Over the last year or so, US political debates have experienced a “sea of change” in thinking with regard to China. Some attribute this to the election of Donald Trump, a political “outsider” who beat the odds and was elected president of the US. And, indeed, Trump wanted to change the direction of policy in Washington.
But Trump is really not the one responsible. There is – and has been for some time – a conviction among US political elites that it was time to “deal with” an alleged threat from China, which was on the verge of undermining the predominant role of the US as the international “rule-maker.” And given the growing economic and military power of China, such a policy could very well lead to a military conflict that no one really wants.
So the question to be asked is: Why can’t the US consider a growing China as a potential partner, rather than a rival?
The first objection may be: Because China is a one-party system ruled by the Communist Party. But there are a number of countries with which we have very good relations that are also effectively “one-party” systems. And it is clear that the Communist Party of China probably has more popular support than most of the other “one-party” countries.
Is it then the fact that the party in China is “communist”? For many in the West, this word brings up chilling visions of starvation and bread lines and strict regimentation with images of the old Soviet Union. And in the US, the paranoia created by Joe McCarthy and others have left distinct traces in the popular mind of Americans. But anyone who has visited China in the last 20 years will find a great deal of freedom in the daily lives of people and a very lively entrepreneurial spirit among the population as a whole.
The other fear that dominates US political concerns is the fact that China is excelling in many areas of science and technology, which will also come to benefit China’s military capabilities. And this is in fact a clear policy of the Chinese government – to achieve and maintain a clear capability of defending the nation against any possible foe, including the US. And while we were not the major perpetrators of China’s “century of humiliation” after the Opium Wars, we did reap our own benefits from that situation. Our support for the “other side” during China’s civil war soured the good will that we had built up with the leaders of the Communist Party in our direct cooperation with them during the Anti-Fascist War. So American missiles in South Korea or Guam might well be compared to Soviet missiles in Cuba during the 1960s. We didn’t like it, nor do they.
Contrary to another fallacy, China does not want to embark on a policy of enlargement. The squabbles that are occurring in the South China Sea are really a question of unresolved border claims between the countries of the region. Resolving these will require some skillful diplomacy – but between the parties to the disputes. The fact that the US is beginning to take sides in this dispute can only create more animosity between the Washington and Beijing.
More to the point is: The US is concerned with its failure to keep on the cutting edge of technology as China is clearly doing. But a policy of imposing some form of “technological apartheid” on Chinese industry will be a losing strategy. With 1.4 billion people and a national commitment to technological progress, they will quickly overcome such arbitrary barriers. More useful would be for the US to return to a national commitment of maintaining US technological prowess by investing in science and technology and investing in our crumbling school system.
While Trump has attempted to do this with a reinvigoration of the US space program, he missed his “Kennedy moment” by assigning it to a Praetorian Guard -like formation known as the US Space Force, envisioning perhaps a “NATO of the heavens.” China, on the other hand, has followed the Kennedy model and kept its space exploration efforts open to all who wish to participate. Perhaps there can be an Apollo-Soyuz moment in our relationship with China in space. But that will require a different mind-set than that we have today.
The only thing one can really say about the “fears” of the US political elites looking at a possible conflict with China (examining the record we will soon discover) is something that a popular cartoon characters expressed many years ago, “We have found the enemy, and they are us!” Hopefully the spirit of Washington, Lincoln, and FDR is not completely extinguished in the minds of our political elites.
The author is a Washington policy analyst and a non-resident fellow of the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies. Global Times