China must endure the storm, for time is on its side 

Senior research fellow at the East Asian Institute Lance Gore says that China must learn to rein in its rage and impatience and do its fair share of self-reflection. What good would it do if it gives in to petty emotions and provokes a US-led coalition against it? For sure, it still has room for manoeuvre, thanks to the attractiveness of its huge consumer market. But it must not miss the woods for the trees: the US is still more powerful than it is and the two are better off as friends than enemies. Question is, will China be able to be humble, look itself squarely in the mirror, and refrain from doing the things it must not?
A paramilitary police officer wearing a face mask following the Covid-19 outbreak, stands guard outside the Great Hall of the People before the opening session of the National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing, China, on 22 May 2020. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)
A paramilitary police officer wearing a face mask following the Covid-19 outbreak, stands guard outside the Great Hall of the People before the opening session of the National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing, China, on 22 May 2020. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

A recent Pew poll suggests that favourable feelings on the part of Americans towards China have dropped to the lowest point in decades. It has even been rumoured that the US is considering the reinstatement of an old law from the Cold War era, which would bar all Communist Party members from entering the country. 

America’s technological blockade and trade restrictions on China have been stepped up over time. In this presidential election year, the Republicans and Democrats are trying to outscream each other in the game of China-bashing; the previously powerful “panda-hugging” lobbyists who used to hold sway in the industrial and commercial circles have all fallen silent. This is no mere pre-election farce. The Western superpower is poised for a reprise of the Cold War. At least in terms of psychological preparedness and mental inclination, the US is entering a new Cold War mode on all fronts.

But this Cold War will not be like the last one. China has reached maturity in its development, and no single major power can block the rise of this Asian colossus. With its strong economic foundation and formidable mass of finances, technologies and talents built up over four decades of development, China stands as the largest market on the globe, as well as the country with the most comprehensive range of industries in the world. The energy and raw materials it needs come mostly from non-Western countries, and the Third World will never venture to put a lid on China. 

Having effectively controlled the outbreak within its borders, the country is in the lead in the return to normalcy and restoring the economy.

Pedestrians wearing protective masks walk past stores in the Xidan shopping area in Beijing, China, on 15 July 2020. (Giulia Marchi/Bloomberg)
Pedestrians wearing protective masks walk past stores in the Xidan shopping area in Beijing, China, on 15 July 2020. (Giulia Marchi/Bloomberg)

Also, judging by current trends, the coronavirus pandemic augurs well for China. Having effectively controlled the outbreak within its borders, the country is in the lead in the return to normalcy and restoring the economy. Due to domestic political, institutional, cultural and other reasons, the Western countries — especially the US — will continue to be mired in chaos for a little longer. The restoration of their economies will take more time. Thus, even if its growth slows down significantly as compared to the better years, China will still be on the fast track to catch up with the West or pull ahead.  

Guard against coalitions

While the US may be powerless on its own, the Western countries are nevertheless capable of derailing the rise of China if they band together. This new Cold War alliance would be the greatest threat to China. It is precisely for this reason that America is pushing for a full decoupling from China. Indeed, that quite a number of countries are gradually forming a united front based on shared values has become very clear. It is very easy to restart the whole Cold War ensemble, given that many politicians in the West are old hands at it. 

Not only are a great deal of the defence treaties and forward military deployments from the Cold War period still in place, America is in the process of framing China as an “evil empire” à la the Soviet Union. If the Western countries are simply allowed to join forces, China could end up in a worse situation than the USSR was in — worse because the Union was at least backed by the Warsaw Pact and an entire socialist camp. Hence, preventing the formation of the said alliance should be an urgent task and a topmost priority for China’s foreign policy at this point. 

...as a consequence of the ongoing shift in relative strength, the sooner the decisive clash occurs, the better it is for America.

“The great decoupling” that the US is pushing for will alter China’s external environment to a great extent, subjecting China to stronger pressure and depriving it of many of the opportunities it used to enjoy. However, the Western countries are not a monolithic whole. There are conflicts and differences between them, and all these nations need China’s vast consumer market. Compared to the USSR, China has a much greater room for manoeuvre towards overcoming difficulties. It can keep itself from being isolated simply by opening up its market to the Western countries. By striking out simultaneously at both friends and foes in the trade war, President Trump has actually helped China. 

This aerial photo taken on 14 July 2020 shows containers stacked at a port in Lianyungang in China's Jiangsu province. (STR/AFP)
This aerial photo taken on 14 July 2020 shows containers stacked at a port in Lianyungang in China's Jiangsu province. (STR/AFP)

Play the long game

The current circumstances bring to mind the book On Protracted War, written by Mao Zedong 82 years ago during the hardest of times during Japan’s full invasion of China. This work is most notably characterised by its clarity of vision, in that it saw correctly that the Sino-Japanese War would go on for a long time and that China would certainly triumph in the end. For the protracted war ahead of us, most of the important points we should pay attention to differ from those in the case of the Sino-Japanese War, but one thing remains the same: China must endure the storm, for time is on its side. 

Conversely, for the US, endurance means failure. This is because, as a consequence of the ongoing shift in relative strength, the sooner the decisive clash occurs, the better it is for America. This is the fundamental reason that the Western superpower has thrown down the gauntlet to China at all costs. As America’s domestic situation is complex, messy and with no opening for resolution in sight, the national strength of the US would be worn down over time if things drag on. 

Be nimble in new arenas of battle

The second point to note is: unlike the rise and fall of great nations in the 20th century and earlier times, the current international situation bears certain hallmarks of the new era. In our age of nuclear weapons, globalisation and dramatically developing high-tech, the role of military force is very much weakened. What is more crucial is competition in the arenas of economic development and technological advancement. Engagements in these areas are often not a zero-sum game. Instead, there is a great deal of unpredictability, which means there is much room for turnarounds. China and the US do not necessarily have to be irreconcilable enemies (unless, of course, they both choose to be so). 

There are many ways to resolve their differences. In the process of coming to terms with each other, the options available for the world’s No. 1 are nothing complicated at all — all in all, it is just going to come down hard on the rising No. 2 consistently. For No. 2, however, there is a stringent necessity to masterfully practise the fine art of grappling with its rival. It is totally up to No. 2 — it may be argued — to bring about the resolution of differences, since No. 1 cannot be expected to meet it halfway. China needs to be capable of prudent pliancy when necessary, and take care not to fall into the trap of self-defeating emotions. 

Seek common ground

The third point to note is that although their bilateral relations are currently at the lowest point since the Cold War, China and America still share many common interests. The notions of “ChinAmerica” and G2 would not have been put forth some years ago if this were not the case. These common interests will resurface sooner or later and have bearing on the bilateral relations. 

Pedestrians walk past closed seasonal stores on South Franklin Street in Juneau, Alaska, US, on 22 July 2020. (Meg Roussos/Bloomberg)
Pedestrians walk past closed seasonal stores on South Franklin Street in Juneau, Alaska, US, on 22 July 2020. (Meg Roussos/Bloomberg)

China still occupies a central position in the world trade system as well as global industrial chains. There will still be lots of dealings between China and the West, and where there are dealings, there is always an opportunity for a turn of events. When relations are at the nadir, the only way left to go is up. The West will seek China’s cooperation in many international affairs. The country would do well to actively expand the common interests between both sides. There will surely be sunny weather after it has weathered the blizzard. 

...a considerable part of the established power’s clout is rooted in the international system (inclusive of a values system) which it has kept going for decades, whereas the rising state has accumulated next to nothing in that regard.

Avoid rage and impatience

Given the foregoing, China must avoid at all costs the two common blunders of great emerging powers — i.e., rage and impatience. Rage arises when the more established nations come down hard on the up-and-coming. Such treatment often comes across to the latter as excessive and can be very hard to put up with. The resultant rage can fan the flaring flames of nationalism, spiralling down into enmity beyond reconciliation. 

As for impatience, there are two causes of it. The first is overly early self-inflation or an overestimation of one’s strength, out of which comes an eagerness to challenge the reigning hegemon. The second is the fact that a rising state often forget the following truth: even when its overall strength seems to outstrip an established power according to objective indices, a considerable part of the established power’s clout is rooted in the international system (inclusive of a values system) which it has kept going for decades, whereas the rising state has accumulated next to nothing in that regard. Together, rage and impatience can lead to misjudgement, resulting in a defeat beyond recovery for the emergent power. This is a story seen over and over again in history.  

Still more to gain by not being estranged from the US

Currently, there is arguably no bottom line to America’s persecution of China, but there are two reasons why the latter country must endure the storm. Firstly, the benefits received by China from America far outweigh the bashing. It may be said that, if not for America’s openness to China, the post-war liberalist international order established and maintained by the US, China could never have come into its own so smoothly. Secondly, America’s misbehaviour has damaged its leadership status and moral high ground, and is gradually leading it to fall from being a great nation to becoming an ordinary one. 

Customers walk past a sign that encourages people to keep a six foot distance from each other at Roosevelt Field Mall which reopened on 10 July 2020 in Garden City, New York. ( Al Bello/Getty Images/AFP)
Customers walk past a sign that encourages people to keep a six foot distance from each other at Roosevelt Field Mall which reopened on 10 July 2020 in Garden City, New York. ( Al Bello/Getty Images/AFP)

In dealing with the US, there is a need to differentiate between the superpower’s emotional trash and its legitimate concerns. Emotional trash is generated from a sense of superiority based on race, culture, civilisation and national strength, as well as panic over the imminent loss of status. That a superpower feeling a sense of loss would sulk and throw a tantrum is understandable, so it is unnecessary to respond to emotional trash with garbage of one’s own. A bit of coaxing may go a long way towards peace-bringing appeasement. America’s reasonable concerns and discontents, on the other hand, need to be treated earnestly and resolved one by one.

For quite a long time to come, the US will still be needed by China and the world at large. In international affairs, there are many things that China cannot do and yet which are possible for America. In dealing with a country like the US, it is always best to extend goodwill to it and turn it into a friend. 

Three notions

The Chinese cultural tradition is characterised by self-reflection, not the shifting of blame. As a major power on the ascendant, China should take heed of three things to figure out, three "dos" and three "don'ts". 

The three things to figure out are:

(1) Why is there always so much anti-China sentiment in the West whenever the time comes for general elections there?  

(2) Why is China so poor at getting others, even surrounding nations, to have an affinity with it?  

(3) Why is the Cold War so easily revived? 

To pin all this on Western propaganda and hegemony of discourse alone is to pass the buck and not proper self-reflect. 

People wearing face masks following the Covid-19 outbreak walk past a Chinese national flag in front of the building of China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) in Beijing, China, on 16 July 2020. (Tingshu Wang/Reuters)
People wearing face masks following the Covid-19 outbreak walk past a Chinese national flag in front of the building of China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) in Beijing, China, on 16 July 2020. (Tingshu Wang/Reuters)

The three "dont's" are:

(1) Don’t fight against liberal values, because to do so is to go up against widespread, well-established popular sentiments in the West and, indeed, the world at large. 

(2) Don’t continue with policies that treat insiders and outsiders differently. Consistency across the insider/outsider divide is what the world demands from a leading power. It is only natural and reasonable that foreigners take an interest in China’s internal affairs, because they want to know: “What would it be like for me if I were to live under the Chinese system? How will the pattern of thinking and behaviour engendered by such a system shape China’s external behavior and the international order?” 

(3) Don’t be an enemy of the US. 

The three "dos" are: 

(1) Make China’s system more acceptable to other parts of the world. No one can change how China works, but China needs to make its system more humane, more in tune with mainstream values, such that even people who have never been to the country would be willing to live there. 

(2) China’s bars must be raised across the board to meet those expected by the world from a superpower, and not hover at the level of an inconsequential state. 

(3) The world’s worries about a risen China must be dispelled. 

Distinguishing China from the oppressive USSR

Concerning the last item above, the Chinese official line has always pointed the finger at the “conspiracy of the ‘China threat’ theory”, but things are not so simple. There is an issue here that nobody wants to touch on, even though it needs clarification. I am speaking of the distinction between China and two bygone regimes — i.e., the USSR and Nazi Germany respectively.

Now, having gone through the bloodshed of World War II, the world possesses an extremely strong resolve and base of popular sentiments against fascism. As one of the anti-fascist allies that fought in that War, China thinks the association with fascism is wholly preposterous and has never taken it seriously. Yet a return of the spectre of the past is very much a core concern in many parts of the world. Japan’s Shinzō Abe, for one, had openly sounded a warning along this line of thinking. While other countries may not have made any overt accusation, they are nonetheless similarly wary, as evidenced by their associating Xinjiang’s re-education camps to Nazi concentration camps. 

...if China does not see itself as the successor to the USSR’s legacy, it must clearly explain how it is different, why it is not a reincarnation of the oppressive USSR.

This photo taken on 31 May 2019 shows watchtowers on a high-security facility near what is believed to be a re-education camp where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained, on the outskirts of Hotan, Xinjiang, China. (Greg Baker/AFP)
This photo taken on 31 May 2019 shows watchtowers on a high-security facility near what is believed to be a re-education camp where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained, on the outskirts of Hotan, Xinjiang, China. (Greg Baker/AFP)

It took the West over 40 years of the Cold War to bring down the Soviet Union; if China does not see itself as the successor to the USSR’s legacy, it must clearly explain how it is different, why it is not a reincarnation of the oppressive USSR. Unlike the association with Nazi Germany, the purported parallel here is not so eay to dismiss. Nevertheless, China must still explain itself clearly in this regard, which is not impossible to do. Otherwise, but the world is on track to a new Cold War.

And here’s one last thing to note: as far as resources and power are concerned, especially in terms of scientific research, innovation capabilities and military strength, the US still holds an enormous advantage, and these are core competencies of today’s world. The decline of Uncle Sam has not become a certainty. The problem with America lies in the ineffectiveness of its political system during peacetime in consolidating all its resources and strengths into truly formidable muscles. However, when mobilized for war, this country can swiftly reach a domestic consensus to drive necessary reforms. Therefore, we cannot fully exclude the possibility that the unfolding new Cold War might turn into a hot one at some point. 

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