The Fraying of U.S.-China Relations

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During the past several years, the U.S.-China relationship has reached its lowest point in decades. This week, after a virtual summit with Xi Jinping that lasted more than three hours, President Biden referred to “commonsense guardrails” that were needed to keep the relationship from spiralling further downward. But the summit did not end with any concrete agreements—or even a joint statement—on the issues affecting the relationship, which run from trade and technological development to human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang to the future of Taiwan. The lack of agreement underscored the reality that the problems between the two countries appear largely intractable, despite an urgent need for coöperation on issues such as climate change.

I recently spoke by phone with Jude Blanchette, the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, D.C., about his view of the summit. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed whether to think about the Chinese-American relationship as zero-sum, Xi Jinping’s refusal to leave China during the past twenty-one months, and why a conflict over Taiwan may be less imminent than many in Washington fear.

What was your biggest takeaway from this virtual meeting?

The fact that the expectations of the meeting were simply that they have the meeting shows how far the relationship has deteriorated over a relatively short period of time. And so, while undoubtedly it’s important that we are now seeing the senior-most-level dialogue, when we think about whether this marks an inflection point as the end of the cold war, the low expectations both sides were setting were actually a sign that the fault lines are quite deep and extensive, and that this is going to be a very long process of finding very limited areas of coöperation amid a deep sea of tensions in key areas of rivalry. So it marks in a more profound way that we are now deeply into—or officially into—an entirely new era of U.S.-China relations.

How would you characterize the era? You just used the phrase “cold war,” even if it doesn’t seem quite like the U.S.-Soviet relationship between 1945 and 1991.

We probably don’t want to spend the whole time talking about Cold War analogies, but I would just say that no historical analogy is perfect, and, like Churchill said of democracy, the Cold War is the worst possible historical analogy except for all the others. It’s not exactly a replay of Soviet-U.S. competition. But it is a multidimensional competition bordering on rivalry between two great powers that is likely to endure for some time, so the broad outlines of “cold war” at least help us begin thinking about some of the things we need to do to manage the relationship. My fear is that, by fighting off Cold War analogies, we are just leaving ourselves in more inchoate and vague territory, and what that leads to is issues like Taiwan continuing to spiral out of control without adopting some Cold War thinking about how to put in crisis-management mechanisms and confidence-building measures. It’s a muscle we haven’t flexed in some time. That’s the limited appeal of the analogy.

What are those measures to prevent things from spiralling out of control? It appeared that the American side seemed to be saying that, even though we have all these issues, this isn’t a zero-sum game. Do you see it that way?

I think actually that one of the outcomes of the meeting—making sure that Xi Jinping is as in person as we are going to get him for the time being—is to now begin to strap the direction of the relationship to his own personage. What had happened before is that he was relatively aloof. And that meant you had this “wolf warrior” army underneath him, and it felt like the relationship was spiralling without him putting his own name and legacy on the line. I think one of the smart moves about getting him to the table is he has a vested interest in managing this because it is strapped to his back.

I think it’s true that it is not zero-sum, but there are areas of both zero-sum and positive-sum. And one of the challenges we have is that we speak of it as “a competition,” but really it is multiple competitions. We are going to see areas, like in green technology, where we are vying against each other, but it could actually yield very positive benefits for both sides, because the pie may not get bigger, but it gets greener and better for everybody. There are areas in technological development where we do and probably should think about this in terms of zero-sum, where advances in some technology come at a stark cost to the other side.

Realist logic dictates that there are going to be key components about regional dominance that are not positive-sum. Either China is the hegemon in East Asia, or the United States is. But that is quite a constricted vision of the relationship between the two countries. There are others where they can be zero-sum, but we have to get them back on track. Trade is a good example of this. We have, since 2016, begun to think about trade more through a national-security lens, and as a matter of exacting leverage on the other side, which gets away from areas of economic integration, which have positive-sum, pie-expanding benefits to both populations. We want to make sure the rivalrous elements of the relationship don’t crowd out the coöperative elements.

What are some of those zero-sum areas which are most concerning?

At the most abstract level, and very starkly, and here I do see echoes of the Cold War, we have some version of ideological competition, but it is a really interesting, unique, updated one. Xi Jinping is now stating that China’s political system is demonstratively superior to Western democracies in its ability to deliver practical governance outcomes, and so the narrative is, “Our system is better than yours, and Western democracy is a path to infighting, polarization, and institutional atrophy.” That is an interesting new development. For a long time, we looked down our nose at the Chinese political system as being sort of a backwater holdout of twentieth-century Communism, and I think Beijing has taken that to heart and spent a concerted amount of time trying to upgrade and revitalize the governance system so much that it can outcompete the West. So, at a high discourse level, the United States and China are both, for their own reasons, in speaking to their own domestic and international audiences, framing this as a competition between, in Xi’s mind, effective vs. ineffective governance, and, in the U.S. mind, authoritarianism vs. democracy. It’s difficult to see how we find a new coexistence with those narratives, because both sides are tying this to basic legitimacy.

More practically speaking, in terms of regional strategic dominance, China is fighting to end U.S. primacy in the region, and the U.S. is fighting to maintain its primacy in the region. And that includes an ability to shape outcomes right off China’s shore. This is an intolerable zero-sum situation, and China is working actively to change the status quo. That explains its island-building activities, and that explains the pace of its actions in the Taiwan Strait. And in some ways I think the United States is living as if it is 1993, as if we hold the same amount of global aggregate power that we did then, and we can still maintain a status quo that held for a good chunk of the post-1945 period, without recognizing a structural shift in power. We haven’t found a way to come to terms with that which is also politically satisfying domestically.

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