“Causes of China-US tensions go beyond trade” – Amitav Acharya, Interview with Global Times, 18 June 2019. http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1154674.shtml
Due to stepped up trade frictions between China and the US, ties between the two giants tend to be tense. What is the nature of their conflict? Will the current China-US conflict lead to a new cold war? Global Times (GT) reporters Lu Yuanzhi and Bai Yunyi interviewed Amitav Acharya (Acharya), Professor of International Relations at American University, Washington DC. The distinguished academic shared his insights on these issues.
GT: What do you think is the nature of China-US conflict? The competition in the domain of economy and technology between the two giants, a superpower’s suppression of a rising power, social and economic contradictions that both countries cannot reconcile, or clash of two civilizations? What is the basis of your judgement?
Acharya: No single factor or phrase can capture or explain the nature of the US-China conflict; it is a complex combination of issues and triggers. The most immediate trigger behind the current US-China trade war is economic and technological competition. From a long-term perspective, however, it is fueled by wider changes in the international system. It is important to avoid labels such as “new Cold War,” “clash of civilizations,” or “Thucydides’ trap,” or any catch phrases that risk turning into self-fulfilling prophecies. I would prefer to see the current tensions between the US and China as the result of three shifts: in power, order, and policy. And these are inter-linked.
First, the economic rise of China is part of a broader global power shift away from the West. This has been going on for some time, with China and India, whose economic fortunes took a sharp dive with the rise of European colonialism a few centuries ago, reviving themselves steadily and in China’s case spectacularly, since the latter part of the 20th century. China is now the world’s second largest economy (in current dollar value terms) and many estimates see a general “rise of the rest” in the global economy. It should not surprise that the scale and pace of China’s rise is proving to be unnerving for the US and the West and has led to a rethink of the US’ policy of engaging China, thereby encouraging more hardline approaches.
Second, there has been a substantial erosion of the US-led liberal international order which has been around since the end of World War II. The liberal order refers to a system of rules and institutions devised by the US after World War II to legitimize its dominance and manage international order with itself at the helm. This order had been facing challenges well before the Trump presidency, as documented in my 2014 book, The End of American World Order, but the Trump administration’s policies have hastened it. One should keep in mind that Trump’s victory in the 2016 US presidential election was to a large extent brought about by his ability to exploit populist concerns about the decline of the US and the need to “Make America Great Again.” Part of his appeal lay in presenting the existing liberal order of institutions and norms as being incapable of coping with the challenge from the rise of China and other powers in order to preserve the dominant position of the US and the West. This undercut the prevailing assumption, held by many Western leaders, analysts and people that the liberal order would be powerful and resilient enough to win the acquiescence of potential challengers like China, who may even contribute to its strengthening. The realization that this expectation was not materializing opened the door to a more nationalist and unilateralist US foreign economic and strategic approach to international relations under Trump.
This in turn produced the third shift, which is shift in policy toward China (and we should not forget, toward other emerging powers such as India and Mexico). This policy shift also reflects US domestic politics. The US is now under an administration whose ideology and foreign policy approach are drastically different from that of its predecessors. The Trump administration believes that the policy of engaging China pursued by previous presidents from Clinton to Obama was misconceived and has failed. Many Americans, though not all, are disappointed and disillusioned about this. China’s pursuit of a much more active global foreign policy commensurate with its rising power and resources, including through initiatives such as the Belt and RoadInitiative (BRI), further stoked American concerns and fears.
In sum then, the causes of the current US-China discord are deeper and more structural than just competition over tariffs and technology. It’s rooted in the transitional forces in world order, from the era of Western hegemony to the advent of what I have called a “Multiplex World,” a culturally diverse but interconnected world with multiple and overlapping nodes of power and authority.
GT: Do you think the current China-US conflict will lead to a new cold war, or something resembles Cold War? Some believe, with the beginning of the US overall cracking down on Huawei, the digital iron curtain is descending between the two nations. How do you think about this view?
Acharya: There is no question that the US-China relations today are far more strained than they were a few years ago. But invoking the metaphor of a “Cold War” obscures differences between the past competition between the US-led and the Soviet Union-led blocs and the current Sino-US relationship. No two historical epochs are exactly alike. The degree of economic interdependence between the US and China is much deeper and wider than that between the US and Soviet blocs, and this matters. Economic interdependence does not prevent war, but it does raise the costs of pursuing conflict over cooperation that should induce caution in both players. Also, the Cold War was fought between two blocs, this competition is between two individual powers; the US is not acting multilaterally against China and if anything, imposing tariffs against its own allies and friends.
GT: In view of current China-US relations, what major risks do you think the two states need to avoid? Do you predict the conflicts between the two would spread beyond the existing fields of trade and technology, or even head for a full-blown conflict?
Acharya: The most urgent need is to step back and avoid playing brinkmanship or further escalate the trade war. Second, engage in negotiations, without the threat of tight deadlines, to reach a mutually acceptable and sustainable economic relationship, which requires concessions and compromises from both sides. Third, ensure that there are lines of communication always open to manage and de-escalate any military engagements, including accidents.
GT: Elections in 2020 are on the horizon. What impact will they have on addressing China-US conflict?
Acharya: It will be interesting to see if the eventual Democratic challenger to Trump comes up with an alternative vision or approach to the US-China relationship. Usually, US elections are mostly about domestic politics, but if the trade war continues, it is likely that the US-China relationship and the larger issue of reviving liberal internationalism will be an important factor in the 2020 elections as they straddle both domestic and foreign policy domains. Much depends on how far trade affects the US economy and whether the effects on US population are significant enough to affect voter attitudes.
GT: Do you think US elites’ vigilance toward China is close to the level of “red terror” against the Bolsheviks after the World War I and McCarthyism after the World War II? How consistent is the attitude of US government and elites toward China with that of ordinary US people?
Acharya: I believe ideology is a less important factor driving US-China relations than that between the Soviet Union and the US. During the Cold War, the Communist powers actively supported Communist rebellions against pro-Western governments through ideological propaganda and material support; this is not happening now. The US elite is divided over how to deal with China. While many agree that the US-China relationship needs to be recalibrated and reset, they differ especially over how to achieve such recalibration and change. One part of the US foreign policy community believes that the US-China competition can be managed differently, with the help of America’s allies and with the involvement of multilateral institutions like the World Trade Organization.
GT: If China and the US enter a protracted confrontation, how will it influence world political order and sustainable global development?
Acharya: There are many moving parts and uncertainties here. If the trade war persists or escalates and spreads to other areas of the US-China relationship, the consequences could be far more severe for the world than the impact of the Cold War, at least economically. While the Cold War did not damage the overall economic strength of the US and its allies and might have benefitted them, the current US-China competition, if not checked by mutual restraint and compromises, could wreck the global economy and prosperity for a long time. Yet, there is a chance that after a period of rising tensions, cooler heads will prevail, especially if the signs of mutual damage are clear, and the situation is a stalemate, without a possibility of one side winning decisively. This might hit home the importance of coordination and cooperation. Under different leadership, there might be an urge to revive cooperation and multilateralism to avoid such conflicts in the future.
Last but not the least, since the end of World War II, the United States has been in a position of global hegemony or primacy, no matter whatever you call it. Naturally, it wants to keep it that way. It’s difficult for the US to reconcile itself to the idea of being eclipsed by another country. It is rare to find a foreign policy vision in the West that outlines how the US can lead or live in a world where it’s no longer enjoys global primacy. For China, there is a history of being No.1, at least in East Asia, which was severely undercut by the Western powers around the 19th century. And many in China want to see their country rise again to global pre-eminence. So it seems to me that this competing self-imagery of global primacy is part of the reason behind the current US-China conflict.