China Isn’t an Enemy of the West - and Should Not Be Treated as One
Western discourse on global order and “zero-sum” superpower rivalry is both erroneous and harmful. Instead of economic “decoupling” and whispers of war, Beijing is seeking better cooperation with the US and its allies, based on mutual recognition and respect for the interests of all parties. The Middle East may be one place where it can happen
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in 2015. World leaders must ask themselves whether the Indo-Pacific is better off today, after years of increased tensions and hostility | Photo: State Department (public domain)
Relations between China and the United States have deteriorated dramatically over the past five years, and the majority of observers in Beijing believe this trend will persist. U.S. President Joe Biden’s continuation and expansion of former President Trump’s punitive policies towards China seems to be an affirmation of a Western consensus that U.S. global supremacy is in jeopardy, with China framed as the primary challenger.
Yet, Beijing views much of the discourse and areas of dispute quite differently than the West. Thus, a more nuanced understanding of the other’s perspective can potentially lead to better dialogue and a de-escalation between the two powers. This is especially true given that the management of a potential spillover from China-U.S. tensions to other parts of the world presents a seemingly formidable task for all parties concerned (though worries about a military conflict are overblown).
This article presents a view from Beijing on some of the central issues at the heart of China-U.S. relations and hypothesizes how they might evolve. Its main assertions are that tension over regional and global order is of a rhetorical nature, as much of both governments’ discourse is for domestic, rather than international, consumption; that contentions over regional security, particularly in the maritime sphere, are likely to continue below the threshold of military confrontation; and, finally, that in the Middle Eastern region, China’s interest will continue to be predominantly economic in nature.
Who Rules the Discourse?
U.S. foreign policy elites commonly depict their concerns over American supremacy in global affairs as a defense of the prevailing global order. But when it comes to such an “order,” are Chinese and American views indeed diametrically opposed?
It’s important to stress at the outset that China rejects much of the Western framing of the topic. American elites use the concept of “world order,” implying a hierarchy with “the West” at the peak. Beijing, however, refutes the existence of such a hierarchy. Furthermore, the Chinese find words like “assertive” and “rising”, which are reserved for discussing China in world affairs, demeaning and confrontational.
Some American observers argue that the world faces a binary choice: either the United States gets to be the superpower who sets the tone and shapes the international order – or China does. I, however, submit that this characterization is misleading. After all, China has benefited substantially from the evolution of the current world order, and there is no reason to believe that Beijing wants to upset, much less overturn, it.
If a large country insists on its preference or convenience being the basis of a global order, it is likely to be disappointed
Indeed, the development of the world’s current economic and political relations has helped China become an economic powerhouse and alleviate domestic poverty – a central goal for the Chinese leadership. Since China’s economy relies heavily on import and export, its continued growth and stability depends on access to markets abroad. For Beijing, guaranteeing that access is premised upon respecting other countries’ preferences, as well as the smooth functioning of the world’s trade and investment systems.
Both China and the United States have positively benefited from economic globalization and the deepening of their mutual economic relations. Therefore, from Beijing’s perspective, Sino-American economic interdependence and China’s massive integration within the broader global economy are not only a fait accompli, but a value to cherish. It is regretful, then, that in recent years, the West increasingly views both trends as a threat.
These perceptions are simultaneously erroneous and harmful. The United States remains unrivaled in the global economy: it faces no real competition in areas of finance and banking, research and development, and data-driven growth. The main challenge the U.S. economy continues to face is in domestic income redistribution. Therefore, the rationale for American foreign policy elites to promote the so-called “decoupling” in dealing with China – as opposed to its demand for increase of inflow of investment from Japan when they had trade disputes – is obviously non-economic in nature.
Consequently, Beijing’s economic planning is forced to assume that economic tensions with Washington and several of its allies will persist, including the aforementioned “decoupling” – especially in the field of high-tech. This is regretful, since all sides know that economic interdependence cannot be “decoupled” without causing substantial damage to the two leading economic powers, as well as the rest of the world.
A Pluralistic Approach to Global Order
Back to world order and global institutions. U.S. diplomats and commentators repeatedly state that the purpose of strengthening what they call “rules-based international order” is to avoid deteriorating into a world in which “might makes right” and “winners take all.” But China certainly rejects both these notions. Viewed from Beijing, order – defined either as a general state of stability devoid of violence or disruption, or as a matter of procedure – underpins the Chinese pursuit of peaceful coexistence among nation-states, big and small.
For this reason, official Chinese presentations purposely avoid adopting the American discourse about “order.” Instead, it articulates support for a “rules-based multilateral trading system.”
In other words, Beijing is less interested in the question of who sets the rules, but rather how it can help shape their content. Indeed, China has been increasingly proactive in renegotiating some of the international economic frameworks and technological guidelines to better suit its own interests and that of the wider international community.
From China’s perspective, today – unlike in the past – there can be no “zero-sum” interactions between the countries of the world. If a large country insists on its preference or convenience being the basis of an order, it is likely to be disappointed. Market forces and innovative technologies now allow small and medium countries to choose partners to work with in different areas. This, in turn, allows them to participate in the shaping of rules and conventions, even when dealing with powerful countries which usually have a greater say. Thus, in promoting such an international system, it is actually China which seeks a more pluralistic and inclusive approach to global order and international institutions.
Security in the Asia-Pacific
Stability and avoiding conflict are central values for countries in the Asia-Pacific. The accepted wisdom is to work to prevent another confrontation like the Vietnam War, which featured big power competition over ideology and military influence. In this sense, the current American approach to the Asia-Pacific seems increasingly incompatible with its members’ mindset and is therefore unsustainable.
The notion of peaceful co-existence in the region includes respect for the territorial sovereignty of a country and mutual non-interference in each other’s domestic affairs, while living with differences in ideological inclinations. Diplomatic efforts by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have proven remarkably durable. Since the 1970s, it has initiated many dialogue partnerships with major powers, hosting regional security forums to include participants as diverse as the US, Japan, Russia, China, and even North Korea, all while strengthening economic engagement. This stands as a testimony to the benefits of peaceful co-existence in a diverse region.
The U.S. and Taiwan’s common goal is to preserve the status quo denying Chinese reunification – which Beijing cannot accept
Yet, against this successful trend, the American approach to security in the region took an ideological turn in the 2000s. “Prosperity without freedom is just another form of poverty,” declared President Obama in laying out his administration’s "pivot" or "re-balancing" strategy for managing security in the Asia-Pacific region, back in November 2011.
Nowadays, President Biden echoes similar judgements by framing his assessment of geostrategic competition being one of democracy versus autocracy. This has increased tensions between the two superpowers, though the rhetoric seems to be mostly aimed at domestic audiences.
One of the key points of friction is Taiwan. While the United States has intensified its efforts to portray this as a core matter of democracy versus autocracy, Beijing views its tussle with Washington over the territory not as a matter over values or even political systems, but of territorial integrity.
For Taiwan, seeking military assistance from other countries, including the United States, is a means to increase its capacity for self-defense. For the U.S., beginning in the 1950s and again in recent years, Taiwan is an unsinkable aircraft carrier that can help deter Beijing from military expansion in the region. But for mainland China, the core issue is the territorial integrity of a China that geographically also includes the land and waters currently under Taiwan’s administration.
Ever since the famed trip by Henry Kissinger to Beijing in 1971, China and the United States have managed to maintain a pragmatic relationship over the status of Taiwan. Beijing has urged Washington to observe "One China" as a principle, i.e., accepting the premise of Taiwan and the mainland as being one sovereign entity in the international system. However, the U.S. adheres to a "One China" policy in which it deals in parallel both with the governing body of Taiwan and that of mainland China. This, of course, is one method of leaving prospects of (re)unification and the sovereign status of Taiwan an open matter.
Periods of military tensions between the mainland and Taiwan have been common in the past seven decades, and talk of an imminent strike against Taiwan is not new. Yet in recent years, the United States has increasingly expressed concern about such alleged plans. These statements are part of Washington’s strategy of working with the current leadership in Taipei. Their common goal is to preserve the status quo denying Chinese reunification – one that Beijing cannot accept.
Another area of contention is the accusations made at China for disrupting maritime security in East Asia. But in Chinese eyes, it is the United States that is the aggressive power in the region. For example, Washington’s decision in 2012 to add the uninhabited but disputed islets in the East China Sea between China and Japan into the 1960 mutual defense treaty between the US and Japan, was seen in Beijing as an offensive posture. After all, China and Japan had by then managed to keep their disputes from veering into conflict.
Despite the heated rhetoric on both sides, it is hard to envision China or the U.S. launching a military conflict against a nuclear armed opponent
More recently, the U.S. and some of its allies have established new multilateral frameworks of cooperation – the Quad and AUKUS – that claim to promote a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” and frequently cite the need to maintain “order” in commercial shipping. Commercial shipping through the South China Sea and East China Sea is indeed a lifeline for the economies of all countries in the region and beyond. But Beijing sees these Western claims as disingenuous and whose aim is to contain China in the region. For Beijing, the contentions between itself and other claimants over the South China Sea are related to bilateral disputes over commercial shipping, fishing, and natural resources – and there is no room or need for third party or multilateral interventions.
Indeed, while few (if any) of the issues in the region between China and the United States and its allies and partners are new, the recent political climate seems to be creating an escalatory spiral. As a result, what one side views as defensive measures almost invariably gets interpreted as offensive ones by the other.
Despite growing suspicion between parties, the modus operandi in the region’s maritime security sphere is likely to persist, partially because virtually all means of contention, short of conflict, have been explored. Despite the heated rhetoric on both sides, it is hard to envision either party garnering sufficient domestic justification and support for launching a military conflict against a nuclear armed opponent.
A U.S. Marines "Osprey" tilt-rotor aircraft taking off for a sortie in the South China Sea, February 2022. For Beijing, disputes with it neighbors do not require third-party mediation or intervention | Photo: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Thomas B. Contant (public domain)
The Middle East: Not a Binary Choice
Where do the dynamics between the two superpowers implicate the interests of third parties, such as countries in the Middle East? Many influential figures in the West believe that China may avail itself of opportunities for getting into a “great game” with the U.S. in the Middle East, as the latter has achieved energy self-sufficiency and is slowly disengaging from the region. Regretfully, such views fail to capture the totality of the myriad aspects of governmental and societal-level ties between the two nations, either bilaterally or involving third countries around the world, the Middle East included.
Some, for example, argue that China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI), launched in 2013, is an effort to change the strategic dynamic in the region. As a matter of fact, the Initiative is based on programs such as the Central Asian Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC), an economic partnership of 11 countries and development partners established in 2001. The BRI is, in essence, an addition to efforts like CAREC, in that both are partnerships that promote development through cooperation, leading to accelerated economic growth and poverty reduction.
The overall orientation of the BRI, whose operating modality is rooted in project- and policy-level connectivity with its participants, aligns well with Middle Eastern countries’ continuing search for economic diversification. Indeed, China’s engagement with the region remains primarily driven by its domestic economic interests. Furthermore, as has been true of the past, China is more likely to pursue ties with Middle Eastern countries on a bilateral basis.
It’s important to stress that China does not have core security interests in the Middle East as a region, as those are of a territorial nature. However, to the extent it is called for, Beijing is willing to partake in multilateral mechanisms for addressing issues like non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, as can be seen in its involvement in the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) talks. Furthermore, in 2014, under the auspices of Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the United Nations, China participated in the removal of priority chemical materials from Syria.
Furthermore, both under U.N. frameworks and bilaterally, China and the United States cooperate in counter-terrorism operations worldwide, including in the Middle East. Even when it comes to energy, Chinese and American interests are not necessarily opposed: in late 2021, Washington and Beijing agreed to open strategic petroleum reserves in order to stabilize soaring oil prices.
Indeed, since the Middle East is more peripheral to both their international agendas, China and the United States could potentially find more room to cooperate in the region. It follows that countries in the region (and beyond) will be wise to abandon the fallacy of a binary choice of siding either with Beijing or Washington. Instead, they should aspire to develop stronger ties with both powers.
Better to cooperate
The past few years have witnessed Washington, Beijing, and several other political capitals testing their separate capacities in building up respective coalitions of the willing in the Asia-Pacific region and even beyond, over issues ranging from trade and investment to maritime order. For China and the United States, it is becoming increasingly obvious that neither can prevail in attempting to re-engineer the region’s security and economic order.
As both superpowers increasingly find themselves in a deadlock, it might be up to smaller countries to create and lead frameworks of cooperation
The time has come to look back at declarations made, and actions taken, in the past five years. Governments must ask themselves whether the Asia-Pacific is indeed better off today than it was before. If the answer is “yes” – what level of risk is acceptable, considering the escalating brinksmanship? If the answer is “no” – what can be done to persuade domestic and international audiences to support efforts towards positive change, and what should all actors involved do to promote it?
Luckily – ongoing advocacy to the opposite direction notwithstanding – forces of inter-national economic integration and diplomacy, including by middle country governments and economies, still have much to contribute to maintaining stability. Indeed, as both superpowers increasingly find themselves in a deadlock, it might be up to smaller countries to create and lead frameworks in which the US and China can both participate and even cooperate.
This is a positive trend for China: For Beijing, wherever possible, a deliberative approach to issues of order and ideology – rather than exclusivity or “decoupling” – stands a better chance of guaranteeing stability in the Asia-Pacific and beyond, and of framing each spur of anxiety by the superpowers in its proper, relative place.
Zha Daojiong is Professor of International Political Economy at the School of International Studies, Institute of South-South Cooperation and Development, Peking University. He can be reached at: email@example.com
(Photo: courtesy of the author)
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