Making China-US Ties More Resilient
Rather than wait and see what “life after Xi” looks like, it is more urgent, practical, and constructive to make Washington’s relationship with Beijing resilient (once again).
An opinion article by Ryan Hass, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution, was widely circulated in social media and academia after Foreign Affairs published it in its November/October 2023 issue in late October 2023. Hass argued that “Washington should aim to preserve a functioning international system that supports U.S. security and prosperity – and that includes China rather than isolates it.” He also denounced “decoupling” with China, while emphasizing the patience and resilience of Washington’s China policy at both the domestic and international/systemic levels.
As Hass argued, “Moscow is prepared to act as a system-breaking power, whereas Beijing is not – at least so far.” That recalls comments from Rob Joyce, former senior cybersecurity adviser at the National Security Agency, in 2019, when Joyce said that the digital threat from Russia is like a hurricane that comes in “fast and hard,” while China “is climate change: long, slow, pervasive.”
While there are some similarities between these observations and assertions, each emphasizes a substantively different focus. While Joyce warned of a potentially revolutionary, systemic shock from China, Hass believes that China has not yet completely freed itself from its dependence on the existing system, let alone wholly abandoned that system. As Hass put in his article, “China’s rise since the late 1970s has coincided with its decision to integrate with the world and the institutions underpinning the global order.”
Thus, Hass argued that Washington’s China policy needs to have clear and feasible goals to gain domestic support and take a long-term view of China. He also urged Washington to gain broad and sustained support through a network of allies (especially since most U.S. allies are developed and democratic economies).
Hass also mentioned “life after Xi” in his article, pointing out that future Chinese leaders “will need to decide whether they can better reach their goals by integrating into the global economy or by turning toward self-reliance and limited partnership with developing countries.” Although Hass described China as “an aggressive, repressive, and selectively revisionist actor on the world stage,” he suggested the United States should keep China in the U.S.-led international system rather than isolate and eventually expel it from the system. Hass believes that “China’s political trajectory has not, and likely will not, travel a straight line for long.”
His article raised a critical question for policymakers in Washington: With the China-U.S. relationship at a low ebb, how should Washington reexamine its strategic and tactical options? Hass suggested, “Washington should aim to preserve a functioning international system that supports U.S. security and prosperity – and that includes China rather than isolates it. Meanwhile, the United States should maintain a strong military “to deter China from using force against the United States or its security partners.”
There is absolutely no problem with making sure Washington’s China policy has “durable domestic support” and is “compatible with foreign partners’ priorities,” as Hass advocates. However, at least between Washington and Beijing, the more realistic, urgent, and intractable problem is the seeming lack of a long-term, stable, and effective mechanism of détente, lubrication, and buffering between the two rivals now eyeing each other.
For quite a long period in the past, the China-U.S. relationship was “resilient” (if we can borrow the Biden administration’s terminology for building “resilient supply chains”) – that is, it went through ups and downs, but never reached the point of complete rupture. This was largely because economic and trade relations had acted as “stabilizer” and “ballast” for both sides.
But especially after the China-U.S. trade war started in 2018, the economic and trade tensions, the call for “technological decoupling,” and the more recent “de-risking” in effect have deprived the China-U.S. relationship of a mechanism for maintaining essential stability. The more practical question for both Washington and Beijing seems to be whether the two countries will be able to rediscover a mechanism (or bond) that can help to maintain a minimum level of stability in their relations while allowing them to withstand the inevitable ups and downs.
From the perspective of the international system, let’s assume that China and the United States are able to avoid war in the near and mid-term, but that their conflicts are too challenging to be completely reconciled. In that case, the United States and China will probably face two situations in the long run: Either Washington can successfully keep Beijing in the existing international system and moderately satisfy China’s needs for status and power; or China will resolutely strive to build a new international system parallel to the U.S.-led one, to gradually change its odds when China faces the U.S.-led allied system.
Of course, looking at the history of international relations, especially in the past hundred years or so, the fear that China-U.S. tensions are irreconcilable and that war will eventually break out is not entirely unfounded. As Hass implied in his article, it is unrealistic – or at least not in the best interests of the United States in the current situation – to pursue a one-sided quest to isolate China, exert collective pressure on China, and expect that China will lose a long-term confrontation with the U.S. and the West in the form of an instant internal collapse.
In the event of a strategic miscalculation (possibilities exist at multiple crisis flashpoints on both sides), war would, of course, be the most simple and, indeed, the most brutal option, but the scale and intensity could well be beyond the imagination and control of either side. China could lose badly, and the United States could suffer a significant blow to its power and global leadership.
However, both of the relatively peaceful long-term situations outlined above – namely keeping China in the current U.S.-led system or China seeking to build a new system – have their own difficulties. For example, is China willing to stay in the U.S.-led system? For that matter, is the United States willing to maintain the current multilateral system with a growing role for China (rather than reconstructing several new “minilateral” systems to replace the existing one)? If Beijing were to try to build a new system based on new institutions and rules, would China have the convening power to gather enough followers? So far, China’s diplomatic efforts have not received the broad and deep support of the “backbone countries” of the existing U.S.-led international system or even of China’s close neighbors, Japan and South Korea, and this is crucial.
In such a complex and delicate situation, attempts to build a resilient bilateral relationship become very necessary and urgent for Washington and Beijing. It will provide both countries an additional, even necessary, safeguard to avoid falling too quickly into the so-called “Thucydides Trap.” In the future, whether China stays in the existing system or eventually tries to build a new system, a resilient bilateral relationship will once again allow the two powers to test, adjust, adapt, and even compete within the limits of mutual tolerance.
The real challenge, of course, is how to reposition and rebuild such a resilient bilateral relationship, given that China and the United States have not been each other’s largest trading partners for years and that trade frictions and technological “decoupling” have had a profound impact on their overall relationship. Something like the singular economic-trade “stabilizer” of the past, which helped to ensure the necessary stability of the China-U.S. relationship during cyclical ups and downs, seems unlikely in the future. This indicates a certain degree of “fragility” in the relationship between the two countries at the moment. A resilient bilateral relationship, whether motivated by short-term stabilization or long-term peace, requires more options, ties, and mechanisms from both sides.
What are the options? Empowering China within the existing international system and making the whole system act as “resilient bond” between these two “rivalries” could be a good choice. Hass also suggested that “the United States should not continue blocking China from exercising a voting share in institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank that reflects its economic weight.”
But that’s far from enough. Washington and Beijing need to find more sustainable and mutually beneficial collaborative mechanisms – including but not limited to global issues, regional crises, and reforms of international institutions – to change the “fragility” of their bilateral relationship, which may quickly break down when their economic and trade ties are damaged. This is not an act of appeasement on the part of either of the two sides but rather the most effective way to avoid any unnecessary or even impending conflict or war at all.
(This article was originally published in The Diplomat on January 03, 2024)
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