The recent visit of Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, often simply known as Lula, to Beijing should be a reality check for Washington. Coming on the heels of visits from leaders of France, Spain, Singapore, and Malaysia, plus success brokering a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, it affirms that China is now a global player on the world stage. Its presence is permanent and growing. Yet the United States has not fully accounted for the magnitude of China’s rise, nor for the multipolar system of international relations it augurs.
The U.S. relationship with China has always been defined in binary terms. The “good” China was the pragmatic one; it embraced capitalism following Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in 1978 and fostered illusions that political pluralism, if not democracy, was around the corner. The “bad” one is the increasingly authoritarian Communist China of Xi Jinping, which parted with Deng’s reforms in 2012. This China has centralized power, stifled openness, massively modernized the military in every warfare area, and projected its power in East and Southeast Asia.
Yet China and the United States are stuck in a codependent relationship. Trade and investment ties between the two countries are critical to their prosperity and that of the world economy. The Biden administration’s extension of Donald Trump’s protectionist policies has curtailed trade and made China insecure. China’s rejection of international collaboration in favor of national self-reliance in technological innovation, from AI to quantum computing, has similarly alarmed Washington.
China believes the United States seeks to contain its rise—a far from fanciful notion given that Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia in 2012 was partly intended to reassert America’s military primacy in the Asia-Pacific. The United States, for its part, fears that China will supplant it as the world’s hegemon. Although its relentless growth has been diminished by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, the bursting of the real estate bubble, nonperforming loans, and a shrinking labor pool, China is still likely to become the world’s dominant economic power by midcentury. This trajectory and Xi’s repeated verbal sallies that the United States is in fatal decline only intensify American anxieties.
Pressured by public opinion produced by their own rhetoric, Washington and Beijing are demonizing each other, and talk of war is in the air. Critical to retreating from the precipice of conflict is re-establishing a dialogue. Without such a dialogue, there can be no hope of regaining a measure of mutual trust, as Tom Friedman wrote in the New York Times on April 14.
Both sides must reduce their attachments to cultural blinders that obstruct compromise. Xi may fancy that China has resurrected its celestial status as the Middle Kingdom, the center of civilization around which the world revolves, but that is an anachronism in a world of emerging powers. Ditto for the culturally ingrained American belief that the United States has been historically destined to redeem a wayward world. The objective of foreign policy is not to transform the world into America’s self-image; it is to defend and enhance the country’s interests in a competitive and often conflictual world.
To advance this objective, eliminate barriers to communication, and rebuild trust between Washington and Beijing, greater emphasis must be placed on diplomacy. Xi must abandon the combative wolf warrior diplomacy driven by hostility toward the West and resume the cooperative and pragmatic approach of Hu Jintao and his predecessors. The United States should put to rest its lingering attachment to unipolarity and the simplistic division of the world into democracies and autocracies. There needs to be a rule of law, but in the multipolar world that is emerging the United States will no longer be the sole rulemaker.
Protecting America’s interests requires retaining a robust military force, one that is well-trained and equipped and operates at a high state of readiness. It is prudent to impose sanctions on dual-use semiconductor chips that China will use to modernize its military capabilities. Publicly communicating America’s social and scientific achievements and its success in improving the quality of life for its citizenry, as Robert Gates has written, will also help to counter Chinese disinformation so long as the message is free of sanctimony. America should present itself as a model for others to emulate rather than as a proselytizing missionary.
Ultimately, the United States must recognize that China’s rise is part of the broader redistribution of global power stimulated by the end of the Cold War. Freed from the constraints of the U.S.-Soviet struggle, emerging countries began to assert their national interests. India, Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia, and other states are intent on replacing a Western-dominated world order with policies that coincide with their objectives.
They favor a rules-based world, as Indian foreign minister S. Jaishankar said last year, so long as it does not compromise their interests. Southeast Asian nations refuse to take sides in the U.S.-China conflict; they remain skeptical that the war in Ukraine is the portentous clash of ideologies presented by the West. Conflicting interests prompted fifteen African countries to abstain from the February 2023 UN vote calling on Russia to remove its forces from Ukraine. Competing interests likewise intrude on the solidarity of America’s allies, who wish to avoid becoming “vassals,” as French prime minister Emanuel Macron put it, in a U.S.-China confrontation.
De-dollarization is underway in international trade, in part to avoid U.S. financial sanctions in national security matters. Lula favors the use of alternative currencies to settle cross-border trades, and Bangladesh has recently decided to pay for a Russian nuclear power plant using the Chinese renminbi. Economists and investors such as Nouriel Roubini and Ruchir Sharma maintain that we are headed for a world of currency blocs.
Rising tensions between the United States and China threaten to redivide a world whose cohesion will be crucial to addressing a multitude of problems, among which climate change, poverty, disease prevention, and military conflict loom the largest. In the evolving international political system that is emerging from the ruins of the former U.S.-Soviet condominium, the distribution of power is becoming more dispersed. To maintain a stable world order, it will be increasingly important for both the United States and China to find a middle ground with other regional powers no less intent on having a say in how the world is governed. To avoid a calamitous conflict that would balkanize the world or, far worse, plunge it into a new dark age of perpetual warfare, Washington and Beijing must find a modus vivendi that will allow them peacefully to reconcile their competing interests in a changing world.
Hugh De Santis is a former career officer in the Department of State who served on the Policy Planning Staff, among other assignments, and later chaired the department of national security strategy at the National War College. His latest book is The Right to Rule: American Exceptionalism and the Coming Multipolar World Order.