December 29, 2021 by Tom Watkins / Opinion
A gauntlet has been thrown down.
There is clear competition between authoritarianism and liberal democracy. More specifically, competition between the U.S. and China. The pretext about a “win-win” relationship between the two has been snuffed out like an old cigarette butt, scuffed into the pavement of history in 2021.
In Washington D.C. where hyper partisanship makes even agreeing on where to go for a free lunch nearly impossible, perhaps the only thing Republicans and Democrats agree on is being tough on China. There is a growing consensus that the era of engagement with China has come to an unceremonious close. The debate is over. What next? Where will the U.S. and other democracies go from here?
The Democratic nations’ plans and actions will be an international, geopolitical balancing act – standing strong for our beliefs, values, and national and domestic interests all while simultaneously remaining flexible enough to find appropriate lanes for addressing existential threats. Threats like climate change, North Korean aggression, economic disruption, military threats, terrorism, a new nuclear arms race, COVID-19 and future pandemics, along with the global economic tsunami they unleash. Balanced against the reality that all politics is local, and international moves need the support at home to be sustained in the long run.
This is our new reality. What the U.S. had developed and wished for when “Nixon went to China,” and Jimmy Carter entertained Deng Xiaoping at a Houston rodeo is over. What we make of this new reality is now up to our respective leaders and how the world will be shaped as the 21st century unfolds in the balance.
People around the globe with hindsight are coming to see the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square not as a hiccup, but as China showing the world exactly who they are. Their expansion of Belt and Road, and in the South China Sea and China’s dystopian, internal social credit system. Big Brother technology threats to freedom, actions in Hong Kong, perpetual threats directed at Taiwan and other nations, companies and individuals that challenge Beijing’s actions, cultural genocide in Tibet. The accumulating evidence of actual genocide in Xinjiang against Uighurs, Muslim minority groups, have a way of reinforcing the reality of authoritarian, “ruler for life,” Xi Jinping. Xi has obviously taken more lessons on leadership from Mao than he has from his own father.
Clearly the U.S. and China remain the most significant bilateral relationship in the world today. All major global issues and likely outer space and cyberspace issues will intersect at the corner of Washington D.C. and Beijing. Our leaders’ actions, reactions, and inactions will impact the people of China, the USA, and all humanity.
A Cold Start
Last March there was a chill in the air when top U.S. government and Chinese leaders met in Anchorage, Alaska. It was the first high-level, in-person contact between the U.S. and China under the new Biden Administration. Many expected a thaw in the relationship that had grown cold under tit-for-tat trade war/tariffs under President Trump, getting downright bitter as Trump’s administration accused China of unleashing COVID-19 on the world.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken set the stage and tone of the meeting that was experienced by his Chinese counterparts as a scolding: The U.S. re-iterating deep concerns about actions by China in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, cyber-attacks on the United States, and economic coercion toward our allies. Each of these actions, as the U.S. symbolically shook its finger at the stoic Chinese, threatens the rules-based order that maintains global stability. Blinken bellowed “that’s why they’re not merely internal matters and why we feel an obligation to raise these issues here today.”
In partial response and what seemed like a prepared lecture, China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, spoke with daggers nearly 20 minutes, exploding the two-minute limit agreed upon in torturous pre-meeting negotiations over protocol. He did not hold back. He told Blinken to look in the mirror on his complaints over human rights. He made clear, “China has made steady progress in human rights, and the fact is that there are many problems within the United States regarding human rights.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ian Johnson penned in The New York Times, “These harsh exchanges will only contribute to the dangerous decay in relations between the world’s two most powerful countries. Both sides seem to be trapped by a need to look and sound tough.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Biden held their first phone call as leaders a month prior to this first high-level meeting, perhaps foreshadowing the rough start that was to come. Even then, the two leaders appeared at odds on most issues. President Xi prophesied then what has come true today: a confrontation would be a “disaster” for both nations.
China is now seen as a strategic competitor whose goal is to drive the future around military strength, trade, sea lanes, and major technologies such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and microprocessor design that threaten the U.S. and its allies.
It is now clear for all to see there is a chasm between two largest economic, military, and technological powers. A widening split has emerged with distrust and disagreements on a range of issues oozing out – an ooze that will likely shape the global landscape for decades to come.
China has come a long way since Mao declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China at the gates of Tiananmen Square on October 1, 1949. As a young boy, I watched this evolution while growing up in the shadow of our nation’s Capital. I liken it to watching a movie in black and white with a slow plot development exploding into technicolor and non-stop action.
Today, China uses its newfound economic, diplomatic, and military might as economic silencers, deflecting criticism from other nations. All while much of the West has gotten moral laryngitis, looking past what – in earlier decades – would have resulted in economic sanctions and public rebukes.
The prevailing consensus in Washington and overseas is that China is surging past the United States. “If we don’t get moving,” President Joe Biden has said, “they’re going to eat our lunch.” Countries everywhere are preparing, in the words of an Asian diplomat, for China to be “number one.”
Yet, in 2021 the voices that have been timid, if not silenced, have grown louder and more confident as have those of the Chinese. Neither side is about to genuflect to the other.
“The Quad” – United States, Japan, India, and Australia – along with Canada, Germany and other smaller nations singing doo-wop, have begun to push back against Beijing’s bullying in the South China Sea and other areas that China has been elbowing itself into. Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, “These four navies [in the Quad] are very powerful” and when acting together send a message to China that they intend to secure trade routes and, as democracies, uphold the rule of law in international disputes, as in the case of Taiwan.”
There is much talk about China’s rise and the need for a U.S. strategy to assure it does not come at America’s and the West’s demise. I get it. I don’t bemoan China’s desire to knock off our crown. Who strives to be number 2?
It should come as no surprise that China wants to rise. As a country, China was the world’s largest economy in 17 out of the past 21 centuries. The anomaly is just the past couple of centuries when they have been surpassed economically by other western countries. Since opening to the world four decades ago, China has been like an economic rocket on steroids.
The West has woken to the China challenge. Yet, it is still dawdling, bickering, and blaming, while China is busy investing, building, and thinking long-term — in short, acting. Both at home and abroad, China is heavily investing in the future of artificial intelligence (AI), education, communication, space and infrastructure, green energy, electrification of transportation and yes – their military and internal security: China’s future.
Shades of a Plan Emerge
President Biden’s ‘Build Back Better’ agenda had been the only tangible part of any plan to prepare America for a competitive future. Investing in America and Americans is a thoughtful strategy to compete and be world competitive.
So, America now seems to understand we are in a fight to remain relevant, if not dominant. Yet, simply whining and complaining about China’s rise is neither a strategy nor a plan. Attempting to stop China’s rise is about as effective as building a chain link fence to hold back a tsunami.
The World is Watching
“Together for a Shared Future” is the official motto of the Beijing Winter Olympics and Paralympics scheduled to begin on February 4, 2022. The “Together for a Shared Future” theme demonstrates unity and a collective effort, embodying the core values and vision of the Olympic Movement, and the goal of pursuing world unity, peace, and progress.
The Chinese proclaim their motto represents the power of the Games to overcome global challenges as a community, with a shared future for humankind. The words reflect the necessity for the world to work together towards a better tomorrow. Yet, it has been decades since the world has been this splintered.
Where is the Shared Vision and Common Agenda?
Clearly there is no shared vision and common agenda drawing the world closer today. Given the global pandemic and the heightened fear of the surging Delta and Omicron variants, there will be no global tourism pouring into Beijing. The U.S., United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada will not send government representatives to the Games because of concerns over China’s human rights record. The U.S. has accused China of genocide in its repression of the Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups in the Xinjiang region. China denies all allegations of human rights abuses. China declares it will retaliate against countries boycotting the Olympics.
The Olympics are supposed to unify the world for a moment in time. I don’t believe there is enough paint in the world to whitewash the current global dysfunction, disagreement and dissent to do so.
I wish I could turn to the literature to find answers to having the U.S. and China join for global common prosperity. But, I don’t have answers. So, we can turn to the tea leaves and hope to find a way forward.
As the Beijing Olympics begin, so too, does the Year of the Tiger in the 2022 Chinese Zodiac. The zodiac Tiger is a symbol of strength and exorcising evils. Tiger years such as 2022 are all about going big or going home. What will Presidents Biden and Xi do?
Clearly, President Xi is correct saying “a confrontation would be a ‘disaster’ for both nations” and the world.
It would be nice if they both adopted the Beijing Olympic slogan: “Together for a Shared Future.”
Tom Watkins is a U.S.-China business and educational consultant who has worked to build cultural, educational, and economic ties between our two countries for 4 decades. He served Michigan citizens as State Superintendent of Schools and State Mental Health Director; and in Palm Beach County, Florida, as that county’s President and CEO of the Economic Council.
Read his thoughts on U.S.-China relations at: https://www.chinausfocus.com/author/84/tom-watkins.html or contact him firstname.lastname@example.org.