What Does America Really Want – Our Money or Our Life?

The above question is what is troubling most people in China today. And the answer is: “If they want our money, which means cutting the trade deficit and making the Chinese environment more comfortable for US business, this challenge can be easily met. But if they want our life and are blocking our technological development, as in the case of Huawei, and are impeding the further economic growth in order to take it, then we have an intractable, long-lasting conflict on our hands.” 

Throughout this year, the topic has loomed large at numerous conferences and symposia dedicated to security in East Asia. As a participant in a number of these forums, the present writer thought it appropriate to identify and sum up the key points when it comes to the position of the US and China, including their most important reciprocal grievances. 

The generalized Chinese assessments 

The conflict was instigated by the United States that branded the PRC as a “revisionist” state. Washington carried its unfriendly actions as far as to make it difficult for PRC citizens, including students, to obtain US visas. As a result, a mass of Chinese students are revising their views on the choice of profession and are steering clear of reliance on education in the United States. 

Generally speaking, Washington’s current trade war against China and its demonstrative scrapping of all the rules of the game in politics, the economy and business, which it has created with its own hands and imposed on the rest of the world as a model to emulate, has had a powerful sobering effect on the Chinese youth. Among other things, this was expressed in the fact that the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square tragedy (June 4, 1989) was a surprisingly quiet affair in mainland China. But the West retaliated by encouraging mass protests in Hong Kong, which flared up in June 2019, ostensibly to oppose amendments to the extradition law. 

Any attempts to isolate China internationally make no sense. The PRC will outlast the current US administration even if Donald Trump is reelected for the second term. 

America’s assault on the PRC’s technological centers, as symbolized by its war against Huawei, was no surprise for China, but it has sown the seeds of profound distrust in relations between the two countries. 

Beijing is seriously concerned about the new American policy towards Taiwan; it fears that the Trump administration will sooner or later recognize Taipei’s independence. In this case, Beijing will have no choice but to have to use military force in order to preserve the territorial integrity of Greater China. 

The methods whereby Washington is trying to consummate what it calls “freedom of navigation” are adding a lot to the existing tension: “The US Navy closely approaches the PRC coast on purpose in order to intimidate China and provoke a harsh response.” 

These and other factors are convincing China that Washington has formulated a “clandestine agenda” based on a new strategic assessment to the effect that the Chinese development model as a whole is perceived as an existential threat to the United States and the Washington Consensus. 

The Indo-Pacific strategy promoted by Washington at the present time is one of the main tools used to implement the said “clandestine agenda” that involves global containment of China, including the redeployment of American and allied military infrastructure to locations in the direct vicinity of the PRC borders. 

Simultaneously, certain “liberal” scientists in China have offered alternative points of view that boil down to the following: Far from all people in the PRC support their leaders who have opted for a direct confrontation with the United States; the majority in the academic community realize that the US is and will long remain the only superpower inaccessible for other countries in terms of its combined might. A long-term trade war with the US will inevitably slow down economic growth rates in China, something that will have a negative impact on the scale and rates of the drive to implement the Belt and Road megaproject. But their pro-government colleagues argue that although the international environment is more hostile, the consequences for China and the neighboring countries will be even more painful, if the PRC beats a retreat. In their view, it is wrong to say that President Xi displays stronger dictatorial leanings since the PRC decision-making system still retains its collectivist principles. This is why any attempts to drive a wedge between the leaders and the people of China are unacceptable. The PRC will not allow anything like the Arab Spring or Central Asian color revolutions on its territory.   

A summary of US appraisals 

As they argue with PRC scientists, US representatives often assert that the United States has serious reservations about the Belt and Road Initiative related to its non-transparent standards and corrupt practices directed at governments of many participating countries. 

The US is objecting to Beijing’s militarization of the South China Sea (SCS). To support their claim, the Americans often pointed out that the international community perceived China’s behavior in the SCS as a test and a projection to its universal model of conduct in the world as a global power, rather than a particular case. 

US officials also claimed that their country’s policy towards Taiwan had not changed and that it was the Taiwan government that was building up pressure on Washington in search of support. At the same time, Taiwan remains an important asset for America, being a full-fledged market democracy. This is why Washington sees Beijing’s intimidation tactics in relation to Taiwan, as for that matter other neighboring countries, as unacceptable. 

According to the Americans, the Indo-Pacific strategy is not directed against China but is seeking a balance of forces that would convince Beijing that it is counterproductive to use its armed forces to implement its foreign policy goals. 

In so doing, Washington proceeds from the assumption that a conflict with Beijing is not inevitable, since it will benefit no one. 

One of the central long-standing objectives for the White House is to consolidate the system of alliances in the Indo-Pacific region and the America First agenda does not mean that America stands alone. 

In a bid to comfort their Chinese colleagues, a number of US scientists noted that serious problems in bilateral relations had cropped up even before Trump and that the “Chinese threat” theory had been a fixture in the United States, particularly among rank-and-file Americans. But the PRC always put forward wise politicians like the former foreign minister, Wang Yi, who managed to reassure the Americans and dispel their fears in a skillful and conciliatory manner. 

At the same time, members of the US intellectual elite, who subscribe to these views, would castigate Donald Trump’s policy, for, as they say, walking out of treaties and negotiating processes is not a strategy. They stressed that the response to China should combine toughness in reacting to its concrete provocations with professional diplomacy. In their opinion, Trump’s actions are unprofessional, populist, and exploit the simplistic perceptions and anti-China fears of rank-and-file Americans. At the same time, these actions are dangerous in that they are destroying the American-Chinese interdependence that served as the basis of international relations in the globalization era and are creating an atmosphere of hostility fraught with sliding into a war. 

However, many US scientists also pointed to a view prevailing in the United States that the population of China was not free and lived under the oppression from the political system, that there was a gap between the people and the Communist Party of China and therefore the political systems of the United States and the PRC were incompatible. 

At the same time, they believe that even a shift in the global balance and China’s parity with the United States is not the “end of history” and that it is still not too late to join hands and develop an interaction model to enable a conflict-free passage through a perilous period of world leader change. But for this, both powers must realize that as the US with its America First slogan is unable to form a new, effective coalition, so will China with its current provocative behavior in the SCS and territorial claims on Japan fail to achieve the same aim. 

It seems appropriate to stop at this point and let the reader form his or her own view to the already mentioned arguments in the article.       

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