China is right about the US push back
Here’s a thought experiment. If Taiwan didn’t exist, would the US and China still be at loggerheads? My guess is yes. The conflict between the top dogs and the rising powers is part of human history.
A follow-up is whether such tensions would persist if China were a democracy rather than a one-party state. It’s harder to say, but it’s not obvious that an elected Chinese government would be any less resentful of the US-led global order. It is also hard to imagine under what circumstances America would be happy to share the limelight.
All this suggests that the loose talk about the US-China conflict is no longer an exaggeration. Countries don’t change places easily: China is the Middle Kingdom, which wants satisfaction for its age of Western humiliation; America is the dangerous nation looking for monsters to destroy. They both play typing.
The question is whether global stability can survive either if they insist that they succeed. The most likely alternative to today’s US-China conflict is not a meeting of kumbaya ideas, but war.
This week, Xi Jinping went further than before when he named America as the force behind China’s “enclosure”, “encirclement” and “repression”. Although his rhetoric was provocative, he was technically not bad. President Joe Biden remains officially committed to working with China. But Biden was blown up as easily as a weather balloon last month. Washington’s panic over 19th-century technology prompted US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a trip to Beijing to pave the way for the Biden-Xi summit.
Groupthink in Washington drove Biden’s overreaction. The consensus is now so rough that any appeal to China can be seen as weakness. As historian Max Boot points out, bipartisanship isn’t always a good thing.
America’s worst blunders—the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin decision that led to the Vietnam War, or the 2002 Iraq war decision—were bipartisan. So is the new House Committee on China, which chairman Mike Gallagher says will “pit the techno-totalitarian state of the Chinese Communist Party against the Free World.” It’s probably safe to say that he won’t be hunting for contradictory evidence.
A big difference between today’s Cold War and the original is that China does not export the revolution. From Cuba to Angola and Korea to Ethiopia, the Soviet Union undertook left-wing rebellions around the world.
The original idea of containment, formulated by George Kennan in his 1947 Foreign Affairs essay, Sources of Soviet behavior, was more modest than the undeclared crackdown that is US policy today. Kennan’s advice was twofold: stop the expansion of the Soviet empire; and to strengthen Western democracy. He advised the use of force. With patience and skill, the Soviet Union threw it in, which eventually happened.
Today’s approach is isolation plus. When Xi talks about “repression,” he means America’s ban on exports of advanced semiconductors to China. Because the high-end chips are used for both civilian and military purposes, the US is denying China a tool that could advance its military. However, the collateral effect is limiting China’s economic development.
There is no easy way around this. One potential side effect will be to accelerate Xi’s push for “made in China” technology. The Chinese president has specifically stated Beijing’s goal to dominate artificial intelligence by 2030, another way China wants to set the rules.
The only positive feature of today’s Cold War compared to the last one – the economic interdependence of China and America – is therefore what Biden wants to do. Separation becomes inevitable.
When Xi refers to “encirclement,” he is referring to America’s deepening ties with China’s neighbors. Again, Xi has mostly himself to blame.
Japan’s shift to a more normal military stance, which includes doubling defense spending, is likely to worry China the most. But America’s growing proximity to the Philippines and India and the Aukus nuclear submarine deal with Australia and the United Kingdom are also part of the picture. Add in increased US arms transfers to Taiwan, and the ingredients for Chinese paranoia are ripe. How does this end?
This is where the Kennan study pays off. Today’s Cold War is not over. Unlike the Soviet Union, which was an empire in disguise, China is experiencing historical boundaries and will probably never break up. The US needs a strategy to deal with a China that will always be there.
If you took a momentary poll in Washington and asked: one, the United States and China are in a cold war; and two, how does the US win, the answer to the first would be a simple yes; the second would trigger a long pause. Betting on China’s submission is not a strategy.
Here’s another way to look at it. There are still more cards in the US. He has plenty of allies, a global system he designed, better technology, and a younger demographic. China’s growth is slowing and its society is aging faster. The determination and patience of the United States is stronger today than it was during Kennan’s presence. Self-confident forces should not be afraid to speak up.