On June 12, 1987, U.S. President Ronald Reagan made a speech at the Brandenburg Gate on the border between East and West Berlin calling to tear down the Berlin Wall. This speech was later seen as a key turning point in the conclusion of the Cold War. Afterward, the wall between the East and West was torn down and the globe gradually melded together into a unified, disaggregated and cooperative marketplace. Peace and progress became the theme of international politics in the Post-Cold War era. Today, however, against all expectations, there is an uproar of calls to sever ties between nations, the footsteps of a new cold war grow ever closer, and a new Berlin Wall between the U.S. and China is on the verge of emerging.
The state of U.S-China relations today is not a historical inevitability, but a combination of factors that have created a perfect storm. After the 2008 financial crisis, as the gap in strength between China and the U.S. continued to shrink, ideological conflicts between the two deepened, and Western confidence was dampened by repeated setbacks, American elites’ pathos and anticipation of disaster unexpectedly combined with grassroots, populist, and anti-foreign sentiments at a particular moment in time leading to a sudden skyrocketing of competition between powers. These factors encompass fact, fiction and the manipulation of party politics. To deconstruct that perfect storm we have to distinguish what is inevitable, long-term and irreversible; from what is incidental, short-term and mutable. Troublingly, recently both U.S. and Chinese media have been flooded with emotional language and that perfect storm seems to be growing.
There is an absence of serious, rational debate. Instead, there is a widespread circulation of viewpoints, with deceptively clear and simple logic that makes them seem true, but that are in fact erroneous. First, there is the theory that U.S-China conflict is inevitable; it holds that China’s strength has grown to the point that conflict between the rising power and the presiding power is inevitable, and this is the U.S.’s last opportunity to keep China in check. Second, there is the end of the American century theory; it claims the U.S. was already struggling internally and externally, and the novel coronavirus, the riots, the economic recession or the challenge from China was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. Third, the theory of the collapse of Western ideology; amid troubles like the financial crisis, the rise of populism and COVID-19, the West has demonstrated a subpar performance, showing that its systemic problems are beyond repair. Fourth, the theory that there is a consensus of American policy toward China; this claims that the U.S. has already formed a bipartisan, whole-of-government, new cold war-style strategy to hold China in check. Fifth, the theory that China will replace the U.S.; it claims that China has constructed a comprehensive global strategy to supersede the U.S., with the One Belt One Road initiative as the economic component, Confucius Institutes as the cultural component, Made in China 2025 as the science and technology component, and the Thousand Talents Plan as the human resources component. Sixth, the theory that isolationism is beneficial; it says that in the long run, cutting ties between nations means ending dependence on foreign countries, promoting the return of American industry, and speeding up China’s independent innovation. Seventh, the theory that U.S. policy toward China has failed; this claims that in the last 40 years, the U.S. hasn’t changed China’s systems or patterns of behavior, and now it’s becoming flustered and frustrated. Clearly these viewpoints are far removed from reality. They add fuel to the fire, objectively further deteriorating U.S.-China relations.
It’s true that the gap between the U.S. and China continues to close, and it’s also true that international power shifts make it easy for conflicts between powers to occur; however, the dose makes the poison. Whether the balance of power between the U.S. and China has reached that critical tipping point is a question that remains unanswered, as is whether or not the two countries’ ideologies have become completely incompatible. What’s more, even if that critical point has been reached, conflict is not guaranteed. These questions require serious and careful academic study and debate, carried out by professionals. To use them at will as logical premises is very dangerous.
The United States’ relative influence is declining, but we are still far from the end of the American century. In 2019, the U.S. gross domestic product made up a 25% share of the global economy, which was a return to its percent share from 1980. In that same period of time, the EU’s percent share of the world economy fell from 35% to 21%, Japan’s from 10% to 6%, and Russia’s from 3% to 2%, while China’s percent share rose from 2% to 16%. In the past 40 years, China has risen quickly, but the U.S. hasn’t declined, and other countries have lost influence; thus the essential change in the international power structure. Since World War II, as the American economy has experienced periodic ups and downs, every so often the theory of the American decline makes a comeback, but so far it hasn’t become a reality.
The Western system and Western ideology have indeed encountered many problems, but the possibility of them dying out or being replaced is small. It’s much more likely that they will be weakened, altered, fractured or reborn. Western thought and the Western system began during the Renaissance and the age of the bourgeois revolution; it was consolidated after World War II, and further developed following the Cold War. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to conclude that we are now at a turning point. This is an extensive, long-lived system in a state of constant innovation. It won’t withdraw from the historical stage so easily. What’s more, as of now there is no substitute in sight for the liberal international order. Claims about “NATO’s brain death,” the “Western decline,” and the “end of the American century” are more like warnings rather than prophecies. More than a century ago, the book “The Decline of the West” was even popular for a while.
So far, whether we’re discussing American policy toward China or Chinese policy toward the U.S., neither has been set in stone and there is much room for change in the future. In the U.S., although hostility toward China has grown in government, business and academia, there is still far from consensus on how to handle China. Liberal internationalists still insist that the U.S. should collaborate with Western allies to strengthen the liberal international system and use its institutions to constrain and remold China. Populists demand that the U.S. break off relations with China and return to a state of isolationism. Neoconservatives advocate for a new cold war and establishing China as a global adversary, thereby mobilizing American forces domestically and internationally and reviving the grand ambitions of American hegemony. In China, we must adhere to a consistent strategy, starting from the worst and striving toward the best. State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi emphasized in two press meetings that China has no intention of changing the U.S., much less replacing it, and that both the U.S. and China would benefit from cooperation and be hurt by conflict, a clear insight gained through decades of experience.
How the competitive relationship between China and the U.S. evolves in the future will be the biggest variable in the international structure of power. There is no plan that has been tested in practice and no plan that could earn universal consensus. Most of all, there is no solution that defeats the enemy in one move. The most likely situation is that both sides add as many alternative plans as possible, using all kinds of tools and constantly making adjustments in trial and error. This is a difficult and risky process of structural transformation. Now more than ever we need to be professional, patient and cool-headed, and avoid talking big or making empty promises. And if the new Berlin Wall ever emerges, it will inevitably result in a big blow to the U.S. and China’s strength and worldwide disaster. The U.S., China and the rest of the world should all be highly vigilant and take immediate action, doing the utmost to prevent U.S.-China relations from free-falling.
The author is the director of the Institute of Middle East Studies of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.
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