April 4, 2021


How China is Responding to Escalating Strategic Competition with the U.S. (Ryan Hass, March 1, 2021, China Leadership Monitor)

China's Evaluation of the United States

There appears to be broad agreement among officials and experts in China that America's power in the international system is declining relative to China's. Many Chinese experts diagnose America's anxiety about its relative decline as driving its reflexive efforts to undermine China's rise.

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi gave expression to this viewpoint, for example, in his end-of-year interview with Xinhua on January 2, 2021. Reflecting on U.S.-China relations over the previous year, Wang concluded:

In recent years, China-US relations have run into unprecedented difficulties. Fundamentally, it comes down to serious misconceptions of U.S. policymakers about China. Some see China as the so-called biggest threat and their China policy based on this misperception is simply wrong. What has happened proves that the U.S. attempt to suppress China and start a new Cold War has not just seriously harmed the interests of the two peoples, but also caused severe disruptions to the world. ...China policy toward the United States is consistent and stable.[3]

In other words, Wang put forward Beijing's boilerplate explanation for the downturn in relations - it's America's fault.

There are a diminishing number of Chinese officials or experts who remain willing, at least visibly, to question this explanation of the downturn in U.S.-China relations. One of the few to do so, albeit subtly, is Wang Jisi, president of the Institute of International and Strategic Studies at Peking University. In a January 2021 op-ed, Wang observed, "Our actions at home and in the world determine to a large extent the attitude of the U.S. toward us. I believe that China, not the United States, can turn the tide of U.S.-China relations at historical junctures, although this position may be debatable." [...]

Will China's Strategy Work?

It remains an open question as to whether China's medium-term strategy will enable China to overcome hurdles that stand in the way of achieving its national ambitions. China's strategic choices are not made in a vacuum. Chinese actions often generate reactions, whether at home or abroad.    

For example, China's tightening grip on the corporate sector appears to elevate control over innovation. This raises a fundamental question about whether a system that presses for conformity and adherence to plans is capable of allowing the unorthodox and boundary-testing thinking that is the lifeblood of next-generation innovations. Such constraints may partly explain why some of China's most creative minds, such as the founders of the video-conferencing service Zoom and chipmaker Nvidia, along with many of the world's leading AI researchers, have chosen to pursue their goals outside of China.

Beneath China's flashy economic growth numbers, there also are flashing warning signs about the long-term health of the economy. One such indicator is the declining growth in productivity - or output per worker and unit of capital. China's economy is only 30 percent as productive as the world's best-performing economies, such as the U.S., Japan, or Germany, according to the IMF.[41] And as China's aging population demands more resources for social services, this will place stress on the government's ability to continue propping up growth with government expenditures and state-sector investments.

China also confronts questions about whether its pursuit of technological self-sufficiency is achievable or practical as a policy goal. Without access to advanced lithography and other critical external inputs for semiconductor manufacturing, it will be very difficult for China to produce cutting-edge chips that are necessary inputs for China to achieve its technological ambitions. The more adversarial Beijing's relationship with other advanced powers becomes, the more longshot will its attempts be to achieve technological self-reliance.  

Similarly, China's domestic policies are failing to win over the Chinese who live along the country's borders. There are growing numbers of examples of ethnic Mongols, Uyghurs, Tibetans, and others chafing at Beijing's intrusive involvement in their lives and its attempts to impose cultural conformity.[42] Ditto for Hong Kong.[43] The tighter Beijing squeezes, the more that negative attitudes toward China appear to be hardening along the country's inner periphery and in many parts of the world.[44] The United States government already has characterized China's conduct in Xinjiang as an act of genocide.[45]

Furthermore, China's stated ambitions and determined efforts to become a world leader in an expanding number of high technology fields, and to push for rules and norms around those technologies that reflect Beijing's illiberal tendencies, have generated unease in many parts of the Western world. In response, London has proposed the establishment of a D-10 of leading powers (G-7+ Australia, South Korea, India) to pool resources and align policies to accelerate development of new technologies in democratic societies.

By a similar token, the more loudly nationalistic China's diplomacy becomes, the more alarmed many Western countries have become about China's domestic and foreign policy trend-lines. China's expanding interests overseas will demand a greater Chinese presence. Already, as the PLA Navy has become more active beyond its immediate periphery, so too has the level of coordination among other powers in response. This trend can be seen in the Indian Ocean, where there have been corresponding increases in Chinese naval activity alongside rising security coordination among like-minded powers (i.e., "The Quad," Australia, India, Japan, the United States).    

Perhaps for some of these reasons, some Chinese experts have been urging sobriety in evaluations of China's position in the international system. For example, Renmin University scholar and government advisor Shi Yinhong recently cautioned:

China's chances of filling the vacuum created by the Trump administration's abandonment of America's original "global leadership role" are limited, and indeed smaller than many at home and abroad predicted. The appeal of China's "soft power" in the world, the resources and experiences available to China, are quite limited, and the domestic and international obstacles China will encounter, including the complexities created by the coronavirus pandemic, are considerable.[46]

Experts such as Shi Yinhong appear to be warning against presupposing that China will continue to ascend on a linear trajectory indefinitely in the direction of its national ambitions.

Having grown old before it grew rich and suffering both the same economic limitations as Japan did and the political deformation that the USSR did, China had an awful lot of eggs in Donald Trump's declinism and approval of their Nationalism.  He's gone.   

Posted by at April 4, 2021 7:00 AM