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China’s foreign minister recently declared that “some political forces in the US (United States)” are pushing US and China “to the brink of a new Cold War.” Many analysts too predict that Washington and Beijing are poised for a contentious ideological struggle that could unravel the world as it exists today. The fact, however, is we are still at a flux. Neither Beijing or Washington have truly come to terms with the next chapter in their interactions or its implications for the future international order. Each side will have a vote on the future course of the relationship.
Foreign offices around the world are trying to make sense of the deterioration in the Sino–American relationship. The uncertainty revolves around some fundamental questions: Will the two erstwhile allies during the first Cold War, wage a similar struggle against one another? What will be the normative basis of their rivalry? Is it about power or incongruent visions of the world order?
Possibility of Cold War
The goal envisaged by the American grand strategists four decades ago was precisely this: socialise a rising China into the mainstream international relations framework and embed it in a set of norms that were supported from within the Chinese political system. Contrary to popular belief, US strategy did not entirely fail. Bringing liberal democracy to China was never actually on the horizon of clear-eyed US policymakers. It would have been the icing on the cake. Besides, the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown put an end to that delusion. Instead, engagement was premised on expanding the avenues for US businesses along with reorienting China’s approach to world order and globalisation after the end of the Cold War.
Claims that China failed to liberalise at home are all ex-post rationalisations to elude the fact that it is the US that finds itself unable to sustain the open international order and seeks revisions in how its benefits are allocated to key stakeholders. This is because the open liberal framework has accelerated the power transition and redistributed economic power from the Atlantic to the Indo–Pacific. The American people no longer support a globalist venture that yields disproportionate material advantages to a tiny minority at home. US businesses are having to compete with a rival power on more and more technology fronts.
Since US policymakers cannot advance a plausible pretext for disrupting the open world order, the blame is placed on a failed democracy promotion experiment, which was always peripheral to the overall conception of China policy and held by a few who were “blinded by an idealistic if not narcissistic faith that the Chinese dream equaled their own” (Paul 2020). The nub of the problem is, China integrated into the post-1945 and subsequently the post-1991 order, not as a client or junior partner but as an independent state. It is this basic reality that the US elite cannot countenance. As the most recent US National Security Strategy candidly admits, US engagement with and inclusion of China into the international order was predicated on converting the latter into a “benign” actor. This naïve expectation, if it was truly held, has been belied over the past decade.
This is where the debate on the US–China equation gets complicated. Is the main driver for competition merely to secure US national interests and preserve advantages that are seen to be fading away? Or is there a world order basis for the growing rivalry?
Those who advance the Cold War thesis naturally rely on a deep normative struggle that is underway—between a democractic America and an authoritarian China. To assert that a difference in political systems, which of course is real, extends to clashing international visions is less easy to argue. Unlike the US–Soviet rivalry that was built on a world order contest underpinned by zero-sum ideological visions and sharp dividing lines on the political economy, China’s mixed economy, albeit state-led, has incorporated select capitalist precepts into its economic governance framework as well as liberal ideas into China’s engagement with international institutions. Put another way, China’s international identity is not a coherent whole but an amalgam of contradictions that cannot be confronted or “othered” by relying on a simplistic Cold War rhetoric.
When stripped of its grandiose foreign policy discourse, China has been unable to truly distinguish its world order vision. Claims to advance a universal community of shared benefits is not markedly different to the universalism of US liberalism. Ironically, China’s attempt to reform the globalised order might even echo some of the ideas of liberals like Franklin D Roosevelt who, in a not dissimilar context, advocated balancing a hard nosed out-of-control capitalism with principles to secure social stability and economic sustainability, a core priority for the Communist Party of China today. We often forget that Roosevelt’s “vision was originally global in spirit and scope,” and envisioned a concert of great powers managing the post-war order. The sudden outbreak of the Cold War propelled an alternative hegemonic vision of an “American-led and Western-centred system” (Ikenberry 2020). It is the latter imperial variant that China no longer supports. But China wants the basic tenets of the liberal world order to continue long after the decline of US hegemony and international primacy.
Chinese discourse reflects this. The “vision espoused by China does not deviate much from the legal and political foundations of the existing international order but rather provides a moderate blueprint for the betterment of the international order” (Ming 2020). Broadly, China seeks to maintain the open globalised framework after revising some rules and nudging the system towards a more sustainable course based on a balance of interests between the major powers. For example, in “international finance, China certainly does not want to see the US dollar occupying a hegemonic position forever” (Jisi 2020). In the geopolitical realm, China will not behave like Germany or Japan who have accepted a subordinated role in a world designed by the US. China does aspire for a privileged geopolitical position in Asia.
On a broader setting, China wants to make its mark felt, not by advancing radical ideas but ironically parroting what was heard not long ago by Western elites. Xi Jinping’s famous Davos speech of 2017 is one of the several instances where China has made a sharp distinction between “two distinct outlooks.” One of a US bent on “making America great again” by putting itself first, and, China who believes “what economic globalisation needs now is not a bullet in the head, but a better compass in the hand” (Xinhua 2018). When Wang Yi recently remarked, “China will firmly follow the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics that has been proven successful in practice, but will not export its system or development model,” this was partly to reassure Cold Warriors in the West but it was also an admission—China does not even possess an exportable model after its own complex mutations of socialism.
If the argument that China has accomodated itself to some key, though certainly not all, pillars of the open international order is plausible then the entire discourse on Sino–American competition needs to be recast. Can there really be another Cold War if the underlying ideological disagreements are less severe and not always discernible between the two?
To be sure, US policymakers continue to espouse the democracy versus autocracy narrative to rally support within the US body politic and internationally to wean states towards the US. But the democracy argument is too tainted to be a normative fulcrum of a US-led charge on China. Few in Asia and the developing world will buy into that binary. Traditional US allies in Western Europe and East Asia too would merely pay lip service to such a mantra while continuing to do business with a rising China (Tsuruoka 2020; Sugiyama and Johnson 2020). Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel recently spoke of the European Union’s “great strategic interest” in maintaining “constructive” cooperation with China. “We Europeans will need to recognise the decisiveness with which China will claim a leading position in the existing structures of the international architecture” (Donahue 2020).
What we are witnessing is something more in sync with the longue durée of history. A cycle of power transition that has played out in several instances. Some were peaceful and others intensely violent. The violent episodes like Napoeonic France or Nazi Germany or imperial Japan all reflected one common feature: the rising power found no avenue to flourish and buttress its power potential under the prevailing international order. In contrast, China’s rise has occurred within the liberal international order and a culture of interdependence enabled this process to occur. This negates the very meaning of a Cold War—a clash of irreconcilable ideas—towards competition over the reins of the international order. The script of how US–China competition will unfold is yet to be written.
It is easier to conjecture what US–China relations will not look like in the foreseeable future. It will not ensue like the British accommodation of America’s rise in the 19th century. Neither would it play out like the violent Anglo–German clash in the early 20th century. Nor would it resemble the US–Soviet ideological rivalry during the first Cold War. The Sino–American relationship is sui generis. The present US policy is one of balancing against select components of Chinese power but “remain open to constructive, results-oriented engagement and cooperation from China where our interests align.”
We do not seek to contain China’s development, nor do we wish to disengage from the Chinese people. The United States expects to engage in fair competition with the PRC, whereby both of our nations, businesses, and individuals can enjoy security and prosperity.1
World without a Hegemon
As other states grapple with the disruption in US–China relations, we should not lose sight of the broader historical need for a fresh outlook to organise international relations. The experience of past several centuries has accustomed us to accept that world order requires a hegemon—a central organising power—and that such authority could only emerge from within the Euro–Atlantic community of states. While the post-1945 balance of power did reveal it was no longer possible to order the planet without cooperation with the non-Western world, we never really questioned the assumption that superpowers are pillars for international order.
So when the unipolar moment came, despite the discomfort and uncertainty it produced, few really challenged the notion that the world required a hegemon to supply public goods and enforce rules of the game for others to buy into. That premise broke down in the late 2000s with the relative decline in US material capacity to play such a role, the resurgence of Asia and Eurasia, and the misuse of the unipolar moment and failure to create a true liberal and inclusive international order. The 2008 global economic crisis only strengthened this trend. And collectively, it led to the upheavals in the US body politic we can witness today and the collapse of the establishment consensus and authority inside the US.
However, this is where the power transition cycle is breaking with the patterns of past centuries, when the baton was passed from one Western power to another more capable Western power that resumed the responsibility of upholding order. But those previous power transitions were within the same cultural and intellectual milieu so to speak. Asia, and China in particular, has been unable and unwilling, to assume such a formidable and expansive role. Its complex identity constrains such a path for as the most astute observers of China recognise Chinese internationalism is still vague and couched in lofty rhetoric to be a true universal force.
As Chinese scholars admit, “a hegemon must have a vision for the whole world’s development and interests beyond its own geopolitical interests.” Yet, so far, China lacks such a “broad, open, and progressive culture and an ideology of inclusiveness” (Ming 2020). That Beijing has renewed its focus on domestic stability and its regional periphery—exemplified most recently by violent incidents on the border with India—attests to China’s inability to sustain a vision that can transcend its geopolitical interests. At any rate, China is unlikely to ever possess material power on a scale necessary to supply public goods on its own even if it could develop a universal or pan-Asian vision with finesse.
The only alternative normative pathway to a sustainable world order is a multipolar polycentric framework. For this order to be stable and legitimate, it cannot be exclusive, bloc-based, or driven by norms that emanate from a few major states. It has to be open, plural, multi-civilisational, decentred and regionalised, and yet simultaneously global on issues like strategic stability, financial sustainability, and ecological security. Great powers that are most sensitive to this emerging and complex world and respond creatively with norms and public goods will become the pillars of the emerging world order.
1 “United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China,” White House, 20 May 2020, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/U.S.-Strategic%C2%A0-Approach-to-The-Peoples-Republic-of-China-Report-5.24v1.pdf
Donahue, Patrick (2020): “Merkel Says EU Has ‘Strategic Interest’ in Working With China,” Bloomberg, 27 May, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-05-27/merkel-says-eu-has-strategic-interest-in-working-with -china.
Ikenberry, John (2011): “Future of the Liberal World Order,” Foreign Affairs, May.
Jisi, Wang (2020): “Uphold Three Bottom Lines for China-US Relations,” Global Times, 5 June.
Ming, Liu (2020): “Xi Jinping’s Vision of a Community with a Shared Future for Humankind: A Revised International Order?,” National Bureau of Asian Research, Special Report #85, June.
Paul, Ethan (2020): “The Dangerous Idealism of Competing with China,” 4 June, https://responsiblestatecraft.org/2020/06/04/the-dangerous-idealism-of-competing-with-china/.
Sugiyama, Satoshi and Jesse Johnson (2020): “Japan Threads the Needle as US–China
Animosity Hits New Highs,” Japan Times, 7 June.
Tsuruoka, Michito (2020): “China Isn’t Losing Europe Yet,” Diplomat, 6 June.
Xinhua (2018): “Shared Future or America First,” Xinhua, 24 January, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-01/24/c_136921547.htm.