Check out other comments in this series from: Graham Allison, Gordon G. Chang, David Denoon, Michael Fabey, John Glaser, James Holmes, Lin Gang, Kishore Mahbubani, Robert Ross, Ruan Zongze, Robert Sutter, Xie Tao, Xu Feibiao and Wang Jisi.
Xie Tao, Professor at the School of English and International Studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University and author of Living with the Dragon: How the American Public Views the Rise of China:
Chinese leaders often hail economic cooperation as the “ballast” and the “propeller” of the U.S.-China relationship. Now that the two countries are fighting a hundred-billion-dollar trade war, is the ship of bilateral relations doomed to sink?
Not necessarily. There has been no anti-American protest since President Trump launched the trade war on July 6. The absence of such protests could imply that ordinary Chinese are not terribly upset by Trump’s hostile actions. And there is a good reason for them not to feel so, as initial concessions offered by Beijing—to reduce import tariffs, for example—mean cheaper foreign products and services for the average Chinese consumer. That is to say, the Chinese public does not seem to be in a mood for a sharp downturn in bilateral economic relations.
More important, given the Chinese government’s tight control over nationalist protests, muted public reactions could be a powerful signal that Beijing is still willing to seek a compromise with Washington. For one thing, such a war will probably harm the Chinese economy much more than it does the American economy. After all, the United States is China’s largest export market, and there is simply no alternative that is as big and lucrative as the American market.
Besides, Washington could retaliate by sharply curtailing China’s access to U.S. high technology. The Chinese economic juggernaut has been driven primarily by exports and investment, not by innovation. The fate of ZTE—a Chinese telecommunication giant sanctioned by the U.S. Commerce Department—amply illustrates China’s overwhelming dependence on American technology. In the high-tech realm at least, America is indispensable to China, but not the other way around.
If the above analysis is correct, then the trade war will likely wind down fairly soon. But Chinese willingness to compromise should not be interpreted as a sign of weakness, that is, as evidence that it pays to get tough on China. Admittedly, getting tough on China seems to be the new consensus in Washington, due to increasing concerns over Chinese influence in Western societies (so-called sharp power) as well as the perceived failure of Beijing to embrace democracy, adopt a market economy, and defer to American leadership.
The danger of this consensus, though, is that it will undoubtedly empower those in Beijing who are opposed to deepening political and economic reform. Getting tough on China may well produce a tougher China that sees no choice but to engage in intense and comprehensive competition—geopolitical, economic, and ideological—with Washington. But is America ready for a new cold war?