The Sino-American relationship is proof positive that, if you disregard a country’s interests or treat it like an enemy, you can and will make it one.
For most of human history, China was the wealthiest and most powerful society on the planet. Over the past four decades, it has sought to restore itself to this status without challenging the United States, which has enjoyed a century of global primacy. In this endeavor, China has developed a uniquely competitive form of entrepreneurial capitalism, a convincing deterrent capacity against foreign attack, an unmeddlesome approach to working with foreign countries regardless of their ideologies, social systems, and other idiosyncrasies, and identification with the post-World War II world order defined by the United Nations Charter and international law.
But Beijing has failed to persuade Americans that this progress constitutes an unalarming, "peaceful rise." To many in the United States, China’s return to wealth and power is a rebuke to America’s values, imperils continued U.S. economic and military primacy, offsets and thereby erodes US global and regional political authority, and offers an unwelcome retort to post-Cold War US unilateralism. This makes it look like a threat.
Rightly or wrongly (and most economists argue, wrongly), Americans attribute US industrial decline and the consequent loss of well-paying factory jobs to the rise of China, which now produces about one-third of global manufactures. China’s technological advances alarm our military-industrial complex even as weapons manufacturers profit by portraying China as an ever more formidable enemy. Our national security bureaucracy is indignant about Chinese companies’ pilfering of US corporate intellectual property. The Pentagon sees Beijing’s apparent ability to defeat US intervention if fighting resumes in the suspended cross-Strait Chinese civil war as an intolerable challenge to US military supremacy in the Indo-Pacific region. American politicians interpret Chinese indifference to the politics and ethical standards of third country trade and investment partners as support for authoritarianism and opposition to democracy. China’s refusal to side with the United States against Russian aggression in Ukraine has capped its reputation for recalcitrance (even as India’s and other countries’ similar stances go unremarked).
Meanwhile, as China sees it, the United States continues to champion and offer military protection to the losing side in the Chinese civil war, to side against China in its territorial disputes with all its neighbors, and to dedicate nearly two-thirds of its navy, two-thirds of its marines, half of its air force, and ten percent of its army to war with China. Washington has declared China to be America’s most important global adversary, sought to retard the advance of Chinese technology and bar it from foreign markets, banned investment by Chinese companies, and denounced China’s system of government and its domestic policies.
China has responded to American hostility by building defenses to hold US forces at bay, grabbing whatever existing foreign technological know-how it can, betting its future on indigenous innovation, reducing its reliance on imports of US goods and services, and restricting diplomatic cooperation with the United States. So far, China has not responded to US military deployments along its coasts and borders with analogous deployments of its own to the Western Hemisphere. But the logic of the escalating Sino-American confrontation suggests that sooner or later it will do so.
For seven decades, the core passion of Chinese nationalism has been the Taiwan issue – the question of what relationship Taiwan should have with the rest of China. Skillful US diplomacy in the 1970s deprived Beijing of reasons to see this question as urgent or resolvable only through the use of force. But the diplomatic framework that did this has been salami-sliced out of existence and replaced with military confrontation in the name of deterrence. Both sides are now actively preparing for war. China’s heavying up of its ICBM force is a pointed reminder that any fight over Taiwan could go nuclear.
The problem is not, as many in Washington seem to imagine, a dearth of military-to-military communication. It is a confluence of the ill-considered evolution of American policies and intensified Chinese nationalism. This has made conflict between the two countries’ armed forces an ever more realistic possibility.
Recent American policy statements acknowledge the risk of war with China but ignore and refuse to address Beijing’s objections to the US policies that it views as a casus belli. Instead, the Biden administration emphasizes the need for so-called "guard rails" to prevent confrontation from turning violent. No one seems to know what "guard rails" are or what they would look like. Their apparent purpose is to replace the previously successful diplomatic framework for managing the Taiwan issue with some other way to ensure that China does not respond forcefully to US statements and actions it considers provocative. Apparently, this would involve the imposition of a set of rules to limit Chinese freedom of maneuver without constraining US unilateralism.
This is either a one-sided American foreign policy fantasy or evasive diplo-drivel intended to outflank the need for strategic realism and the negotiation of a modus vivendi. The same sort of suspension of give-and-take in the face of Russian objections to NATO enlargement catalyzed the current war in Ukraine. There are many lessons to be drawn from the outbreak of that war. But perhaps the most important is that ignoring the strongly expressed core interests of other nuclear-armed great powers can lead to a conflagration.
American politicians have little to no understanding of how China is governed, but they now clearly presume that peaceful coexistence with Beijing will be impossible without regime change. Accordingly, Washington is escalating its trade and technology war with China, supporting Chinese dissidents and separatists, and standing ever more firmly with Taipei against Beijing in the unfinished Chinese civil war. The US armed forces are increasingly "in China’s face" militarily, mounting two-to-three aggressive air and naval patrols of China’s borders every day. For its part, while continuing to urge cooperation with America, Beijing is now actively seeking to reduce or eliminate dependence on goods and services from the United States, arming itself against the US, and becoming more and more strident in its condemnations of American racism, social disorder, global ideological pretensions, and foreign policy unilateralism.
In the absence of mutually respectful dialogue between China and the United States about reasons to cooperate and ways to manage our disagreements, bilateral antipathy between the two is widening. Neither side sees the other as worth listening to, though each is eager to lecture the other. This is not diplomacy, but political posturing aimed at appeasing domestic critics on both sides. Beijing and Washington are barely on speaking terms.
It has never been more important that Americans and Chinese understand each other as we are, not as we imagine each other or pretend ourselves to be. But, at the moment, we are becoming less knowledgeable, more suspicious, and fearful of each other.
Bilateral Competition and its Effects on the Two Societies
If mishandled, the Taiwan issue can and will produce another trans-Pacific war, this one with a country able to strike the American homeland with nuclear weapons. We now seem to be inching toward such a war. But the Taiwan issue aside, the competition between China and the United States is not so much military as it is about which society can best meet the aspirations of its people for prosperity, domestic tranquility, justice, and personal advance while inspiring other countries with its example.
The Sino-American face-off is not an ideological beauty contest. It will be decided by relative performance. Both sides are betting on technological progress to expand or sustain their relative wealth and power.
Innovation flourishes in an intellectual and entrepreneurial ecology that incentivizes adventurous exploration and development of novel ways of meeting the demand for more effective products and services. It requires persistent investment in education and research and a socioeconomic culture that facilitates the commercialization of inventions. Scientific and technological achievement is a cumulative process that is invigorated and accelerated by openness to transnational cooperation and exchanges of ideas. It is hamstrung, not secured, by restrictions on transnational communication and collaboration.
The United States for long epitomized the characteristics and mores of such an ecology. Sadly, in many respects, it no longer does. Washington has been talking a lot about investing in education, research, and the technologies of the future to get our groove back. But while we mouth off, Beijing has acted. Complacency, indolence, and lofty talk are no match for ambition, diligence, and the focused pursuit of excellence. The United States has the capacity to out-compete China if it puts its money where its mouth is. It can’t seem to do so. Nineteen of the world’s twenty fastest growing semiconductor companies are now in mainland China. None are in the United States.
Even at nominal exchange rates (which understate the purchasing power of its currency by about fifty percent), China now outspends the United States on R&D, with a significantly higher percentage going to basic scientific research rather than marketing-related product improvement. It is home to one-third of the world’s manufacturing. Chinese universities already graduate at least four times as many students as we do in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and the gap is widening.
China is on track to educate twice as many PhDs in STEM by 2025. In that year, it will have more workers in STEM fields than the thirty-eight member countries of the OECD combined. Many will be world class. Some will be returnees driven from positions in the United States by racial prejudice and xenophobic bureaucratic restrictions on their freedom to pursue their research interests. Their departure will undermine the excellence of US universities and laboratories as well as reduce the number of US high tech startups but will result in plenty in China.
The natural enemies of innovation are not just politically motivated bureaucratic restrictions, but protectionism, monopoly, and its close cousin, oligopoly (all of which now dominate the American economy). An inventive spirit, when armed with education, presented with opportunities for research, funded, and allowed to set its own horizons, can prosper in both the government and private sectors. Einstein was not driven by the profit motive. Nor was the invention of the internet. The missile and jet plane debuted in Nazi Germany. The first man in earth orbit was Soviet. Many examples from history refute the complacent American presupposition that only private companies in liberal democracies with free speech on political matters can be inventive. China is doing nothing startling in once again proving this assumption wrong.
Americans now seem increasingly disinterested in discovering and adopting foreign best practices or in keeping our country open to foreigners and their ideas. This is both a break with attitudes and policies that made America great and a recipe for future stagnation. For its part, China remains committed to "reform and opening" in areas relevant to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. But, in the short run, the draconian lockdown policies that were so successful in enabling it to avoid mass casualties in the first two years of the pandemic are now both increasingly ineffective and cutting China off from intercourse with the outside world. Such intercourse is essential both to do business and to sustain continued economic and technological advance.
Most Americans shrug off the deterioration in Sino-American relations. Some applaud it. But American and other foreign businesses currently operating in China do not. They have been so profitable that their reinvestment of their retained earnings in China’s economy is now its single greatest source of foreign direct investment. And China continues to pay US companies almost $47 billion annually to license their intellectual property.
The escalating antagonism between China and the United States is clearly taking its toll on both societies. Chinese no longer see the United States as worthy of emulation. Presumed national security threats from China and other rising and resurgent powers are taken to justify the curtailment of American civil liberties. Like China, the United States is becoming more xenophobic, doctrinaire, and intolerant of dissent. In both countries, those who speak well of the other or argue for better relations can expect to be smeared by political correctness vigilantes. Even those most committed to engagement no longer dare advocate it. They either walk away or just do what’s in their interest without talking about it.
Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. chairs Projects International, Inc. He is a retired US defense official, diplomat, and interpreter, the recipient of numerous high honors and awards, a popular public speaker, and the author of five books. He was a former US Assistant Secretary of Defense, ambassador to Saudi Arabia (during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm), acting Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, and Chargé d’affaires at both Bangkok and Beijing. He began his diplomatic career in India but specialized in Chinese affairs. (He was the principal American interpreter during President Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972.) Reprinted with permission from his blog.