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Threat from within


Political polarization in US fueling the tensions in Sino-US relations

The competition between China and the United States is a key source of uncertainty in today's world. Yet it is unlikely that there will be any improvement in China-US relations in the near future.

First of all, the overall situation determining the China-US rivalry remains unchanged. The US initiated this "strategic competition" with China because, in President Joe Biden's words, China poses "the most serious challenge to our prosperity, security and democratic values".

The claim that China's rapid rise threatens the US primacy is hardly convincing, because the decline of its hegemony has been caused by its own strategic mistakes in the past decades. This decline, though relative, is to such an extent that there is a widening gap between the desired US interests and the nation's capability to achieve them. As such, it is more significant that China's success shows that in addition to the Washington Consensus, the Chinese path can also lead to prosperity.

Indeed, both the liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans have realized that the essential problem is the US' relative decline rather than China's rise. The fight between these two opposing forces in US politics and beyond is not just about how to prevail over China, but which party represents the "right way" for the US to "heal "from within, so as to reinvent America or, in Trumpist jargon, "Make America Great Again". The fierce political infighting has resulted in not only a deeply divided nation, but also political polarization. Meanwhile, China continues to grow, and it is highly unlikely that China will change its development path.

Moreover, cutting-throat partisan politics has made it politically suicidal for any US political leaders, democrat or republican, to reflect on the US' own missteps in the past. The unwillingness and incapability of the US establishment to carry out any self-reflection has resulted in an essentially emotion-driven policy toward China, the nation is venting all its frustration, anger, and even fear on China, despite the fact that China's rise has been peaceful. More revealingly, China has integrated in, rather than challenging, the existing international order, becoming a "stakeholder "rather than a "revisionist" as Washington claims.

As a result, demonizing China has not only become politically correct in US politics, but also serves as a linchpin to keep the system functioning. Otherwise, the Democrats and Republicans simply cannot agree on anything and oppose each other in the policymaking process. This politically necessary anti-China consensus has brought about a self-consuming hostility toward China. In such an atmosphere, any rational thinking or attempt to seek the truth from facts about China and Sino-US relations is overwhelmed by fanatical criticism and attacks. This animosity toward China has given rise to wishful thinking and the unachievable ambition of overpowering China through containment.

Thus, the Biden administration, while realizing that the Donald Trump administration's rampant onslaught against China was counterproductive, has still launched a strategy of "outcompeting China "and been unable to work out any feasible policy framework on the China issue. Despite its great efforts to revitalize the US-led alliances, which Biden sees as absolutely necessary for the US to outcompete China, few US allies and partners have whole-heartedly rallied to the US against China, at best joining Washington in criticizing China on human rights issues, as a show of stance rather than a policy commitment to go against China under the US leadership. While the Europeans see China as a "systemic rival "in terms of economic competition rather than a security threat, the four member countries of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue-the US, Japan, Australia and India--cannot even reach an agreement on the geopolitical definition of Indo-Pacific, let alone forming a NATO-like alliance vis-a-vis China as Washington desires.

The conventional wisdom used to hold that there is an effective mechanism of self-correction in US politics, which is institutionalized through regular democratic elections. However, given the situation in which the nation is deeply divided, politics is highly polarized and populism is rampant, elections only amplify extremism and popularism. This unfortunate phenomenon is manifested in the fact that the Biden administration has actually followed the same hardline approach toward China as Trump did, although Biden came to power with a commitment to de-Trump the entire policymaking process, which he deemed to be damaging to the US.

Robert Putnam, a well-known US political scientist, proved in his classic two-level theory that a government facing domestic political chaos can hardly do anything in foreign policy. That is because in order to make and implement an effective foreign policy, the head of the state needs to achieve a workable compromise among the interacting interest groups in domestic politics. Given the irreconcilable division and polarization in US politics nowadays, it is virtually impossible for President Biden, or his successor after 2024, to achieve such a compromise of interests. In this sense, the predicament facing Sino-US relations will continue, as it is rooted in the uncertainties in US politics.

Thus, it is imperative to manage the Sino-US "competition" effectively in the next few years so that the bilateral relationship will not fall into an "unintended conflict", which Biden realizes would be the worst conflict of all. For this, the following steps are worth taking:

First, the topmost leaders of the two nations must make a clear commitment to managing the "competition" in a cooperative manner, so as to prevent it from slipping into the abyss of confrontation.

Second, China and the US must establish mechanisms of regular communication. While it may be difficult to achieve any breakthroughs through these mechanisms in today's circumstances, both sides can at least accurately understand each other's intentions and dilemmas through continuous exchanges and communication.

Third, the two sides should make joint efforts to work out a "not-to-do" list as specific as possible, and draw the redlines for their "competition" accordingly. Such a "not-to-do" list will be substance to the "guardrails" repeatedly emphasized by the US, making them meaningful as well as measurable.

The author is a university professor and dean (academic affairs) of the Institute of International and Regional Studies at Beijing Language and Culture University. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

Contact the editor at editor@chinawatch.cn