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July 10, 2019

Responding To: The Future of U.S.-China Relations: Friend or Foe?

More Competitive Than Cooperative

Andrea Su

There are many reasons to view the future of U.S.-China relations favorably, such as globalization making the two economies further intertwined and the rise of a new generation that is better traveled and better exposed to different cultures and ways of life. Despite these major arguments for collaboration (both of which I have cited in my previous blog posts), I am still convinced that the relationship between China and the United States will be more competitive than cooperative over the next decade. The reason for this pessimism is that, fundamentally, China and the United States lack a common vision strong enough to guide the two countries toward a constructive and cooperative relationship, over the destructive and competitive one we are seeing unfold today. While the United States has championed liberal democratic values for decades since the end of the Cold War, China has more recently shown a desire to challenge these values, redefine international norms, and redesign the global order. The more China’s influence grows with its economic power, the greater the challenge it will pose to the existing global order. If China continues to pursue the overtly illiberal policies and principles it has laid out today, the discrepancy in core values between the two countries will create tension and conflict in their relationship for years to come.

China’s desire to remake the global order has become clear in the last decade under President Xi Jinping’s assertive leadership. With no term limit for the current president in sight, it can only be assumed that the trajectory Xi has put China on is the one we will see come into full force in the decade to come. In her article, “China’s New Revolution: The Reign of Xi Jinping,” Elizabeth Economy writes that Xi has diverged from his predecessor Hu’s low-profile in foreign policy to seek to actively shape international norms and institutions. Economy cites Xi’s remarks at the 19th Party Congress that China had “stood up, grown rich, and become strong” and other countries should “draw on ‘Chinese wisdom’ and follow ‘a Chinese approach to solving the problems facing mankind’” to make her central claim that “for the first time, China is an illiberal state seeking leadership in a liberal world order.” There is no shortage of policies announced in recent years that demonstrate China’s newfound willingness to assert its presence on the world stage. The most prominent of which is the Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to secure China’s advantage in the next wave of global economic development by enabling it to set technical standards and gain controlling stakes in strategic ports.

While maintaining its track record of economic growth, the Chinese Communist Party needs to establish a clear system of values in order to gain legitimacy in its new role of global leadership. Already, Xi has stepped up on the world stage with massive investment packages, audacious slogans, and public commitments, including his speech defending globalization and free trade at the 2017 World Economic Forum. Prominent Chinese scholar, Yan Xuetong, predicts that while China will remain focused on economic growth in the near future, it will also push for a greater emphasis on national sovereignty in international affairs, instead of the existing norms of human rights and responsibility sharing. In seeking greater multi-polarity in international affairs, China looks to the developing world and other authoritarian governments for support, while pressuring its liberal democratic trade partners to silence their dissent. As long as the United States stays true to its liberal political values, in addition to its economic ones, China’s behavior will continue to alarm and draw criticism from American scholars, politicians, and citizens. In spite of all the good things Xi has promised—South-South cooperation, greater connectivity, and even a “community of shared human destiny”—the United States cannot and will not stay silent when its values are being violated or undermined by a major world power. Thus, without a major change of heart on either side, the future of the U.S.-China relationship will be rife with political conflict and contestation.

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