Two big powers cannot live with each other – that is the Thucydides trap. In the present era, these powers are the United States and China.
China-US relations are currently the most important issue, as global order can only be established through an orderly and productive relationship between China and the US. Neither country will be able to realize its true full potential if opposition by the other impedes progress.
At present, the dynamics are unfortunately counterproductive. All the pillars supporting sound China-US relations – security, economic development and culture – are being wrecked by both sides. It is mounting security concerns on every other dimension of the US-China relationship. Economic and cultural gains cannot fully compensate for perceived security losses.
Recent public opinion surveys indicate that citizens in the US and China increasingly view the other as a “threat”. The American public’s “unfavorable” ratings of the People’s Republic of China in 2019 exceeded even the very high unfavorable ratings in 1989, the year of the Tiananmen Square violence.
Moreover, there is now an unmistakable trend in both the US and China toward assuming that civil society and educational organizations working on one another’s soil are instruments of subversion rather than of mutual understanding and shared benefit.
The US for almost two decades has undermined its own greatest soft power, which includes orderly governance at home and generally responsible behavior abroad. A series of issues have eroded its credibility: the Iraq War, domestic economic mismanagement, the global financial crisis and the withdrawal from international agreements that Washington had encouraged and signed. “America First”, as promoted by Trump, is a doctrine with no attraction to anyone but a fraction of the American public. The economic interdependence between the US and China has been hurt by Trump.
On China’s side, Chairman Deng’s advice was: “Don’t show off” and that China should accept that in many cases China is still behind. If you remain pragmatic, you know when to stop and when to push ahead. Looking at China’s policies of late, some of which have been assertive toward neighboring countries, it seems that Deng’s advice needs to be revived.
At this stage, China has to improve her policies of opening the economy for trade, which she has promised to the world. China has also pledged to respect intellectual property rights. How China is going to organize her economic development is her own problem, including how she will plan and organize her objectives with technological development, and when to achieve it. There are limits to what the world could ask from China.
The US strategy in Asia has been to prevent one single big power or a coalition from controlling the Eurasian landmass and the Pacific. The US speaks increasingly of the need to cooperate with “like-minded countries”, but it seems that this does not include China. China sees hegemony and containment as the ultimate aims of US policies.
At present, the US is facing China and Russia, which are conducting joint military exercises as a deterrence against the US. The alignment of Beijing and Moscow is growing closer as Washington seeks to construct a counteralignment with its Indo-Pacific strategy, thereby moving the relationship from the realm of mutual strategic suspicion toward strategic friction and mutual deterrence.
Thus, the signals of the declining cooperation between the US and China are everywhere. The current trade frictions between the two are inflicting pain on the global economy, as well as on their own citizens.
Taiwan and Hong Kong are, of course, big issues in the relations. The unanimous passage of the Taiwan Travel Act (2018) was signed by President Trump without making any statement expressing the intention to implement the Act consistent with the Three Communiqués and the Taiwan Relations Act, which have been the documents providing the framework for China-US relations for 40 years.
We still need to find out the true economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and how deep a recession would happen in the US. A deep recession would make it very difficult for Trump in the next election. If he is reelected, it could be a calamity. The US could never recover her former leadership of the world.
A new “rational” president, such as Biden, would be rational and sensible to China. But either way, the US policy toward China remains strict. The US will continue to think that China is not always honest in implementing her obligations and promises.
If after a new leader is elected the US and China could have some mutual basic understanding and lay down some basic agreements on how two big powers should go about running the international order, then peace, stability and development in the world could be maintained. The world cannot accept a hegemon anymore in the future. International relations should be multilateral, where China and the US could be the primus inter pares.
Now, the US and China must decide whether they will pursue primacy and dominance or seek regional balance by making room for one another. The latter approach seems feasible and advisable; the former does not.
Both sides have to answer the question each put to the other: “Will the US make room for China internationally?” and “Will China allow for US influence in the region, especially in the Asia Pacific?”
Vice chair of board of trustees, CSIS Foundation
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.