge facing the United States is whether we can live with a powerful China. An important part of this must be U.S. domestic policy, addressing our own economic and political problems so that we can compete with China in the strongest way, remain a shining example to the world, and offer other countries assistance and support that are alternatives to what China is offering. We should also be working collaboratively with our allies and other partners to better deter, balance, and incentivize China.

The greatest diplomatic challenge of our time is to try to work out the principles, policies, and rules by which we can live together.

But we must also address the China challenge with China directly, working with China to try to figure out ways for us to live together and get along, each as powerful countries.  What are the terms of co-existence that protect U.S. interests and values, that acknowledge and manage the tension and competition that will surely exist with a powerful China, and that also foster positive-sum cooperation with China?  The greatest diplomatic challenge of our time is to try to work out the principles, policies, and rules by which we can live together—in the economic realm, in the security realm, in reshaping the international system—rather than prejudging that the outcome of that effort will be unsuccessful.

The U.S. today is not even attempting diplomacy. We do not have a coherent policy towards China, we are not working with our allies to develop and implement a collaborative policy towards China, and even routine U.S. diplomacy with Beijing is limited these days. Moreover, the brinksmanship, evasiveness, and stonewalling of much Chinese diplomacy has never made this kind of candid and ambitious interaction easy. At the moment, the best that may be possible is for experts outside of the two governments to attempt these in-depth discussions through Track II dialogues among nongovernmental actors. Such discussions can lay the groundwork for future government-to-government action, even if sustained and fundamental government diplomacy is not likely during the Trump administration.

But what about the meeting this week between President Trump and President Xi? Given the current situation in U.S.-China relations described above, we should not have high expectations for the meeting, particularly since diplomatic preparation has been minimal. Even on the “trade war” front, the situation has become so complicated substantively and politically on both sides that concrete progress will be very difficult.

It is no longer clear that either Trump or Xi wants a trade deal at this point.

The best we can hope may be only that the two leaders, sustaining the shared imagery that they are “friends,” will create a better atmosphere in which serious trade negotiations can resume. A trade deal will not be possible if either side insists on messaging that it has beaten the other. If each leader respectfully indicates not only that they are “friends” but gives each other credit for being a strong leader trying to get a “good deal” for his country, the diplomats may be able to restart negotiations that could yield a politically acceptable deal that actually is a good deal for each country.

But this may not happen. Indeed, it is no longer clear that either Trump or Xi wants a trade deal at this point.  And even if a trade deal does evolve, that would only stabilize things on one front in the U.S.-China relationship, and only temporarily. Implementating any deal will be complicated, certainly creating some new tensions, and, even more importantly, there are all the other contested fronts in the U.S.-China relationship.

The challenge of the U.S. and China living together as powerful countries will be with us for a very long time. We will need to live with that reality, as well as with each other.