Our China Problem


The American Interesdt
By: Mitchell B. Reiss

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed, like no crisis before it, just how difficult it has now become for the United States and China to find common cause. One remarkable feature of the past few months has been the near-total lack of communication and cooperation between the world’s two leading powers, who instead have publicly engaged in reciprocal bouts of name-calling, finger-pointing, and blame-shifting. The difference between this behavior, and their more responsible coordinated actions after both the September 11 attacks and the 2008 financial crisis, is both striking and lamentable.

How did we reach this point?

The opening with China in the early 1970s and subsequent normalization of diplomatic relations was initially driven by Cold War realpolitik. A different phase began after Deng Xiaoping’s Southern Tour and China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001. We admired China’s lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and responded enthusiastically as U.S. companies gained market access to Chinese consumers and low-cost production facilities. But as Beijing continued to accumulate wealth and power, a minority warned that Washington was blind to the strategic challenges that China posed to our industrial competitiveness, the U.S. security position in Asia, and democratic norms more broadly. More vocal were those who hoped that as China got richer, it would gradually adopt democratic norms and individual liberties, and it would not upset the liberal world order, but rather supplement America’s leadership of it. These hopes have not panned out.

With the Trump Administration, a more muscular approach to China is now ascendant in Washington. Believing that we have entered into a new period of “great power competition,” China is viewed as a near-peer competitor that seeks nothing less than “international domination,” in the words of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. A competing and more temperate analysis is offered by many experienced academics, scholars, and former U.S. government officials, who acknowledge many troubling aspects of Beijing’s behavior but do not believe that China poses an existential strategic threat, nor that it aspires to replace us as world leader. They also believe that our shared economic interdependence makes it necessary for our two countries to work together.

On either side of the debate, a small cottage industry has arisen of selectively citing historical examples of established powers that have resisted, actively opposed, or accommodated rising ones. From Athens and Sparta to Wilhelmine Germany searching for its place in the sun, these cases are interesting in their own right, but all one can say with confidence is that no one has ever cited an historical precedent that did not support their pre-existing argument.    [FULL  STORY]