This eventful July will be remembered in history as a watershed for China-U.S. relations, right on the start of the 100-day countdown for President Trump’s reelection. The U.S. senate first blatantly butted in on China’s internal affairs by passing the so-called Hong Kong Autonomy Act, and then its Secretary of State issued a statement, denying China’s lawful territorial and maritime claim in the South China Sea. This soon culminated in the out-of-the-blue decision by the U.S. government to shut down China’s consulate in Houston, which was surely responded by China in kind to close its consulate in Chengdu. Then came the notorious speech made by the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library on July 23, declaring that the bilateral relations should be based on the principle of “distrust and verify,” and negating the U.S. former engagement policy to China, which made people truly feel the chill of the relationship between the two major powers of the world.
The series of mind-boggling events have left people wonder where the bilateral relationship is heading and why all these things happened?
State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi points out that the current predicament faced by China-U.S. relations is completely created by the U.S. side at a video conference with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on July 24.
A Shortsighted Strategy with no Upturn in Sight
Many observers said a new Cold War already started, but no optimistic mood prevails in America to echo the belligerent moves of the Trump administration. In his article “The New ‘Cold War’ between the U.S. and China is a Dangerous Myth” published in Washington Post, former U.S. senator from Indiana Dan Coats cast doubt on the Cold War mentality of the White House and called for a “coherent, disciplined, and sophisticated policy” towards China. Many Americans shared Coats’ opinion. A CNN commentary piece went further to claim that the U.S. already disarmed itself before the competition with China started.
However, what’s certain is that in America both republicans and democrats basically reach consensus on the tough stance towards China. According to a Pew Research survey in April, 66 percent of American respondents held an unfavorable view of China, at a 20-year low. Obviously Trump’s anti-China rhetoric and stigmatization campaign should take the credit for this. And the administration is taking advantage of the public sentiment to win over the president’s dwindling supporters for the upcoming reelection. According to the Foreign Policy magazine, Republican Party polling consistently reveals that China-bashing is immensely popular among Trump supporters and can potentially offset the disapproval many Americans have for Trump’s lackluster responses to the COVID-19 crisis.
The improvised strategy is clearly seen through by Americans as is evidenced by a reader’s response to the Washington Post’s new Cold War article in Twitter “It's invented by Trump to pander to his base in an election year.”
The question is, given the entwinement of the world two largest economies, will the “decoupling strategy” work? According to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there are 72,500 American companies operating in China; bilateral economic and trade exchanges have generated 2.6 million jobs for Americans. Statistics from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce shows that despite the trade tensions between the two countries, the bilateral trade volume in 2019 still stood at RMB 3.73 trillion with the two countries both being each other’s third biggest trade partner. Just this last April, trade between the two countries rose to US $39.7 billion, up nearly 43 percent from the month before, following the signing of a trade pact in January in which China agreed to markedly increase purchases of U.S. farm products and other goods. As a report from the Wall Street Journal pointed out, “China has retaken its mantle as America’s largest trading partner, emerging as a rare bright spot for U.S. farmers and other exporters as the coronavirus pandemic constrains global commerce.” It’s not hard to speculate that American business bigwigs will try their best to sway politicians of both parties to push for a moderate approach.
In addition, the two countries’ deep engagement in the fields of education, technology, and people-to-people exchange also make the “decoupling” even more difficult to implement.
Self-centered Unilateralism Leads Nowhere
The Trump Administration has been renowned for its willful and haphazard decisions to secure some short-term political benefits. Holding high the banner of “America first” and “make America great again,” the administration has laid aside those values America had championed for long like globalization, freedom, equality, opportunity, and justice, and taken up a unilateralist method to deal with its traditional allies and trade partners alike.
While starting a trade war against China, the U.S. also imposed tariffs on its allies. In addition, the Trump administration has blamed its NATO allies over their defense budgets, threatening to not protect them unless they pay up. And the most signatory moves of the administration are its withdrawals from various international organizations and agreements. The latest one is found in its declaration to retreat from the World Health Organization, which has drawn widespread criticism as the country sees a rising number of COVID-19 cases. All these blatant unilateral moves to shirk off responsibilities that a major country should take are alienating the country from the rest of the world.
Now, to contain and confront China, Washington finally decided to retake the helm and call for an “alliance of democracies” as Pompeo called it. Will its traditional allies buy it? At a joint news conference with Pompeo on July 28, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said, "The relationship that we have with China is important. And we have no intention of injuring it."
Meanwhile on July 27, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in his annual State of the Nation Address reiterated that he would not confront China over its South China Sea claims, indicating that diplomacy was the best approach. He also ruled out allowing the U.S. military to set up bases in the Philippines again, saying “if war breaks out there will be atomic arsenals” which would “ensure the extinction of the Filipino race.”
An Irreversible Global Trend
“A just cause attracts much support; while an unjust one finds little” is a famous Chinese saying from the great ancient philosopher Mencius. When Washington clamored for withdrawing from WHO, refusing to pay its share to the international organization, which is crucially important now at the critical time of battling the COVID-19 pandemic for its role in uniting and coordinating global efforts, China declared it would make the COVID-19 vaccine global public good when it is ready for application.
In fact, many state leaders still vividly remember the speech President Xi Jinping delivered at the World Economic Forum in Davos of Switzerland in early 2017 for his championing of globalization and multilateralism, and inspiring analysis of global issues pestering the entire human race. Xi has also indicated on many occasions, China’s door to the outside world will open even wider. This is based on a holistic analysis of international situations and China’s long-term development strategy that is people-centered.
As Dan Coats pointed out in his article, “The Chinese are pursuing their foreign policy goals according to a carefully calculated long-term strategy,” in contrast to Washington’s erratic short-term policy. It’s true that China is renowned for its long-term development strategies, and even more noted for its realization of strategic development goals. However, what Coats has failed to mention is China’s people-centered governance concept and the core values of its foreign policy. Instead of seeking hegemony, China is devoted to building a community with a shared future for mankind. China has never cowed any country to realize its political agenda and always treated all countries equally, be it big or small, which has won it many true friends in the world and earned great credibility.
In the face of the brazen provocations from Washington, Beijing has shown its rationality and self-restraints. State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi indicated on July 28, any outrageous attempt to buck the global trend and call white black will lose ground and not last long; peace and cooperation is bound to prevail.
To truly win over the voters, the Trump administration has to seriously take their concerns into consideration. To escalate the spiraling rivalry with another major country, which could erode the gains accumulated from decades of trade liberalizations, disrupt global supply chains, and devour lots of jobs, is obviously not a wise option.