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US-China conflict risks new Cold War

Trade is only first flashpoint in growing strategic rivalry

| China
Two recent U.S. documents reports on security and defense show Washington's perception of China and Russia as threats to core American interests and global hegemony.   © Reuters

For Chinese leaders, the recently published U.S. National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy reports must have removed any lingering doubt that U.S.-China relations have taken a fateful turn toward long-term strategic conflict.

Even a casual reading of these two documents would have convinced them that the American national security establishment now treats China, along with Russia, as strategic adversaries that threaten the U.S.'s core national interests and global hegemony. In the coming years, a U.S.-China strategic conflict (for diplomatic reasons, Washington still calls Beijing a "strategic competitor") will likely dominate international relations. In the worst case scenario, the world might even see a replay of a modified version of the Cold War.

Future historians will debate how the U.S. and China, after more than four decades of engagement, have fallen into the dreaded "Thucydides Trap" -- the conflict between an incumbent superpower and a rising great power seen as its challenger. Among the forces they cite as responsible for pushing the U.S. and China toward strategic conflict rather than accommodation, three are the most likely -- the rapid growth of Chinese power, the permanent insecurity of an autocratic regime, and Chinese nationalism. To be sure, American policy and behavior will also bear some of the blame, but these three factors will stand out when historians consider China's role in the conflict.

In many ways, this unfolding conflict is a true geopolitical tragedy that, in retrospect, occurred despite great efforts by both countries to avoid such an outcome. The strategy of engaging China, embraced by bipartisan American administrations since Richard Nixon, was predicated on assumptions that were later shattered by Chinese development and policies. Among other things, Washington assumed that a China benefiting from America's engagement policy would be content to live with the rules set by the U.S. since the end of WWII. Economically, a China integrated into the global economy would follow the principles of openness and reciprocity in trade and investment. Politically, a more prosperous and economically free China would be more likely to evolve into a democracy. As for security, China would unlikely risk its economic gains by challenging the security order maintained by the U.S.

Like practically everyone else, the U.S. did not anticipate that Chinese economic catch-up would be so rapid -- or how the speed in the relative shift of the balance of power would alter Chinese behavior. Obviously, it would have been easier to manage a rising China if its power had grown at a slower than a faster pace. However, propelled by Western technology, capital and market access, the super-charged Chinese economy took off and closed the gap with the American economy in a much shorter period of time than anybody could have anticipated. As late as 1990, measured in current dollar terms (the yardstick of national power), the Chinese economy was only 6% of the U.S. economy. In 2000, it was 11.7%. But by 2010, it was 40.7%. Today, based on the World Bank's data for 2016, the Chinese economy, the second-largest in the world, is 60% of the American economy.

Those observing Chinese foreign policy behavior cannot fail to notice the profound impact China's rapid gain in relative power has produced on its behavior, both at home and abroad. Within China, burgeoning revenues generated by growth have enabled the ruling Chinese Communist Party to beef up its capacity to suppress societal challenges to its authority and embark on an ambitious military modernization program aimed at narrowing the technological gap with the U.S. China's unexpectedly rapid growth of power has also dramatically altered its leaders' strategic calculations. Instead of abiding by Deng Xiaoping's dictum of "keeping a low profile and building up strength," Beijing began to expand its global influence and flex its muscle, even at the risk of encroaching on America's security interests. Although it is tempting to blame Chinese President Xi Jinping for actions such as building artificial islands in the disputed areas in the South China Sea and establishing China-led international financial institutions to challenge the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, Chinese foreign policy became assertive around 2010, two years before his rise. Xi merely accelerated this trend. For the U.S., which has much less margin for error now than a quarter century ago, Chinese actions amount to a wake-up call.

National victimhood

If the unexpectedly rapid change in the relatively balance of power between the U.S. and China is a primary driver of their strategic conflict, the difference in political regimes -- a liberal democracy versus a one-party state -- has further reinforced the adversarial dynamic. Had China been a democracy, there would have been much less Sino-American strategic distrust (just witness the thriving strategic relationship between the U.S. and India, another rising great power). But the harsh reality is that China is not a democracy and its leaders are determined to keep it that way.

Besides dashing America's optimistic, if not naive, assumption about Chinese political evolution nurtured by Washington's engagement policy, the persistence of one-party rule in China has further raised the odds of a strategic clash with the U.S. However powerful and prosperous, China's one-party regime has never felt secure in its dealings with the West. Even when U.S.-China relations were flourishing, Chinese official publications were filled with dark warnings about a Western plot to "fragment and Westernize" China. Chinese officials constantly tell their people that "hostile outside forces would never give up their intent to seek our demise." Some may dismiss such rhetoric as habitual and even harmless propaganda. But this would miss a fundamental fact:Clear-headed Chinese leaders never have any doubt about the existential political threat posed by Western liberal democracies.

In turn, such insecurity has prompted the CCP to bolster its popular support by appealing to Chinese nationalism. It is no coincidence that the party's so-called "patriotic education campaign," a systematic program to use the symbols and distorted historical narratives to inculcate a sense of national victimhood, started shortly after the crackdown of the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Even without such official incitement, Chinese nationalism would have become a dangerous political force because many ordinary Chinese would be proud of their country's rising power. As a result, the CCP now finds itself riding the tiger of Chinese nationalism: Even though top Chinese leaders are aware that the power unleashed by nationalism could endanger their rule, they have no choice but to continue to stoke the nationalist fire. The only difference between the 1990s and today is that the victimhood narrative has been replaced with the more uplifting and grandiose theme of the "China Dream." Whether intended or not, the official declaration that China now seeks to become a superpower and peer of the U.S. only confirms Washington's worst fears -- the Middle Kingdom is not willing to settle for second place.

So where do we go from here?

At the moment, it is a safe bet that an overall strategic consensus has formed in Washington that the engagement policy has failed and must be replaced with a more robust, if not confrontational, strategy. But the specifics of this strategy, except for those related to national security, have yet to be determined. Chinese leaders are not oblivious to this fundamental shift in America's China policy. The most difficult choice facing both Washington and Beijing is how to preserve the bulk of their economic relationship while engaging in a strategic conflict. In history, no countries have managed such an impossible balancing task. If history repeats itself in the unfolding U.S.-China strategic conflict, a trade war could come before a shooting war. Trump's imposition of import tariffs on solar panels - a move clearly aimed at Chinese producers - may have been the first salvo. It is unlikely to be the last.  

Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a nonresident senior fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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