Author:Yu, P.H.

As confrontation looms over Washington and Beijing, it is critical to identify the true nature of this challenge from an international relations perspective before any attempt to devise a counter measure. Wrong presumptions or prejudicial interpretations may lead to dire consequences of unforeseeable magnitude. One past example would be the U.S. government's belief that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) before the American invasion in 2003. A more current example would be the American nuclear anxiety on North Korea and how President Trump bypassed conventional American strategic thinking and circumvented hawkish threats of preemptive nuclear annihilation to resolve a "draconian crisis" via "smart diplomacy." These examples may shed light on a pathway to resolution for the current U.S.-China trade conflict.

The United States and China have ample experience of weathering a crisis on the brink of war, whether it was on the Korean Peninsula or in Indochina. China today remains on die U.S. sanctions list for certain high-tech products and military equipment. Both the Trump administration and Congress continue to criticize China regularly, ranging from human rights to religious rights, from the rule of law to the autocratic political system, from the state-owned banks to restrictive market access to foreign corporations, and from currency manipulation to unfair trade practices.

A New Washington Consensus

Recently, former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson spoke in Singapore about a growing consensus in the U.S. establishment that views China "not just as a strategic challenge to the United States but as a country whose rise has come at America's expense." He warned that the arguments raised by many influential voices for the "decoupling" of the two economies, which have also fueled a new consensus in Washington that China is not just a strategic competitor but a "major long-term adversary," will not be going away anytime soon. After reflecting on a decade of tough-minded but cooperative interaction with Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan since the 2008 financial crisis, Paulson stated that he now sees the prospect of an "Economic Iron Curtain" (Paulson 2018).

It wasn't so long ago that the two nations were working together to ensure the world functioned properly, including the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Iran nuclear deal, and the six-party talks on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. In fact, further in the past, the two nations even worked together to contain the Soviet Union. It is difficult to imagine that, after just a few years, one change of government would lead to the current state of friction-- with decoupling becoming a major topic among Washington elites, while the FBI and national security agencies are considering restrictions on university and immigration policies to keep Chinese students from studying science and engineering in the United States. If these ludicrous ideas are being bandied about, talks of the two nations spiraling into a new Cold War may no longer seem unimaginable.

What Are the Options?

There is no doubt that die United States and China are in a state of strengthening competition; denying the potential repercussion is like not seeing an elephant in the room. However, is war or decoupling the only option? Even those who normally advocate force to compel compliance should think twice in this case about alternatives or consequential outcomes. China is not Nazi Germany, certainly not the Soviet Union, and has no place on the so-called Axis of Evil that President George W. Bush used to describe North Korea, Iran, Iraq, and other governments that sponsored terrorism. No other label would justify the hostility toward China, a competitor/partner in economics and politics of more than 40 years. The outdated American framework of thinking of countries as either adversaries or alliance partners no longer fits, especially in the case of China. It is time to heed Paulson's advice that the stakes for the world are higher than ever before, therefore "we need to craft a new framework that works for today's world, not the world of the past" (Paulson 2018).

The current state of U.S.-China relations weighs heavily on people from all sectors, including politicians, businessmen, and ordinary consumers. Most would define the current impasse as historical, with unpredictable outcomes, as friction may lead to direct conflict.


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