Who Holds the Strategic High Ground? The Meaning of the Harsh Words between US and China

After numerous holdups, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman finally visited China. Before her trip, both countries had continuously engaged in bad-mouthing each other, which cast a shadow over the visit early on. In the end, as expected, when Sherman met with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng, neither showed good will during the meeting. In fact, it could be described as a showdown between the two powers, who each arrived rebuking the other. Where is the meaning in all of this? How should we interpret the current situation?

Deng Xiaoping once described the unique nature of the relationship between Beijing and Washington as being unable to be great, but also unable to be terrible. The disparity in strength, however, between the two sides when Deng was in power cannot be compared with what it is today. Although China’s growth in strength has reduced the disparity between the two countries, based on measures of change, it has not reversed their strengths or hit the point that would invert their basic structure. This must be kept carefully in mind when watching the two powers confront each other.

While China and the U.S. are not getting along well and are in conflict over many issues, they still must find a space in which to mutually adapt and coexist. This is the current reality that Beijing and Washington need both to acknowledge and accept. On the international stage, the U.S. has used propaganda to whip up public opinion, launching a swift and fierce attack. On the surface, it occupies the moral high ground. In reality, however, can the U.S. use this to command a strategic high ground that will compel Beijing to give in? The answer is no.

Effective strategies worry opponents, while ineffective strategies only make them happy. Whether Washington wants to adopt confrontational methods when facing Beijing or maintain a competitive stance, it should consider two factors: how much room for winning can be obtained at most, and does the U.S. have the capital to lose?

Engaging in a power struggle requires not only the ability to strike others, but more importantly, the ability to endure the fight. Donald Trump’s administration began a trade war with China, and the U.S. has continually and bombastically adopted methods to increase pressure by raising tariffs. However, now that these measures have been in place for a while, China has proven that it can endure this trade war. In fact, statistical trade figures from both sides prove that the U.S. has been incapable of making China capitulate.

As we observe the rivalry, we might as well consider: If their relationship can be worked out, what actual benefits can Washington gain, and on what issues might Beijing be willing to concede? If both powers arrive at an impasse, what kind of losses will Beijing incur? And at what point might Washington hit a wall? That Beijing and Washington have engaged in openly rebuking each other proves that the incentive each has for working out how to interact is no match for the need to make a strong statement that will satisfy domestic political demands.

Sending a high-profile deputy secretary of state to Tianjin showed America’s desire to strive for harmonious channels of communication. At the same time as the meeting, however, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was visiting Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines. The main part of America’s foreign policy is obviously to create a perimeter around the South China Sea, drawing a common battle line from which to deal with Beijing. Washington has never concealed this two-pronged strategy, so naturally Beijing was not thrilled.

Although Beijing and Washington are not close allies, Beijing does intend to maintain a mutually beneficial, stable relationship. However, both sides have let the relationship devolve into its current state. In “Bitter Love,” the most iconic work of scar literature (a genre depicting the suffering during the Cultural Revolution), author Bai Hua writes, “If we are comrades, battle companions and compatriots, why must you try to ensnare me? If you plan to shackle me, why bother to smile at me? If you plan to stab me in the back, why bother to embrace me?” Unfortunately, this portrays Beijing’s current helplessness as it confronts Washington.

Beijing will not fail to understand that, in terms of the disparity in strength between both sides, it by no means can replace Washington’s international standing. Moreover, Beijing has no strength, or intention, of assuming that standing, as it is not powerful enough to maintain the international social order. Washington also clearly understands that Beijing has no interest in challenging its leadership position on the global stage and only wants to obtain fair and reasonable treatment. Why, then, is Washington still being so imperious? Has Joe Biden’s team overestimated its odds of success?

Through political calculations, Beijing has compared the gains and losses from compromising or conflicting with the U.S. Since the showdown in Alaska, no matter how strongly Washington has attacked on the fronts of public opinion and propaganda, in the end, after all the twists and turns, Sherman put on a brave front and arrived swinging in Tianjin.

When all is said and done, where is Washington’s bottom line? When China will not accept defeat, will Washington have another opportunity to celebrate a victory?

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