Less than a year after the longest, disastrous war in U.S. history ended on a messy military exit from Afghanistan, the Biden administration is apparently embarked on the fast track of fashioning a major new foreign policy design to combat the challenge from China.
There are signposts to a new Cold War but, interestingly, the United States is resorting to containment of China from a rather outmoded playbook, namely, the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Since anti-Communism still sells, this playbook, too, begins with the demonization of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), as its nostalgic throwback to the Communist Party of Soviet Union (CPSU), which presided over the liquidation of the Soviet Union.
Once the “the enemy” is “created,” then the countermeasures are a natural corollary to combat the “threat,” foremost among these being the cobbling of a coalition of like-minded allies, as was done during the Cold War. Similarly, couching the confrontation in ideological terms, democracy versus autocracy, makes it an easier “sell” as a moral conflict between the “good guys” and “bad guys.”
However, U.S. policymakers fail to understand that China is no Soviet Union. The only thing common between China and the Soviet Union is the label of the ruling parties although the Chinese Communist Party, with 90 million members, presides over a huge state apparatus that, despite its formal Marxist trappings, exudes the vibrancy and creativity of a thriving Asian free-market economy pushing globalization, inspired by the famous catchy dictum of Deng Xiaoping: “Getting Rich is Glorious.”
In the past, this “one size fits all” Cold War-like approach has cost the United States dearly in Asia, often reflecting a paucity of imagination. At the end of World War II, Asian freedom fighters, including Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh, looked up to the United States for inspiration to usher in the post-colonial era. In January 1945, Mao and Zhou Enlai offered to come to Washington to see President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom they admired. And Ho Chi Minh was so impressed by Jeffersonian ideals that he incorporated excerpts from the American Declaration of Independence in the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence from French colonialism. However, ideology trumped realpolitik and both were rebuffed as they had been labeled as “the enemy.”
Under Xi Jinping, more than ideology, the Chinese Communist Party’s political DNA is derived from two historical traumas. These are vividly demonstrated in Xi’s various speeches and articles published under the title: “The Governance of China.” The first is the “Century of Humiliation,” from 1840-1949, when a weak China was under foreign domination and Chinese sovereignty was virtually non-existent. Visitors to Shanghai will often be taken around to different museums where the Shanghai of the 1930s is recreated, when it was divided into foreign enclaves including the French quarter, the American quarter, the British quarter, and the German quarter, with their own country laws governing their respective territorial domains and their respective clubs proudly advertising at the entrance, “Chinese and dogs not allowed.” Hence, the obsession of the Chinese leadership regarding the inviolability of the borders and to protect what they feel is China’s sovereignty and unity.
The second part of Xi’s political DNA is the “Soviet Model”: the manner of the unraveling of the USSR under a decaying and decadent Communist Party of the Soviet Union led by corrupt, self-serving, “fat and flabby” apparatchiks. So the fear of the Soviet Union’s collapse motivates the CCP leadership to view Michael Gorbachev as a “teacher by negative example” (how not to do things), which, in turn, reinforces the determination of the CCP to “never again” allow that failed model to “infect” the CCP.
These two elements are central to understanding the CCP leadership’s worldview. Hence, the manner of their governance of China and dealings with foreign countries, especially in their quest to preserve, protect, and promote what are viewed as the “core interests” of China.
What are these “core interests” that the Chinese leadership feels today are the bedrock of its stability and prosperity?
The unity, territorial integrity, and sovereignty of China are translated into the sanctity of its borders which includes “red lines” like Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and the South China Sea (out of fourteen neighbors, China has signed boundary agreements with twelve, barring India and Bhutan).
Then, China’s “peaceful rise” is viewed as a natural evolution, even a sense of an historical entitlement, that China has finally “arrived” on the international stage. This was first publicly alluded to by President Xi, during his speech on October 18, 2017, at the 19th CCP Congress. Referring to “the world witnessing once in a century changes,” Xi remarked that China has become “a great power in the world,” playing “an important role in the history of humankind … it is time for us to take center stage in the world.”
Among “core interests” is the primacy of the CCP as China’s center of gravity pivotal to the country’s unity, stability, and prosperity, because, for Xi and his close associates, there is the conviction that anything like Gorbachev’s glasnost would be a recipe for disaster and could even lead to the breakup of China. As the inheritors of the “Middle Kingdom” which built a Great Wall to defend China from foreign intruders, the CCP leadership is well aware that existing fault lines can be susceptible to manipulation to China’s detriment.
I was struck by the fact that, unlike Americans, who tend to have short memories and shifting relationships with foreign countries, Chinese take the long view, with a keen sense of history. A few years ago, during a meeting with a top Chinese “thinking” policy maker, while discussing U.S. “designs against China,” he politely passed on an old op-ed of the New York Times written by Leslie Gelb on November 13, 1991, around the time when the Soviet Union was disintegrating. Interestingly titled, “Breaking China Apart,” Gelb’s piece matter-of-factly discussed the United States resorting to the “ultimate sanction -- a threat to the territorial integrity of the Middle Kingdom -- if Beijing leaders continue to defy new standards of world behavior…” Alarmingly, Gelb continued in the New York Times, if “Chinese actions go far beyond the pale. Americans and others may take extraordinary measures, including kindling separatism, to stop them. Beijing’s leaders will be making a terrible mistake to think otherwise.” It is thus no accident that China often views unrest in Xinjiang, Tibet, or Hong Kong or talk of Taiwan as some sort of a U.S.-supported state policy of “kindling separatism.”
Thirty years later, U.S. policymakers are already embarked on creating a Cold War-like infrastructure of alliances, laws, and institutions to “shape the strategic environment around China” as U.S. secretary of state Antony Blinken put it in his China policy speech at the George Washington University last month. No wonder, in this the fiftieth year of President Richard Nixon’s landmark visit to China, the U.S. ambassador to China, Nicholas Burns, says “U.S.-China relations are their lowest point in 50 years.” Notwithstanding the Russian invasion of Ukraine with the first European land war in a quarter of a century, CIA director William Burns has categorically stated that the CIA’s “top priority is a rising China.”
The Quad comprising the United States, Australia, Japan, and India has been reactivated; a new Anglo-Saxon grouping, AUKUS, comprising the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia, has been created; the U.S. Congress has passed the China-specific Strategic Competition Act, with a proviso for an annual $300 million “Countering China Influence Fund.” Although China is over 3,500 miles away from the Atlantic, NATO’s reach will now extend to the Asia-Pacific, and in the recent NATO Summit at Madrid, leaders of four Asian allies of the United States were specially invited: Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and South Korea. The Biden administration has also initiated a copycat program to counter China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), with the EU following suit with a similar initiative.
However, the core of America's foreign policy thrust remains a military-driven, security-centric approach that measures China’s might or “China’s challenge” primarily in military terms. President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” is being implemented by Biden eleven years later. Asia-Pacific has been rebranded as the “Indo-Pacific,” presumably as a proclamation that the Indian and Pacific Oceans will continue to remain “American lakes” as the jockeying for influence continues on the high seas.
While the United States seems to have suddenly woken up to the reality of China’s rise and is keen to play “catch up,” five fundamentals are pointers to the United States embarking on an unwinnable Sisyphean quest that will end up hurting its interests more than stopping China’s rise in its tracks.
First, a comparison of Chinese and American economic statecraft would be in order. China has won hearts and minds using economic tools like free trade and investment, plus a non-intrusive “no questions asked” capacity to deliver. The BRI or its financial arm, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), have established its credentials with an inclusive approach. The United States is only now, in fact, waking up to the fact that China has built a huge global infrastructure of trade, investment, and regional connectivity driven by the economy, energy, ports, pipelines, roads, and railways, roping in willing partners, ranging from the Solomon Islands to Saudi Arabia, Panama to Pakistan, Israel to Indonesia. Out of 193 members of the United Nations, 130 countries have more trade with China than they have with the United States.
If we compare U.S. economic statecraft with China, there is a yawning chasm between U.S. pronouncements that have not been matched by practices, while China has been pushing a slow but sure transformation of the global economic landscape to its advantage with practical policies that produce results. Conversely, it is instructive to recall the U.S. economic diplomacy track record. During the Bush administration in 2006, the United States announced, with a lot of fanfare, the launch of Reconstruction Opportunity Zones (ROZs), which were meant to create economic opportunities for people living on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The ROZs would substitute war with peace and prosperity, offering jobless jihadis economic incentives, by manufacturing goods and providing jobs in special U.S.-funded industrial zones and transform the area from a terror hub to an economic zone of peace, development, and prosperity. That initiative fell through because of a lack of support in the U.S. Congress.
During the Obama administration, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton announced the launch of the “New Silk Road” in July 2011 from Chennai, India. The Chinese were not amused. I remember a conversation with then-Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, while on a visit to Pakistan months later in January 2012, where he remarked that as “a matter of fact that there is only one Silk Road, which originated from China 2,000 years ago, and we have no idea of any new silk road, and that too originating from India under the American patronage!” This concept of a New Silk Road never took off.
Under the Trump administration, the United States launched the BUILD Act (Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development) and a new focal organization, the Development Finance Corporation (DFC), which were formally meant to “counter” President Xi Jinping’s BRI. For starters, DFC was to have an outlay of $60 billion. Nothing came of that initiative either.
Under the Biden administration, the United States launched the Build Back Better World (B3W) at the G7 Summit in the United Kingdom in June 2021. A year later, the B3W, which has yet to show any results on the ground, has been renamed the Partnership for Growth of Infrastructure. A change of nomenclature after a year!
In any case, U.S. policies have pushed China and Russia closer together, unlike the Cold War when China was an American ally. One important factor for the U.S. victory over the USSR in the twentieth-century Cold War was the solid support of China. After President Nixon’s historic opening to China fifty years ago, China became a de facto U.S. ally on most global issues where the United States was confronting the Soviet Union, be it Afghanistan or the Soviet-supported Vietnamese invasion and occupation of Cambodia or combating Soviet expansionism in Africa. Given this context, U.S. policymakers need to rethink before they sleepwalk into a new Cold War against an adversary they do not fully understand, in a complex global setting where the United States no longer can lay claim to be “the sole superpower.”
Second, in the current global setting, America’s appeal and, indeed, its strength remain in the domain of “soft power,” where it excels and is unmatched. The allure of the United States, the razzle and dazzle of the American “way of life” and its innate dynamism and creativity, serve as a magnet which entices the best and brightest of the world to study, stay, and settle in the United States—seen as a land of opportunity where merit matters. This is still America's strongest selling point globally, not in cobbling military alliances based on the “shock and awe” of military might, where it has been a constant loser on the battlefields of Asia. Embarking on a quest to contain China, when China still doesn’t threaten core American interests directly, would be a tried, tested, and failed formula, wasting resources as happened in the post-9/11 “War on Terror” when $6.5 trillion were squandered in two decades of futile conflict.
Third, in 2022, both Xi and Biden, the leaders of China and the United States, are going through a critical transition in their respective countries. Xi is getting ready to preside over the most important CCP conclave this fall since 1978 when Deng Xiaoping did the massive “course correction” from Maoism to a market economy, politically labeled “Socialism with Chinese characteristics.” For Biden, the midterm elections in November are “make or break,” which will determine whether he will have a political future beyond 2024. Biden needs Xi for an economic bailout that will give the U.S. economy badly needed relief, while Xi is aware that the “great disorder under heaven” can be destabilizing for China, serving to detract China from its post-Covid transition to normalcy after nearly three years of lockdowns and quarantine. Therefore, both leaders need a semblance of cooperative partnership for political stability at home, economic growth, and a lowering of tensions in an otherwise volatile world. Confrontation, containment, or a new cold war would detract from these common objectives.
Fourth, as a landmark Harvard study, authored by Prof. Graham Allison, “The Great Hi-Tech Rivalry: China and the United States” indicates: China is already overtaking the United States in high-tech manufacturing. For example, in 2020, China produced 1.5 billion cell phones, 250 million computers, and 25 million automobiles. Putting the Chinese genie of economic growth and technological excellence back into the bottle would be an uphill, if not impossible, task, for the United States. In key areas of innovation, science, and technology, which are going to be determinants of twenty-first-century advancement, China is almost at par or ahead of the United States, including in artificial intelligence, 5G, cloud computing, robotics, and studies in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).
Finally, and this is the key, on balance, there is greater convergence of Chinese and U.S. interests on key global issues, than divergence. North Korea and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is a case in point. Stability and peace in Afghanistan are other areas of congruent interests. A stable Middle East, including close ties with Israel, are fundamental elements of this China-American confluence of interests. In fact, the only issue of discord in U.S.-Israel relations is China’s close economic and technological ties with Israel, including building of the Haifa Port, which the United States labels as a potential “security threat.” Other areas of convergence between the two countries include climate change, counterterrorism cooperation (especially combating religious extremism of groups like ISIS or Al Qaeda), a quest for regional connectivity, and the building up of free trade groupings. Even on that, China has an edge given the incentives offered by the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) are not comparable to the U.S. initiative of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), which neither provides for market access nor lowering of tariff barriers. RCEP countries provide 30 percent of global industrial output and 30 percent of global trade. China’s pragmatism is evident in delinking trade from politics, as the recent opening of direct shipping lines between the Chinese port of Qingdao and Japan’s Osaka port indicates. Or flexibility on Hong Kong, where Xi personally reassured the international community, during his speech on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Hong Kong handover, that the basic character of Hong Kong as an “open and free economy based on one country, two systems” and the “Common Law” of the island would remain unchanged.
In the current context, a key area of potential convergence of Chinese and American interests could be Ukraine. China has not endorsed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine because it goes against the grundnorm of Chinese foreign policy, namely, the inviolability of established borders and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of states. While China has not formally condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine, China does not condone it either. It is, therefore, no accident that two days after the June 15 Xi-Putin telephone conversation, President Vladimir Putin hinted at China-Russia differences during his revealing statement at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (Russia’s Davos) where he stated that “China has her own interests and these are not the same as Russian interests, but these interests are not against Russia.”
In any peaceful settlement of the Ukraine conflict, China can be a key facilitator of the United States because of the relationship that Beijing enjoys with Moscow. More than any other country, it is China that has strategic leverage over Russia. China is naturally perturbed at the destabilization of the European status quo caused by the invasion of Ukraine, which, in turn, has militarized European foreign policy to the extent that a rejuvenated NATO is now taking on a China-focused direction, extending its tentacles to the Asia-Pacific, where China has core interests.
In the last ten years, Xi has met Putin thirty-eight times, the maximum number of meetings of Xi with any foreign leader; both have a very close personal rapport and both are members of a “mutual admiration society.” If Putin takes any leader seriously, it is Xi, and Xi too has admired Putin as a “strong and decisive” leader, spearheading Russia’s resurgence after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
This relationship can be leveraged by the United States to seek an end to the Ukraine war, providing for a face-saving exit for Putin. A long-drawn-out conflict in Ukraine is neither in American or Chinese interests. While the United States has been helped by Putin’s misadventure in Ukraine, the Ukraine war, for the most part, is seen in much of the Global South as primarily a “European War,” driven by a desire to isolate and contain Russia, which itself feels encircled by NATO enlargement. For the first time in twenty-five years, China, India, and Pakistan took a similar position on a global issue, choosing to abstain from voting on Ukraine, like so many others, including Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. Even solid American allies like the UAE and Saudi Arabia have been found “sitting on the fence” on Ukraine. Given this context, instead of rushing headlong into confronting and containing China, wisdom gleaned from past experience and contemporary geopolitical realities demand a review and reset in the U.S. approach to China. Some broad understanding on the “rules of the game” must be found so these two global giants can contest and compete without rocking the boat or resorting to a needless confrontation, that neither they nor the world needs or can afford, economically, politically, or militarily.
Senator Mushahid Hussain is Chairman of the Senate of Pakistan’s Defence Committee, a longtime visitor to China, he studied at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.