The US’ lack of long-term strategy will only make China stronger and wiser under Xi Jinping
The trade war notwithstanding, the US has been slow to defend the world order from China. In the past decade, it has failed to develop a coherent strategy to manage China’s ascent, and a possible change of government next year won’t help
The latest confrontation between the United States and China officially started with the trade war in 2018. The time since then has reminded us just how different the two countries are and how difficult it has become to reach a compromise. While the West would like to preserve the current world order and strengthen its global leadership, China brings to the table a different narrative, with Chinese characteristics.
The US has long presented itself as the guardian of world peace and democracy, whereas China’s discourse centres on the utopian idea of a common destiny, which will be built through close cooperation between all states, around shared values, but with Chinese characteristics. This vision, however, strongly precludes any foreign influence on China’s domestic affairs, where centralised authority guides not only the people, but the law itself.
The result is a rule-of-law system with Chinese characteristics, in which the law is above all, but placed under the Communist Party's unified and centralised leadership; a constitution, but no constitutional court; a formal multiparty system, but one in which the Communist Party inherently reigns supreme.
Internally, the party’s supremacy is easy to maintain when about 1 in 17 Chinese is a party member and Beijing spends more money on internal security than the military. Externally, the Chinese characteristics of the system sometimes lead to paradoxical situations, where internationally proclaimed principles, such as the right of peoples to self-determination, are essentially not in line with China’s political and social realities.
However, China’s huge economic growth and technological prowess clearly mean that the country can no longer be ignored, or isolated. And yet, how many more Chinese characteristics – such as “one country, two systems” – will the global community be willing to accept?
The answer is far from obvious. On the one hand, the huge economic gains from interactions with China have so far prevented both the US and European Union from taking too strong a position on many issues involving China. On the other hand, should the world’s largest democracies abstain from defending the international principles that are the very foundation of the current world order, then the world as we know it will become prey to uncertainty.
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In other words, if economic gains continue to prevent the US and EU from challenging China when it drifts away from the principles that govern international relations, then the future world order will be dominated by Chinese characteristics.
The next 10 years will be decisive with regard to the role Beijing plays on the world stage. Its influence has grown considerably in Asia and on other continents, under Washington's suspicious, but passive, watch.
Although the US has warned China against continuing its activities in South China Sea, Africa and the Arctic, and also urged EU countries not to join the Belt and Road Initiative but to assist the US in resisting China, Beijing has stayed the course and asked Washington to mind its own business. With most of the world's economies closely linked to its own, China no longer needs US permission to do anything.
China’s behaviour in the South China Sea, where its influence is rising in spite of repeated US warnings, is highly illustrative in this regard. The US has accused China of hindering the resource exploitation efforts of Southeast Asian states and of jeopardising freedom of navigation in international waters in the South China Sea.
China has dismissed all such claims, declaring that outsiders should not disrupt regional harmony by interfering in regional disputes. However, the scale of US passivity has surprised even the Chinese, strengthening the belief that the US influence in Southeast Asia has indeed diminished.
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But a China that cannot be tamed in any of its aspirations is a fearsome scenario for many. A powerful modern state organised around a single, centralised authority is alien to Western countries accustomed to progressive liberalisation. In spite of external pressure and concerns, the Chinese government has clearly stated it is not willing to give up the centralised model it has developed, at the cost of the consequences of the US-led commercial war against it.
Whereas President Barack Obama saw cooperation with China as the best way to manage its ascent, the Trump administration has favoured a more confrontational approach, starting the trade war, to which China has responded defiantly.
However, the lack of a consistent and coherent US strategy over the past decade has benefited China, making it more aware of the leverage it wields in negotiations. The US dragged its feet for too long, failing to take action on multiple occasions, thus unintentionally adding to China’s audacity.
The trade war cannot last forever. The sooner the two countries reach a compromise, the better for the whole world, as a clash between the world’s two largest economies impacts everyone. I believe, however, that the answer lies with China. As an emerging world power with many strengths, China needs to give the world a token of good faith and show that its ambitions are fair and its respect for international law is genuine.
In the current state of affairs, the West does not know how to manage China. If President Donald Trump loses next year’s election to a Democrat, US foreign policy will shift again, most likely away from whatever the previous administration has achieved, as has happened before. The lack of a long-term vision, one that would prevail beyond a presidential term, is perhaps the US’ biggest weakness in its relations with China.
With last year’s amendment to the Chinese constitution, China can keep its leadership unchanged for an indefinite period. One thing remains certain: with every US administration that comes and goes, China becomes stronger, wiser and more experienced, while the West slowly but surely loses its influence over that part of the world.