How should the United States react to the rise of China? This is one of the biggest questions facing the new American administration. Many Americans say some form of containment is possible. Indeed, this is one of the few points on which the administration of Joe Biden and his predecessor tend to agree. We can also see the political advantage: common enemies can unify a divided country. But is this really an achievable policy? I believe the answer is: no.
Such an essentially null vision of the US-China relationship is contained in The world upside down by Clyde Prestowitz. He insists that: “There is no dispute between the Chinese people and the people of the United States.” His objection is directed rather to the Communist Party. A similar vision infuses The longer telegram: towards a new American strategy for China, written by an anonymous “former senior government official” (referring to the famous long telegram of February 1946, which proposed to contain the Soviet Union). It also states that: “The most important challenge facing the United States in the 21st century is the rise of an increasingly authoritarian China under the presidency. . . Xi Jinping. “The challenge, he asserts, is not China but its despotic state.
I sympathize with the anxiety that pervades these posts. China’s actions in Xinjiang and Hong Kong underline its contempt for human rights and international agreements. Beijing threatens Taiwan’s de facto autonomy and extends its hold over the South china sea. In short, China is behaving more and more like a great rising power led by a ruthless and efficient despot.
The Longer telegram argues that the threat of China’s attempt to achieve world domination must be met by defending a long list of vital US interests: the maintenance of collective economic and technological superiority; protect the global status of the US dollar; maintain overwhelming military deterrence; prevent Chinese territorial expansion, especially forced reunification with Taiwan; consolidate and expand alliances and partnerships; and defend (and, if necessary, reform) the liberal rules-based international order. Yet simultaneously, the document calls for addressing common global threats, including climate change.
Is all this achievable? No, I do not think so.
First, China is a much more powerful adversary than the Soviet Union. It has a much more prosperous economy, a more vibrant technological sector, a much larger population, a more cohesive political system, and a much more competent government. China’s relative economic performance is astounding.
More importantly is its potential. China faces enormous economic challenges. But you don’t have to manage them well to have the largest economy in the world. At present, China’s per capita output (at purchasing power parity) is one-third that of the United States (up from 8 percent in 2000) and half that of the EU. Suppose this is only half of the US level by 2050. China’s economy would then be as large as those of the US and the EU together.
Second, the Chinese economy is highly integrated internationally. While this is a source of vulnerability for China, it is also a source of influence. The Chinese market exerts a magnetic attraction on a multitude of countries around the world. As a Singaporean researcher Kishore mahbubani points out, most countries want good relations with the United States and China. They will not be happy to choose the United States over China.
Finally, over the past two decades, and especially the past four years, the United States has devastated its reputation for common sense, decency, reliability, and even adherence to basic democratic standards. This matters, because his allies will be crucial in the envisaged combat. As Jonathan Kirshner states in Foreign Affairs, “The world cannot ignore the Trump presidency,” especially its shameful end. Worse yet, this aspect of the United States is clearly still alive. The United States used to talk about the need for China to be a “responsible stakeholder”. But after the pride of “Unipolar moment”, the war in Iraq, the financial crisis and the presidency of Donald Trump, is the United States a responsible actor?
This is not intended to advise despair. It is recognizing reality. So what can we do?
First, the United States and its allies must revitalize their democracies and economies. On the latter, they must indeed protect their technological autonomy. But the most important way to do this is to revitalize their scientific and technological infrastructure, including by renovating education and encouraging the immigration of talented people.
Second, they must defend the core values of adherence to the truth and freedom of expression against all enemies, domestic and foreign (including China). They must also unite to do this. China should not be allowed to go after small countries and intimidate them one by one.
Third, they must renovate the institutions of the world economy they have created and come up with new multilateral rules that bind China’s behavior and by which they too will be bound.
Fourth, the United States and its allies must clarify which fundamental interests they will defend, if necessary by force.
Last but not least, they must focus their attention, as Mr. Biden has now done, on the common project of protecting the global commons for all of us.
The relationship of the United States with China is not like that with the Soviet Union. Yes, there will be a lot of competition, but there must also be deep cooperation. To the extent that there is a war of ideologies, the freedom and democracy of the West remain more attractive. The real challenge they face is not China, but the restoration of these values at home.