How do we sum up the evolution of China-US relations in 2020? One observes that the US government and Congress have proclaimed the idea of China being the biggest threat. And in response, China’s top leader President Xi Jinping has stated five things the Chinese people will never allow, announced and started the economic “dual circulation” model of domestic and international circulation — with emphasis on the former — and said three times in a month that China is prepared to fight.
The US’s declaration that China is its biggest threat shows that it sees China as an enemy. On 5 December, Republican senator Rick Scott tweeted: “I’ve been saying this for quite some time now: Communist China is our adversary.” China has responded to US hostility by standing behind the leadership of the Communist Party and following the path of socialism. Economically, it will manage China-US trade decoupling with the dual circulation model, while militarily, it will demonstrate its resolve to not give in to external pressure by upholding the principle “to fight the war to end wars, and to use arms for peace”.
US seeing China as biggest threat is the biggest threat
This is the state of China-US relations at the end of 2020, and where they will start off in 2021. This is the first time since the end of the Cold War that the US has stated on a national level that China is the biggest threat to the US; It is unprecedented and the biggest obstacle to improving China-US relations. Any discussion of China-US relations that avoids this point is empty talk. And if this hostility between China and the US is not resolved, there cannot be the “resume dialogue, bring relations back on track and rebuild mutual trust” as spoken of by Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi.
“The CCP aims not merely at preeminence within the established world order… but to fundamentally revise world order, placing the People’s Republic of China (PRC) at the center and serving Beijing’s authoritarian goals and hegemonic ambitions.” - The Elements of the China Challenge, the US State Department
First, what is the real reason for the US repeatedly naming China as its biggest threat? The claim has become the motif of the US understanding of China. “China poses the greatest threat to America today, and the greatest threat to democracy and freedom world-wide since World War II,” wrote US Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe in The Wall Street Journal on 3 December. Immediately after, senators Marco Rubio and Mark Warner, the acting chairman and vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence respectively, released a joint statement claiming that “China poses the greatest national security threat to the United States”.
How is China posing such a threat? Reports by the US State Department and US Congress paint a detailed picture of the so-called China threat. On 17 November, the State Department released The Elements of the China Challenge, which defined China as “a great power governed by an authoritarian regime modelled on 20th-century Marxist-Leninist dictatorship”. The main thrust of the report is to show that the ambitions of China’s ruling party are global, which poses a stiff threat to the US. The report says: “The CCP aims not merely at preeminence within the established world order… but to fundamentally revise world order, placing the People’s Republic of China (PRC) at the center and serving Beijing’s authoritarian goals and hegemonic ambitions.”
At a briefing for the release of the 2020 annual report by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) on 1 December, USCC vice chairman Carolyn Bartholomew said: “China’s adversarial approach to relations with the United States and other countries reached a new level of intensity this year as China’s leaders have grown increasingly aggressive and antagonistic. No longer even pretending to abide by international laws and norms, Beijing is working to expand its global influence, and to implement its ‘community of common human destiny’ — a community that would echo China’s worldview, defer to its priorities, and exercise fealty to its form of government.”
The report said China’s ruling party has started a systematic tussle with the US and other countries to gain leadership and speaking rights in the future world order, while Beijing is attempting to use its growing strength to change the international order and get other countries to accept its authoritarian one-party rule as a better alternative to democracy, and to try and export its authoritarian governance model. China’s leaders are increasingly confident that they can expand the CCP’s authoritarian values and sphere of influence, and do damage to the US as well as its workers, companies, and allies.
These two reports declaring China’s threat to the US shows the opposition between China and the US in terms of ideology and political systems, and their tussle to be the world leader. Along the lines of what Wang Yi has said, this is raking up ideological confrontation and attempting to throw the world into the abyss of a “new Cold War” — that is the real reason for all these claims by the US.
Revival of ‘China threat’ theory
It is worth noting that in September this year, Antony Blinken — President-elect Joe Biden’s nominated Secretary of State — said China posed the “biggest challenge” to the US: “I think we all recognise China poses a growing challenge, arguably the biggest challenge, we face from another nation-state: economically, technologically, militarily, even diplomatically.”
Second, what does it mean, now that the “China threat” theory has spread throughout the West? For a long time, the China threat line following China’s rise was basically an academic question debated among the Western elites. For example, in 2001, US academic John Mearsheimer released his book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, based on the principle of “offensive realism”.
The premise of the book is that international politics is great power politics. The distribution of power determines the politics among great powers and the formation of alliances. The history of great power politics is the process of conflicts between revisionist countries, and an unending security competition among great powers. The US is the only country that has successfully achieved regional hegemony, and with China’s rise, the intense security competition between China and the US is inevitable, and so Mearsheimer objects to engaging China and advocates containment. He concludes that the US’s previous “foolish” foreign policy has led to China’s rise becoming a nightmare for the US, and “a rising China is the most dangerous potential threat to the United States in the early twenty-first century”.
Mearsheimer’s words may not weigh much as he is but a scholar. However, when the China threat theory spreads throughout the West, that is a different question. In the second half of November, the Halifax International Security Forum released a handbook titled China vs Democracy: The Greatest Game.
The foreword reads: “The 2020 paradigm shift in people’s attitudes toward China was a concrete change from the old conventional wisdom that an economically vibrant China would progress toward more freedom for its people, to the new conventional wisdom that the Chinese Communist Party is, in fact, the virus that endangers the world.”
Even if the China threat theory is limited to these 250 experts, that would not be too bad. But if European politicians agree with it, then it gets serious, because it would provide an objective basis for Biden’s hope of joining with Europe against China.
The handbook collects the views of 250 experts from around the world (mostly from the West) and concludes that China poses a threat to democracies, including threats to supply chains, international organisations, freedom of the seas and skies, the open exchange of information, and the protection of confidential information. The report says China’s ambitions are not limited domestically or to the Asia-Pacific, but democracies all over the world including the US, Canada, the UK, Germany, Japan, India, and Australia have long become targets of the CCP, with Hong Kong and Taiwan the first to feel the effects.
Even if the China threat theory is limited to these 250 experts, that would not be too bad. But if European politicians agree with it, then it gets serious, because it would provide an objective basis for Biden’s hope of joining with Europe against China. On 2 December, the German government released its latest human rights report, which levelled unusually sharp criticisms against China. Human rights and political expert Michael Brand of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) praised the report and concurred that China is indeed a threat to international stability. Europe has to work with Biden to study and implement concrete steps to contain China’s authoritarian regime. On 7 December, the Council of the European Union adopted a decision to have its version of the Magnitsky Act, that is, a framework for “targeted restrictive measures to address serious human rights violations and abuses worldwide”.
Of note are two recent reports. On 1 December, NATO released its NATO 2030 strategic report, where for the first time China was a topic on its own in a NATO strategic document. And on 2 December, the European Commission (EC) and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy released a paper “Joint Communication: A New Agenda for Global Change”, with China also a main topic of Europe-US cooperation. These two reports see China as a challenge to open democracies, and are very similar in their assessment of its role. Where they differ from the US is in their approval of working with China.
The opening to the section on China in the NATO 2030 report reads: “The scale of Chinese power and global reach poses acute challenges to open and democratic societies, particularly because of that country’s trajectory to greater authoritarianism and an expansion of its territorial ambitions.” The EC and High Representative’s paper said: “As open democratic societies and market economies, the EU and the US agree on the strategic challenge presented by China's growing international assertiveness, even if we do not always agree on the best way to address this.”
The most critical issue between China and the US is that the US is judging China based on ideology, and ideology is indeed highly important to China. This means the mutual hostility between China and the US cannot be resolved.
China unable to decouple from the US
Third, can China and the US resolve their mutual hostility? The US sees China as an enemy, while China’s ideological belief determines whether the US is seen as a friend or foe. Ideological security is an important part of China’s overall view of national security. Political thought education in China begins from kindergarten — children and youths throughout the nation receive a “red” education from an early age, so the Chinese people are clear about China’s friends and foes.
But China’s predicament is that it knows US imperialism is alive and well against China, but it is unwilling to decouple from the US. The Trump administration has repeatedly committed acts of suppression against China, but China is still telling the US “no decoupling”. The Australian prime minister has made friendly overtures to China, but China’s pressure on Australia has not eased. Pro-Beijing Duowei News said: “Through its battering of Australia, China is sending a warning to other countries that may join the US in pressuring China. This can also be seen as China establishing its authority as it rises to become a world power.” But why does China not “establish its authority” against the US? This only shows that the international community still goes by the law of the jungle.
China remains dependent on US technology and its economy on its way to becoming a world power, but that “crutch” is changing. The US put the ball in China’s court by hoping China will change its approach, but China put the ball back in the US court by responding with five items it will not agree with, in turn hoping the US will change whatever China thinks is wrong. The most critical issue between China and the US is that the US is judging China based on ideology, and ideology is indeed highly important to China. This means the mutual hostility between China and the US cannot be resolved. How much room does this leave for cooperation? For instance, whether they can work together on climate issues still remains to be seen.
Right now, both sides are moving towards decoupling, with fresh borders constantly being drawn. And these fresh borders are also borders of the world. Can the Biden administration improve China-US relations? Perhaps not everything is within one’s power. Karl Marx put it better: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” Seizing on the trend of China-US relations is more pragmatic than analysing the actions of individuals.
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