Zhou Bo: Why China must beware a less confident US, politically divided and pessimistic about its future

  • ZHOU Bo

  • BY ZHOU Bo

    Has China’s foreign policy restraint ended? This is the question raised by Kurt M. Campbell and Mira Rapp-Hooper in their essay “China is done biding its time” in Foreign Affairs. They argue that since the pandemic first engulfed the world, China’s government has engaged in an unprecedented diplomatic offensive, taking advantage of the ensuing chaos and the global power vacuum left by a no-show US administration.

    Likewise, in a recent opinion piece in the Financial Times, Michele Flournoy, a former US undersecretary of defence for policy, concludes that China’s border clash with India is another sign of the county’s growing assertiveness.

    Such views, preponderant in Western media, need serious examination. China’s “assertiveness”, be it in the South China Sea or the Galwan Valley, is a response to the challenges it perceives to its sovereignty. And China doesn’t need to make use of the “chance” provided by the pandemic since China is stronger than these countries militarily.

    In Hong Kong, where the “one country, two system” framework applies, “one country” comes first, and “two systems” doesn’t mean the central government should tolerate the unrest that has plagued the city in recent years. The national security law is an “enough is enough” response.

    While it is debatable whether the US has declined in power, most people agree at least that the US has declined relative to other nations, such as the new emerging economies. But Donald Trump is the biggest proponent of the “decline” narrative. His sketch of “American carnage” and then championing of “America first” helped him win the presidential election in 2016.

    Democrat presidential hopeful Joe Biden and former national security adviser John Bolton called Trump “an aberration”, but he surely isn’t one if he is re-elected in November. This president, who engaged in aberrant behaviour on a daily basis, would then look more like the culmination of long-standing trends in a country that is politically divided and broadly pessimistic about its future.

    Even if the US is in retreat, Beijing has more serious business to attend to than confront Washington, most importantly the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by 2049. Thus, even if the Chinese government decided against setting a gross domestic product target for 2020 due to the pandemic, it hasn’t relented on its commitment to eliminate extreme poverty by the end of this year.

    It is particularly ludicrous to hear Washington describe Beijing as “assertive” or “coercive”. In a telephone conversation with Trump in 2019, former US president Jimmy Carter referred to the US as “the most warlike nation in the history of the world” and said the US has been at peace for only 16 of its 242 years as a nation. Professor Michael Lind pointed out in The National Interest in 2019 that “the US is now engaged in more simultaneous small wars on more fronts than at any point in its history”.

    In comparison, China has had no wars since 1979. The deadly brawl in the Galwan Valley is most unfortunate; still, soldiers from both sides had a tacit understanding of not shooting at each other.

    American policies towards China have been based on narcissism (“We rebuilt China over the last 25 years”, remarked US Vice-President Michael Pence) and hallucination (the US Strategic Approach to China noted that China’s “rapid economic development and engagement with the world did not lead to convergence with the citizen-centric, free and open order as the United States had hoped”).

    Beijing should never have misled Washington in this regard – stability in its political system and society has always been China’s core interest.

    An overconfident US after the Cold War has proved dangerous. The US’ war in Afghanistan alone killed tens of thousands of people, including more than 2,300 American troops. But a less confident US is probably more dangerous. Washington has finally dropped its mask and is making all its resources available to maintain its primacy and suppress China.

    This is clear in the US’ bills on Taiwan, its change of policy of not taking sides on the South China Sea issue and calls to allies and partners to band together with Washington against Beijing. The US’ efforts around the world against Chinese telecom company Huawei are not really because Huawei’s 5G network is a “Trojan horse” of Chinese intelligence services, as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asserted, but that if Huawei’s 5G system is widely adopted, the US might lose its supremacy in communication technology to China.

    How could China continue to develop peacefully amid these headwinds? The Chinese government believes that while the world is experiencing profound changes “unprecedented in a century”, this is also the “best time for China’s development since modern times”. The most profound change the world is experiencing is China growing ever stronger.

    In the Asia-Pacific, China’s neighbours fear being pushed to take sides by either China or the US. During an Asian tour in August last year, US Defence Secretary Mark T. Esper said the Pentagon would like to deploy intermediate-range American missiles in Asia within months. Some Association of South Asian Nations members might wish the US could balance China, but never at a cost of turning the South China Sea into a battlefield on their doorsteps.

    Neither Beijing nor Washington wants a conflict. But should a conflict occur between them, it will occur in the Western Pacific, not in the waters off Hawaii or continental USA. The People’s Liberation Army thus at least enjoys the convenience of geography. There is no guarantee that the US military will prevail. War games conducted by Rand showed that the US could very well lose a war to China.

    At the 74th session of the UN General Assembly last year, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned against a “great fracture” – the world splitting in two with the two largest economies creating separate and competing worlds. Sadly, this looks more real than ever. 

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