U.S.-China relation part 2: from harmony to deterrence

Business Manager
Mon Oct 05, 2020

Following the first piece of U.S.-China relations about the two presidents holding similar but structurally different beliefs in authoritarianism published in last week’s issue, this second piece will cover the emergence of China in the international arena and how the U.S. has responded to China’s rise. But, first of all, I would like to share my “no surprise” towards President Donald Trump who tested positive with COVID-19, because of his levity on the recommendations on wearing masks and COVID-19 health protocols. I wish him to recover soon, but he should rethink if he is competent enough to be re-elected. To kick start the discussion of international standing very superficially, President Xi Jingping won over Trump in this COVID-19 war, as at least Xi did not catch COVID-19. 

When it comes to the questions why the U.S. is being recognized as a world leader and how China climbs up the ladder, we have to talk about world history. The current outlook of world politics is mostly framed as a post-World War II (WWII) order, and the power retrieval by the countries who lost or were ravaged in WWII is through strong economic performance. The U.S. and its allies won in 1945. In the same year, the United Nations was founded by the U.S. as the major driver, along with the UK, the Republic of China — the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had not been in power at that time — the Soviet Union, and France. Each of the five founding members has a permanent seat in the Security Council. In other words, the winning side took charge of writing the rules and exercising their power, especially as the U.S. defined herself the leadership position. In the year of 1949, the CCP became the ruling power of China; in the next three decades, China was struggling with famine, failure in economic and social policies like the Great Leap Forward, and ideology control like the Cultural Revolution. On the other hand, despite the Cold War with the Soviet Union from 1947 to 1991, the aid to Korean War in the 1950s, and Vietnam War in the 1960s, the U.S. on its mainland did not experience a slumping economic or social downturn, only several recessions due to monetary policies and budget deficit caused by the wars, cold or hot. The U.S. economy was growing during the industrialization era with the emphasis on freedom, as race and gender equality improved, with such policies being mostly backed by its allies in the West. Amid the growing tension between the capitalists, being the U.S. and most of the European countries, and the communists, being chiefly China and the Soviet Union, the capitalist countries generally had stronger hard power during the periods of 1945 to 1980, and the world saw the U.S. as a proper rock star while China was eking out a living. 

China recovered from its internal struggles mostly due to its Open Door Policy initiative and some progressive social policies suggested by Deng Xiaoping, the second chairman of the People's Republic of China (PRC) after Mao Zedong, during his tenure in the late 1970s. Over years, the approach of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” to free enterprise and privatization under the strict monitoring by the government was followed by Deng’s successors. This economic reform made China unprecedented to other countries, maintaining around 10 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) growth on average for the next two decades, with a strong focus on industrialization. China's GDP growth has been roughly six to seven percent in recent years, as it has been expanding its competitive advantage to more diverse industries. By 2010, China became the second largest economy in the world, after the United States. 

The U.S. built a solid foundation on trade and domestic economic policies during the 1960s and 1980s, with legislation such as the Trade Expansion Act signed by President John F. Kennedy in 1962, the tax cut measures by President Lyndon B. Johnson and the later “Reaganomics” to boost the employment market. In the time since the 1940s, the United States economic structure has turned from manufacturing-oriented and industrial to now becoming de-industrialized, focusing more on service-industries and technology. 

I spelled out a lengthy part about the two economies in the post-war era because I think hard power is still a dominating factor to measure the influence of a country in the world. When China did not have compatible hard power, even if there exists a conflict on political ideologies, the U.S. did not really see China as a rival that could threaten its world leadership position. But since the year of 2001, when China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO), this one country previously known as a second-world country has earned billions of dollars in global trade. Combining the external income and the fast-growing domestic market, the economic miracle successfully lead China to have more speaking rights on trade affairs. Meanwhile, the U.S. had a great recession in 2008 when Beijing held its first Olympic games. The U.S. has then suffered from a large margin of trade deficit with China. And since 2018, China has become the largest US foreign creditor. Then the game changed: the U.S.-China power balance has shifted from dominated by the U.S. to a tie.

For the countermeasures that the U.S. has attempted to deter China's rise, there are three aspects - first are the economic barriers, second is military deterrence, and the last is condemnation of political control and human rights issues. Prior to the trade war initiated by the Trump administration two years ago, the rising concerns of China taking too much advantage from global trade has been setting off alarm bells in the US and the West since the late 2000s. For example, the U.S., the European Union, and Japan sent a request to the WTO in 2011, urging for consultations with China over its export limit on rare earth metals. The world community saw the restriction violating the international free trade agreement and indirectly pushing foreign companies like Apple to set up manufacturing and production lines there. China gave a bold response of calling the move “rash and unfair.” Despite the fact that a ‘Phase One’ trade deal is signed, the trade war is not fully settled. And the disputes are more chaotic under the Trump administration. Some recent examples are collaborating on an arrest of a Huawei executive with Canada, the restriction on Chinese investment in the U.S. market, the U.S. calling its allies to stop Chinese technology companies winning government contracts, and the ban on the U.S. companies from acquiring Chinese rising technology companies. 

Concerning the military, the U.S. is still at the top in terms of defense spending. China has caught up to the second place from the year of 2018, nonetheless the U.S. spent triple the amount than China. No country would like to go into a hot war because of the tremendous cost of lives and assets, so the tactics are usually military deterrence. Between the U.S. and China, the military confrontation occurs mainly because of territorial disputes in the South China Sea and Taiwan tension. The dynamic of U.S.-China-Taiwan relations is a very interesting bargaining chip to deter China’s ambition to affirm its large territory and power expansion. The harder the PRC tried to cut Taiwan’s international presence and foreign partnership, the stronger the U.S. government showed support to Taiwan on owning its territory.  However, in my opinion, despite the growing support for Taiwan as an official sovereignty, the tension will remain more or less the same and there will not be a great move from any of these three parties to loosen the tension. 

Lastly, the human right issues in China - my most concerning aspect - have been a long-discussed topic among the international community. After the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, there has been a pause of discussion on political suppression and human rights issues in China. One reason is that China controls the information flow online and offline. Now in recent years, the suppression of people in Hong Kong fighting for true democracy and the re-education camps in Xinjiang bring the issue back on the international discussion table. Over the years, the U.S. has adhered to its role to lead the criticism over China’s unethical control of its people, and China has been denying all the claims. Almost all U.S. leaders have taken a strong stance on China’s ideology control measures. Only if China releases the information blocking and allows popular voting for the head of the nation with free will, or very unlikely the U.S. and the West accepts the Chinese system, the argument on China’s human rights issues will never end.  

There are a lot more to discuss about the interaction between Beijing and Washington. Each of them wishes to project their own power and form international alliances to establish their regional and international power standings, and these relationships are incredibly relevant if the U.S. wishes to keep its world leadership role or if China will replace them as international "number one." So, I will leave these issues for the next article. See you in the next issue!



Appears in
2020 - Fall - Issue 5