America and China’s strategic relations have experienced pivotal turns after the victory of China’s communist revolution in 1949 up to now and China has become world’s second largest economy. The relations began with war and hardware clashes and after 20 years leaned toward reconciliation and then cooperation, again shifting from cooperation toward competition in software, in a way that now the countries are now on the verge of a new strategic confrontation.
- China’s War with the US and Union with the USSR
China’s communist revolution succeeded in 1949. And with communist ideology and a mantra of independence and justice seeking sealed a long period of civil war. In this year, Mao allied with comrade Stalin and started renovating China’s military by using the USSR’s new weaponry.
In the first year of the revolution and with the USSR’s green light, the Korean war started by the North invading the South to unify the two Koreas, prompting the US to step in the war to defend its ally. Then, China engaged in war with the US to defend the North Korea and push the US forces away from its borders. During three years, China suffered several hundreds of thousands of casualties. The war made the US and China ideological and strategic foes for 20 years. The conditions of the two Koreas have remained unchanged in borders and territories, but due to nuclear issues have become a great challenge for the US and its allies.
In another development after years of civil war in China, the nationalists were defeated by Mao’s communist revolution and fled to the Taiwan island by support from the US (1949). Since then, Taiwan became a separated part from mainland China, and the matter was considered as America’s direct interference for disintegrating China. China and the US’s relations have several times lurched to the brink of war, even nuclear war, over Taiwan, an issue which has been the thorniest problem between China and the US.
- Reconciliation and Cooperation with the US
After 20 years of ideological enmity with the US, Mao gradually warmed up due to strategic considerations and distanced from his ideological comrade, the Soviet.
The US president, Nixson, appointed Kissinger, in 1971, to contact China, to exploit the rivalry and enmity arisen between china and the Soviet. As a result, both countries substituted strategic considerations for ideological goals in their foreign policy and entered cooperation against their strategic enemy, that is the Soviet. To Mao, the USSR with upward of 4000 kms of common border was a near enemy and the US with a long distance a far enemy. To neutralize the near enemies, the revolutionary Mao decided to compromise and interact with the far foe, i.e. the imperialist America.
In 1979, the US and China started formal relations and with Deng Xiaoping rising to power, the US and China cooperation and alignment against the domineering power of the Soviet were consolidated.
This was China’s first strategic pivot in the world powers’ relations which changed the global political geometry.
- Ideological Confrontation and Economy
Between the years 1979 and 1989, Deng Xiaoping – which had returned to power after experiencing two exiles and house arrests – opened a new horizon onto the Marxist ideology and that was gradual replacement of ideological purity with development and progress. From this perspective, the value system of communism that centered around ideological loyalty gave way to specialization and efficiency in science, technology and development. To him, whether the cat was black or white did not matter, the cat only had to catch mice. The goal of the socialist system was eliminating poverty and deprivation from Chinese society. Over the past 40 years, China had managed within the framework of a Sustainable Growth Program to lift about 770 million people out of abject poverty and reduce the number to zero. Thus, world’s most successful program for poverty alleviation was materialized not based on charity and rescue but exact economic planning.
And this was considered China’s second pivot in its socialist system, due to whose impact, society got rid of poverty and gained growth and development.
In 1989, China’s strategic rival, the Soviet fell into a trap of arms race with the US and astronomical military spending, which undermined its economy. On the other side, the Soviet had been dissolved and disrupted due to the Glasnost policy (political development) under the US pressure. At the same time in China, with progress of economic reforms and development of communications, the need for political liberties increased, leading to the “Tiananmen” Square disaster. As a result, the trend for political liberties and individual freedoms was upended in favor of socialist authoritarianism and the West’s dream for duplicating Glasnost policies in China became a nightmare. The issue damaged China- U.S. ties for a while.
Following the Soviet collapse, the US gradually came to the conclusion that it no longer needed alliance with China for balancing power with the USSR. Because the Soviet had practically left the scene. China, too, realized from the outset, that the Soviet’s power had waned along its northern borders and Russia was in no position to pose an existential threat to China. From now on, China and US’s policies were based not on containing the Soviet but on mutual give and take. At this time, with returning to the Three Worlds Theory, China introduced itself as standard-bearer of the third world countries’ resistance against America and developed countries like Japan and European countries. Still among the permanent members of the UNSC, china is the only member with strongest relations with less-developed countries.
As a result, a new pivot was made in China-U.S. relations that changed their ties from strategic cooperation in the face of a common enemy, the Soviet, to economic and technological rivalry.
This rivalry was not ideological but in science and ventures. With the advent of the three millennium, by paving the way and conducting wide negotiations, China joined in the WTO in 2001, while the US entered war in the Middle East. In this year, China’s GDP was 1.3 trillion dollars which multiplied tenfold until 2018. In 2001, China’s exports were $250 billion which soared to $2.3 trillion in 2019. Tourists who visited China in 2000 amounted to 10 million people which swelled to 150 million before the corona pandemic hit. China’s policy during these years has been continuous perseverance for achieving growth, science, technology and development. In 2015, China’s economy surpassed that of the US, based on PPP, ringing the alarm bell for the US.
In 2004 and 2005, which I, the author, negotiated many times with Senior Chinese officials as Foreign Ministry’s International Deputy, they frequently called for calm and patience and said that China’s confrontation with the US rested in attaining scientific and economic power and that it was with growth and efficiency, that they could exceed the US in the long run.
On the other side, during these years, the US has been engaged in war in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East, the costs of which are estimated at about $7 trillion worth of material damages along with gargantuan spiritual damages, wars that America is still struggling to reel from their aftermath.
The US continued its militarist policy after the dissolution of the USSR and made the same mistake against China as the one the Soviet did against the US. Extravagant spending and an annual military budget of about $740 billion along with setting up military bases in 70 countries weakened the US economy.
As a result of these erroneous policies, the US economy started to stumble and the middle class went downward. Thus, Trump’s election as the US president has been a fallout from these misled strategic policies and the disruption arising from Trumpism is still active along the social fault-lines. While in China the middle class began to rise upward and, presently, the Chines middle class is twice bigger than the whole US population. President Xi has created a big role for China in economic and international relations with his global development plan , the “ Belt and Road” initiative. China’s growing influence in the oceans, seas and lands will create such an advantageous status for China in the long term that will tenaciously link growth and development of about 65 countries to the Chinese economy. This initiative’s strategic importance lies in China’s new approach toward the world which shifts its look from traditional introspection to outside links and relations, especially sea routs.
- Technology Dominating Ideology
This opposite trend entirely transformed China’s strategic status. China’s economic development and advances in some science, technology and new sciences gained such a huge dimension which now the US sees China as its main rival in these areas.
Some analysts believe that the strategic weapon in the new cold war of economy and technology is not ideology, but cyberspace, artificial intelligence and information. So, rivalry has been drawn into the cyberspace and the main issue is sovereignty over cyberspace and cybersecurity.
This new cold war, though going on in the technology and economy areas, but is of strategic importance. The picture being painted of China in America is one of hostility and ideology and here is the only area that there is similarity among Trump’s policies and Biden’s and the public opinion. The point is , this time, it is the US that is trying to put an ideological cover on rivalries in the technological and economic sectors and introduce and vilify China as a dangerous communist ideology in the US and world community. But China’s conditions are not like those of the Soviet during the cold war and the US cannot go to war with China with ideological weapons. The USSR did not then have economic ties with the west, but China’s economic bonds with America are so diverse that economic decoupling of the two countries would be colossally damaging and virtually impossible. The US is now a major market for Chinese goods and by purchasing US securities, China has a big role in the West and US economy. Event western governments are reluctant to cut economic ties with China, because their economies would seriously suffer. Now China has exceeded America and become Europe’s largest trade partner.
The US Chamber of Commerce declared that the US GDP would plunge by $500 billion if its direct foreign investment in China drops by half. In case the US investment in China decreases or the tariffs are increased by the two countries, the US companies will suffer hundreds of billions of losses.
Should the US attempt to ideologize the rifts between the two countries and place the idea of the communist and totalitarian China against the idea of a liberal and democratic West, then there will ensue an intensification of a potential for serious standoffs and the world will be witnessing a clash between the emerging and the dominating powers. But it must be reminded that today’s China does not compare to the China in the first two decades of Mao’s revolution. At that time, Chinese resisted the American imperialism by relying on ideology, but today China’s reliance is on new science and an exports-centered open-market economy and China by sending millions of students to western countries is not pursuing ideological confrontation with America, but practically challenging the US authority in non-security and non-military areas, day after day.
The strategists from China and the US have talked of both inevitable conflict and mutual collaboration between the two countries. Kissinger sees peaceful relations and complementary cooperation between the two sides of the Pacific necessary, while Mearsheimer, an American realist political scientist, relies on historical evidence and strategic analyses and sees the clash between the two world powers for gaining regional hegemony inevitable.
In his speech in Munich (2021), Biden declared the top US foreign policy was how to treat China and said: We must prepare together for long term strategic competition with China. We are in the middle of a big dispute, a way between democracy and autocracy. The U.S. now considers China its number one rival for its strategic policies and, to this end, has set up a special task force in the Pentagon.
Some Chinese strategists believe there is a strong bipartisan consensus formed inside America against China’s development, and in parallel with it in China, under Xi’s firm leadership, there has formed a consensus over countering this trend. For two thousand years China has been the main power of the world, and it was only during the last two centuries that it was dominated by the West. Now China has risen, a peaceful surge but decisive one, which is going to withstand the US pressure. Some extremist Chinese nationalists who are present in the media and think tanks believe that China should, parallel with its technological and economic capacity, increase its military competence and prepare for a strong comeback to the global arena. But in principle, Chinese officials are not seeking for hardware rivalry with the US in security and military sectors, but rather pursuing calm conditions for economic and technological growth in their country.
In the 150 last years, the US has been the dominant global power. The US economy, alone, during the second world war grew to constitute about half of the world economy. Also after the US won the cold war (1989) and the Soviet collapsed, America considered itself the guardian of the new world order and began to interfere and take adventures in a mono-polarized world.
During the Trump era the gulf between the US and the world community widened and the US withdrew from most of international institutes and conventions. In turn, China became the first trade partner of about 150 countries and solidified its position in the world community.
Now China is the champion of globalization and the US is its residue. The world is at a historic juncture and the US status, and not just its economy, is declining and less than a decade China’s economy will be surpassing that of America and America’s power will fall to the second in global ranking.
Gholamali Khoshroo, Former Iranian Ambassador and Permeant Representative to the UN
(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)