Honolulu – China and the United States have overcome quarrels before. The current deterioration of bilateral relations, however, is more worrisome than usual.
In the past, China-U.S. relations were reliably cyclical. When there was a downturn, we could count on a recovery within a few years. In 2001, for example, bilateral relations plunged after the collision of a Chinese fighter aircraft with a U.S. Navy surveillance aircraft in international airspace near Hainan Island.
The Chinese government claimed the Americans had intruded into Chinese territory and caused the death of the Chinese pilot. The U.S. government condemned China for holding the U.S. crew hostage for 10 days while demanding payment and an apology. By 2004, however, U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was talking about “the best relationship that the United States has had with China in over 30 years.
Until recently, safety nets operated in both countries to prevent irretrievable damage to the relationship. In the U.S., the business community would quickly remind policymakers of the importance to U.S. prosperity of trade with and investment in China.
The “Chimerica” or “G2” argument was ascendant: the two countries needed each other so much that cooperation would always trump competition. China posed no direct or serious threat to U.S. friends in the Asia-Pacific region, nor did it challenge America’s strategic position. Americans widely believed that growing wealth and further integration into international regimes would liberalize China and bring Chinese strategic thinking into closer alignment with that of Washington.
For their part, the Chinese governments led by Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao did not allow mass nationalism to drive foreign policy. Even when the U.S. aircraft bombed China’s embassy in Belgrade in 1999 amid the war in Yugoslavia, killing three Chinese, Jiang did not shift Chinese foreign policy to a more confrontational posture toward the U.S. Prior to a noticeable shift around 2009, Beijing took care to avoid antagonizing the U.S. and seemed to moderate its behavior to accommodate regional fears that a stronger China would behave aggressively.
But the safety nets have rotted away.
The U.S. business community no longer forcefully champions good relations with China. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission reported that “U.S. companies, increasingly concerned about the unfriendly business environment and uncertain policy direction, are delaying new investment” because of Chinese policies such as requiring U.S. business to partner with a Chinese firm and to disclose their trade secrets and cyber security information.
Already underway in 2019, economic “decoupling” has accelerated as a result of the increased bilateral acrimony generated by both countries’ responses to the pandemic. A total separation is impossible, but the reduction of economic ties also means an erosion of the primary bulwark against military conflict.
The new American consensus is that contrary to previous hopes, increased wealth and technological advancement have not led China to become more liberal and cooperative, but rather the opposite. The administration of President Donald Trump takes the view that China is “attempting to erode American security and prosperity” and “seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region.”
Beijing increasingly demands that other countries in the region submit to Chinese preferences in strategic disputes and relies on military intimidation to enforce those demands. China’s tolerance for confrontation has expanded. Its recent moves have raised tensions with not only the U.S., but also with Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, India and Australia. Chinese Navy incursions near the Senkaku Islands have also spiked this year. The Chinese government seems less constrained by the fear of looking like a bully and more confident that its economic power gives regional governments no choice but to accommodate China. Xi appears to have embraced a nationalism-based foreign policy.
If the safety nets proved short-lived, the two primary wellsprings of U.S.-China tensions today are deep and enduring. The first is domestic politics.
Xi is undertaking a massively difficult domestic project: to make China one of the few cases in history to successfully climb out of the “middle-income trap” to become a high-income country. To do so he must defeat the stiff opposition put up by several huge special interest groups that benefit from the status quo. He also needs to increase popular support for the Chinese Communist Party’s monopoly on political power.
At minimum Xi cannot afford to make himself vulnerable to his many domestic enemies by looking weak on foreign policy, and ideally a few wins against foreign governments strengthens him for other battles at home. With the majority of Chinese already believing the U.S. is committed to suppressing China’s “rise,” Xi’s government stokes this sentiment to gain the advantage of a rally-round-the-regime effect. The notion of the U.S. as an enemy, and the expectation that Beijing will continue to treat America accordingly, are reinforced.
Trump’s Republican Party has made China-bashing a centerpiece of its campaign to win votes in the November elections. A harsher policy toward China, however, is now a bipartisan issue in the U.S. Indeed, Trump and his principal competitor for the presidency, Joe Biden, are effectively in a contest over which can express more toughness toward Beijing. The mood of disillusionment in the U.S. toward China is reminiscent of 1989, when the massacre at Tiananmen Square shattered the American image of an open-minded Deng leading China toward liberalization.
The second deep and long-term source of tension is the U.S.-China rivalry for leadership in the Asia-Pacific region. Despite Trump’s disdain for alliances and international organizations, the U.S. remains committed to keeping its position as top strategic player. Washington condemns Beijing’s irredentist agenda and coercive tactics, insisting that China seek prosperity and security within the rules written by the Western powers. Beijing rejects those constraints, seeing Chinese leadership of the region and the re-incorporation of all Chinese-claimed territory as part of China’s natural birthright. These U.S. and Chinese visions in their present forms are not reconcilable.
Bilateral relations will still fluctuate, which means they could improve from today’s nadir. But the ceiling for improvement is steadily getting lower.
Denny Roy is a senior fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu.