Sino-US relations are currently undergoing the most profound changes of the past 40-plus years. The backdrop of these changes is the long-term and sustained expansion of China’s trade surplus with the United States. The so called Sino-US trade war began not long after Donald Trump became president. However, the trade war is merely one aspect, not the entirety, of changes in Sino-US relations. In reality, the backdrop of recent changes in Sino-US relations includes at least the following: (1) the CCP’s military expansion in the South China Sea; (2) Xi Jinping’s sharp political left-turn and abolishment of presidency terms; and (3) the CCP’s desperate attempts, using improper means, to catch up with the United States in the field of science and technology.
In the context of Russia’s prolonged economic recession, China—with its rapidly developing economy—has become the United States’ most important potential opponent. As everyone knows, with respect to its values and military, China has long regarded the United States as its imaginary enemy. However, in just a few short years since Xi Jinping took power, he has challenged, and unabashedly expressed contempt for, American values and American power. With respect to domestic factors, the deepening of the ruling crisis in China has forced the CCP to tighten its control over society. As for foreign factors, the long-standing contradictory mentality of Western countries towards China has resulted in insufficient preventive measures against China.
At the recently concluded APEC conference, the world has once again witnessed the disagreements and confrontations between China and the United States. Since China and the United States were unable to reach any consensus whatsoever on so many issues, the summit failed, for the first time ever, to issue a Leaders’ Declaration. This result shows that the antagonism between China and the United States is not limited to the realm of trade, nor is the antagonism between China and the United States merely a diplomatic issue between the two nations. Rather, it is the inevitable reality that the entire world must face.
The reason that the trade issue became the matter of greatest concern to the United States is that a huge trade deficit forces the United States to constantly reflect about the implications of the “rise of China” for the United States. Under Deng Xiaoping’s policy of “concealing China’s strengths and biding time,” China, feigning a gentle demeanor, engaged in long-term dealings with the United States, but surreptitiously developed into an emerging power capable of challenging the United States. Meanwhile, the United States has failed to prepare for this. Even though U.S. aircraft and warships can still symbolically declare “freedom of passage” in the South China Sea, China has already built military bases on the islands and reefs of the South China Sea, greatly altering the balance of power vis-à-vis military capabilities in the South China Sea. This has also resulted in changes to the mindsets of other countries in this region.
President Trump may be the first politician not only to be soberly aware of the threat posed by China, but also to start taking comprehensive action to address this threat. In this respect, virtually none of Trump’s actions has met with any resistance in the American political sphere. There are two reasons for this. First, the threat of the “rise of China” can no longer be ignored. Second, for a long time, Americans have been dismayed by China’s lack of rule of law and lack of human rights. Therefore, imposing restrictions and constraints on China, and even outright opposition to China, is a special “political correctness” that is accepted by all sectors of society, and can even be considered one of the rare areas of consensus between the Democratic Party and Republican Party.
Under the impetus of President Trump, the United States has established new trade agreements with Mexico and Canada. One of the provisions of these agreements stipulates that if any member-state of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) enters into a free trade agreement with any “non-market” country, other member-states can withdraw and establish their own bilateral trade pact within a six-month period. The addition of this clause, apart from preventing China using Mexico and/or Canada as a “back door” to export its products to the United States, also demonstrates that Canada and Mexico accept the United States’ strategy to restrict China.
At the same time, the European Union, on which China once placed high hopes, has made it abundantly clear that it refuses to oppose the United States and side with China. In addition, during the China-EU Summit, the EU rejected China’s proposal to issue a joint statement with China condemning Trump’s trade policy.
The United States should not overlook that behind the actions of these countries, recognition of common values played a key role. Indeed, most APEC member-states are geographically closer to China than to the United States, and, in recent years, China has gone on a whirlwind tour spending money to try to “buy off” other countries, but at the APEC conference, despite the harsh pressure exerted by China, they failed to reach a joint statement. This indicates that most countries maintain a cautious attitude toward China. Meanwhile, although the host country, Papua New Guinea, receives a lot of aid from China, it has rejected China’s diplomatic pressure, and Papua New Guinea’s foreign minister even refused to meet with Chinese diplomats.
The failure of China’s attempts to “buy off” other countries also exposes China’s weakness: Today, China wields unprecedented economic influence, and spends big money trying to buy “friends,” but almost all countries that act in a “friendly” manner toward China do so for their own advantage. Meanwhile, the rise of China’s military capabilities has increased the need for neighboring countries to maintain strong relations with the United States. In addition, China’s attempt to “buy friends” is not unconditional. In any country where it invests heavily, China is certainly attempting to influence the country’s politics and economy. This has already caused some Asian countries, such as a Malaysia and Sri Lanka, to be on the alert.
Some people have posed the question: Will tensions between China and the United States degenerate into a new Cold War? However, it is unlikely that history will simply repeat itself. First of all, China has no real allies in the world. All of China’s so-called “friendships” are merely the result of luring others by promise of gain. China cannot even lead the formation of a coalition like the Warsaw Pact. That being said, it is important to note that in China’s contest with the United States, the CCP has adopted more diverse methods and more cunning tactics than the former Soviet Union.
Although the CCP has long indoctrinated Chinese citizens with the belief that “the United States is the enemy,” it is very rare for the CCP to publicly express opposition to the United States. The CCP understands how to use “sweet talk” to “paralyze” the other side: For example, in its rhetoric, the CCP compares Sino-US relations to a “husband-and-wife couple”; or proclaims that “the Pacific Ocean is large enough to accommodate both China and the United Sates”; or, on the international stage, promotes cooperation and opposes opposition. However, one must not forget that at the same time that Xi Jinping was committing to demilitarization in the South China Sea during a visit to the White House Rose Garden, China was rapidly and surreptitiously establishing a military base in the South China Sea. There is also another fact that confirms the CCP’s strategic deception and the diversity of its external tactics: The purpose of the negotiation is to reach an agreement, but the CCP sometimes regards the negotiation itself as the objective in order to seek a time and space that is advantageous for China, such as the six-party talks of the past or the Sino-US trade negotiations of today. All of this suggests that the opponent that the United States currently faces is not like the former Soviet Union, which openly engaged in tit-for-tat one-upmanship. Therefore, the United States must adopt a more effective strategy to restrict China.
Why is the world worried about the rise of China’s economic and military strength? Because China’s opaque information environment and non-procedural decision-making mean that the outside world is unable to anticipate China’s behavior with any clarity. An opaque information environment and non-procedural decision-making are contrary to the political direction in which most countries are moving today. If a country accepts universal values, its future and external relations will not be determined in a dictatorial manner. I believe that this is the root cause of why it is so difficult for China to earn real trust from the outside world. The US-China trade conflicts are deeply rooted in differences in values and beliefs. US trade deficit with China stems inexorably from China’s democracy, freedom and fairness deficits. To be sure, there is no such thing as free and fair trade between a rule-based free market and a cynical, closed society.
Everyone wants to make money and everyone wants to develop the economy through cooperation, but the goal of economic growth should ultimately be to serve humankind. Money is practically worthless in the face of life-and-death issues. Hitler and Stalin both achieved an impressive rate of economic growth and technological development, but history proves that such development poses an immense threat to the very survival of humankind.
Therefore, beyond its economic and military strength, the United States must pay attention to the tremendous power that can be generated by recognition of common values, and use this power to form an international alliance against China. The reason I believe that we should not adopt a Cold War approach to deal with current Sino-US issues is that there is no way that the outside world would give up the huge market of China, nor would China rashly close its doors to the outside world. Thus, an international coalition with the capacity to take “collective action” will have the maximum ability to constrain China’s behavior and force China to abide by international norms. If it is only a contest between China and the United States, then even if the United States wins, it will pay a heavy price.
In addition, since Xi Jinping came to power, the human rights situation in China has dramatically deteriorated. “Concentration camps,” in which over one million people are detained, have emerged in Xinjiang. The international community also has a responsibility to force China to stop its human rights violations. Although this is unrelated to the trade war, it is an equally salient issue that the international community must address.
The US-China trade war will certainly impact the Chinese economy in the near future and affect the lives of many Chinese people. Even talking about the trade war could induce the CCP to fortify its nationalist propaganda and spread anti-American sentiment among its populace. However, a values-based coalition will enable the Chinese people to realize that opposition between China and the United States represents a disagreement over the direction of human societal development, thus imposing restrictions on the CCP to promote the rise of freedom and civilized power in China.
Therefore, injecting values into the US-China trade war is important for guaranteeing the United States’ victory. In the face of the CCP’s increasingly sophisticated scientific, technological and military capabilities, strengthening the role of values may have a bearing on the very future of humankind.
To a large extent, the reason that the United States has become a universally-recognized superpower is that the United States has held high the banner of freedom many times to advance the progress of history, and shared the great benefits of this progress. Every step of progress that the United States has made has also brought greater hope to all of humanity. I believe that this is true Americanism, and that such Americanism will gain worldwide support.
Jianli Yang is a survivor of the Tiananmen Square Massacre (1989), former political prisoner of China (2002-2007) and founder and president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China.