Conflict and Leadership
"Correcting Imbalances, Preventing Hegemony": Implications of the New US Policy on China

The Trump administration will go down in history for its long series of grotesque statements. Recently, a number of senior US government officials delivered keynote speeches criticising China. It culminated in a speech by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the Nixon Center, which explored the results of half a century of US-China rapprochement. In his speech, he summarised the key messages of his colleagues: National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien, FBI Director Chris Wray, and Attorney General William Barr.

Pompeo's key criticisms of China are centred on imbalances in bilateral relations and Beijing's alleged focus on global hegemony. Pompeo vigorously criticised the US for its "blind trust" approach to cooperation and put forward a new principle regarding relations with China, based on the reliable verification of its actions and a careful analysis of possible consequences.

After these speeches by American politicians, experts started talking about the beginning of a new ‘Cold War’ between the United States and China. However, a number of significant features of the original Cold War are missing in contemporary US-China relations. A struggle for global military and political domination was going on between the Soviet Union and the United States, which was underscored by a fundamental ideological confrontation - in fact, different world views were fighting among themselves. The key process of the Cold War was the global geopolitical confrontation, which manifested itself in acute military and political crises in various regions of the world and in the form of an arms race. At the same time, the economic interdependence of different parts of the world was extremely low, which made it possible to conduct politics in  zero-sum game mode.

However, in the current situation, we are seeing a different picture. The struggle between the United States and China is not for hegemony, but for leadership in formulating the rules of interaction within the framework of a common global system. The following element illustrates the scale of the US-China crisis quite well. Starting by listing the tricks that China has supposedly committed against the United States, Secretary of State Pompeo stressed that China had demanded that American airlines remove the name "Taiwan" from their websites. Is this the new cold war?

In essence, the United States is trying to maintain its leadership in the current global system, while China is explicitly seeking to expand its influence. There is a “decoupling” of their two respective economic mechanisms, their distance from each other, but not a complete rupture of ties between them. This is hindered by the close economic interdependence that has developed over half a century, when even a one percentage point slowdown in the Chinese economy has large-scale socio-economic consequences around the world, including in the United States. After all, modern China does not pose an ideological challenge to the United States and behaves rather conciliatory in the face of American pressure.
The anti-Chinese theses of the Trump administration have a significant domestic political dimension.

The argument about China's "unfair behaviour" has been developed by Donald Trump for decades - it featured in his earliest interviews as a businessman. However, as a profitable electoral programme, the anti-Chinese strategy was put forward by the headquarters of Trump's advisers only in 2019. True, it was assumed that this strategy would be implemented amid a progressive and successfully developing American economy. Trump could boast of high growth rates right up to the start of the coronavirus pandemic. However, according to the financial reports for the second quarter of 2020, the American economy fell by a record 33% (annualised). The US economy lost all that it had added since 2015.

Amid these conditions, Republicans find it difficult to achieve internal political mobilisation to pursue the thesis of a "Chinese threat", both among the elites and in society. The pandemic, in fact, has mixed all the cards and removed from the table the most significant asset of President Trump - his economic achievements. However, regardless of the outcome of the US presidential election in November 2020, the US strategy of containing China will remain. This strategy is based on deep disappointment in China for its unwillingness to become a significant element of the international system, (albeit subordinate to the US).

The fundamental US goals regarding Beijing are correcting trade, economic and technological imbalances, preventing China’s attempts to establish hegemony in East Asia and more widely, and maintaining American leadership in the 21st century. 

However, the irritation, anxiety and rejection that the United States is now proposing as the basis of its global strategy for the 21st century is unlikely to serve as an effective strategic programme. In order to unite elites and its own allies around this programme, the United States had to put forward a vision that suits everyone. However, the version of the programme proposed by Pompeo resembles a poorly-developed strategy that does not rely on the broad support of elites and allies, which the US will need, less it find itself  alone in standing up to China.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.