America’s increasing resistance to China’s rise is rooted deeper than the will of the President and his trade war. Once having believed that Beijing could be socialized into the status quo international order through economic development, Washington has recalibrated its China stances to incorporate the growing belief that the country will pose a challenge, rather than a compliment, towards American hegemony.
2018 hastened the dusk of a 45-year epoch in US-China relations. As Donald Trump adamantly pushed ahead on his trade war, the actions, although seemingly attributed to the unhinged determination of one individual, in fact represented a new strategic in Washington. An era believing that the United States could earnestly work with China within their own rules had came to end. It was an era which opened abruptly. In 1972, Richard Nixon made an unprecedented visit to China and met with an ailing Mao Zedong, whom had spent a near quarter of a century waging a perpetuating standoff against what he termed “American Imperialism”. Despite the vast ideological differences between the two parties, the People’s Republic of China, dogged by the trauma and chaos of the cultural revolution and strategically alienated by enmity against the Soviet Union, was able to find common interests with Washington in containing Moscow. Years later, following Mao’s passing, the Communist Party came to the realization that maintaining productive ties with the United States would prove essential to their regime success. Mao’s disastrous economic fantasies had created a fledging country trailing far beyond its neighbours. Washington held the keys to international markets, capital and investment, all highly desirable to an ambitious Deng Xiaoping who sought to open the country up to the world. His reforms would unleash a rolling snowball of economic growth which would transform the agrarian communist state into one of the economic powerhouses of the world. Now, China sits as the world’s second largest economy and industrial great power, having overtaken Japan in 2010.
From Washington’s point of view, this famous rapprochement and the end to a containment of the PRC was saw a foreign policy victory which wooed Beijing into the world order being consolidated by the United States, which in time saw the demise of the Soviet Union. With unipolarity achieved, ideology and time were seemingly on America’s side, it was believed the victory of global liberal ideology was both inevitable and unavoidable. Ultimately, as China had seemingly chose the path of the market, it was believed that through the power of such growth, Beijing could only evolve in positive ways. A rising middle class would seemingly demand democracy and openness, whilst a booming economy would integrate Beijing into the existing order and necessitate interdependent cooperation on a number of modern issues. The US watched as similar rapid growth oversaw a transition from authoritarianism to democracy in South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. In turn, the belief was that China’s development would render the absolute rule of the Communist Party untenable and force them to make political concessions. Analysts such as Gordon Chang repeatedly “predicted” the CCP’s pending collapse in the turn of the millennium. With such an inevitable evolution at hand, the United States actively supported the country’s development, preferring “conditioning” to containment. The events of Tiananmen and the sanctions which followed were quickly forgiven, Bill Clinton buckled to pressure from lobbyists to uphold China’s “favoured nation” trade status, the US allowed China to enter the world trade organisation in 2001 and for all their obvious differences, multiple administrations approached Beijing with a cordial tone. The massive surplus Beijing built from trade with the United States was to be tolerated, for the prevailing philosophy was that China was not to be confronted, it was to be shaped.
However, these hopes of evolution gradually diminished as the world changed in unpredictable ways. The financial crisis of 2008 created an ideological vacuum which damaged the fabric of American unipolarity, creating political space for emboldened authoritarianism to emerge in resistance to Washington’s liberal vision. In this context, the Communist Party would respond to the global changes around it by tightening, rather than loosening its hold over China’s society. The rise of the Xi Jinping premiership has overseen an unprecedented consolidation of the party-state in modern times. Censorship has increased, civil society and religion have faced increasing state regulation and the role of party groups in all organisations, universities and companies has been consolidated. In addition, Beijing’s foreign policy has become bolder and more assertive. The party has revised Deng’s cautious approach of “hiding low” or “Taoguangyanghui”, pursuing a more activist foreign policy. The preceding years have saw Beijing become more forward with claims in the South China Sea, place increasing pressure upon Taipei and most iconically, pursue the ambitious plan to reshape the global economic order in One Belt, One Road. With an emboldened Xi at the helm, abolishing term limits with the scope of ruling for life, suddenly the “pending liberalisation” of China had become but a pipe-dream.
China’s deviation from what was anticipated shaped a new reality in Washington. The sustenance of the Communist Party and its increasing global power legitimized the belief that China was not a cooperative partner, but ultimately a a competitor threatening American hegemony, one which goes far beyond the actions of Trump as an individual. It was a change initiated with the Obama administration. For all his administration maintained a cordial posture with Beijing, his 2nd term urgency emphasized a renewed presence in the East, dubbed the “rebalance” or “pivot” to Asia. The presence of the U.S military in the region would be enhanced, with “freedom of navigation” patrols emerging as a means of affirming the rules-based order, as well as an ill-fated attempt to secure the economic status quo with the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. As a result, by the Time Trump emerged, Washington’s shifting regional perceptions and objectives were very much in place. Although the real estate tycoon has acted to accelerate the pushback against China and pushed many boundaries in an unconventional way, such an effort had in many ways already preceded him and was in any case, inevitable in its emergence.
Now, Trump has been able to take the reigns of Washington’s growing apprehension of China and characterize it in his nationalist dogma of “America First”. As much as his talk of a “trade war” seemed like hyperbole targeting blue collar voters, it markets this shifting strategic impetus that China is seemingly a threat. The Communist Party’s dominance of broad sectors of China’s economy, initiating acquisitions on a global scale, forcing technology transfers from foreign investors, and Xi’s ambitions to turn the country into a “technology superpower”, all in the context of increasing authoritarian rule, have created the belief Beijing itself will challenge global order. Concurrently, no longer is interdependence with China seen as a path to socializing the country on a liberal path, but a fundamental weakness which will only inhibit Washington’s global power. A more hawkish stance against China is just not a view driven by the administration, but it is one that has strong bipartisan support in Congress, with foreign policy heavyweights Marco Rubio and Cory Gardner expressing increasingly hawkish views on Beijing. Alongside Trump’s fabled tariff war, the U.S is now also pushing back on Taiwan, the recalling of ambassadors from countries who had switched from Taipei to Beijing standing as an unprecedented move, despite Washington’s very own adherence to the fabled “One China Policy” which the 1970s era created.
Whilst the abrasiveness and unconventional style of Trump will eventually pass, this new momentum against China will outlive the administration. The eventual conclusion of the trade war is uncertain, but observers should anticipate that an era of strategic competition, largely concentrated in the Indo-Pacific region, is here to stay. Whilst the form it takes may vary, it is unlikely to change save there are dramatic shifts in China’s political and economic system, save America’s hearts can be softened. Once a strategic convenience propelled by a common adversary in Moscow, now both powers find themselves increasingly cold through irreconcilable interests, lingering distrust and two very different conceptions of world order. Whilst one should be cautious of terming the situation as a “new cold war”, it cannot be dismissed that Washington has decided that it has nothing more to gain from a reconciliatory and accommodating approach to Beijing. On that note, the 45-year epoch of Sino-American rapprochement has finally drawn to a close.