May Americans China's history

China and America: the era of great rivalry has only just begun

The American confrontation with China is not a thunderstorm that will quickly disappear once Trump is voted out. This is forcing Europe to rethink and the West as a whole to adopt new strategies.

Some global political upheavals take place quietly and creeping, others abrupt and crashing. America's policy towards China has changed at a startling pace over the past three years. The latest volley from Washington includes punitive measures for the suppression of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang, including, for the first time, sanctions against a member of the communist leadership, the lifting of trade privileges for Hong Kong, sanctions against employees of the state-owned technology company Huawei and the declaration that Beijing's territorial claims are being denied considered illegal in the South China Sea.

The American-Chinese relationship seems to be spiraling downwards. President Donald Trump, who initially wooed his counterpart Xi Jinping, has not spoken to him for months. The corona crisis also poisoned the relationship; Washington accuses the Chinese of hushing up the epidemic for weeks and thus allowing it to spread to the rest of the world.

Cold War analogies fall short

Are the two powers heading for a collision? For a long time there has been talk of a “new cold war” that will determine world politics. The hostility and mutual distrust actually remind a little of the time of the superpower rivalry after World War II. As once between the USA and the Soviet Union, today it is not just about political differences, but about a fundamental rivalry that is affecting more and more areas. It has long gone beyond trade disputes: the US is at least as concerned today about China's growing power on the seas, in cyberspace and in space. In Washington it has raised the alarm how the Middle Kingdom is trying to occupy one field after another on the geopolitical chessboard - be it in Iran, Venezuela, to some extent in Eastern Europe or even in the Arctic.

The great advantage of the term “new cold war” is that it can shake people up. Therefore, it is used by those who see China as a serious danger, as well as those who warn against sliding into an expensive and high-risk confrontation. But the term is only a catchphrase, not a substitute for a more detailed analysis. Above all, its use shows the perplexity of searching for historical analogies whenever we are faced with disturbing new occurrences.

The Sino-American conflict differs from the Cold War in essential points, and therefore the recipes of the time cannot simply be transferred to the present. Unlike in the second half of the 20th century, the world today is not split into two blocks representing two incompatible systems, the communist and the capitalist. China is an aspiring great power that is expanding its influence to more and more countries with targeted pressure. But unlike the former Soviet Union, it is unable to lead an ideological camp and rally allies around it. China likes to see itself as the voice of developing countries, but in reality it repels many of them with its aggressive demeanor in the neighborhood. In India, pictures of Xi were recently burned and smartphone applications were banned after the “People's Liberation Army” in the Himalayas had put up a test of strength with Indian troops. Another example is the Philippines, which recently made an abrupt U-turn to reaffirm its military agreement with the United States, apparently out of an understanding of its vulnerability to the Chinese navy.

Despite worrying rearmament in the region, there can be no talk of an arms race like the one in the Cold War so far. Neither do Washington and Beijing wage hostility through proxy wars, as they raged in several arenas at the time. Above all, however, the two countries are closely intertwined. The Soviet Communist Eastern Bloc was economically insignificant for the West; Today's China, on the other hand, is the USA's most important trading partner and vice versa. This underscores how costly it would be to suddenly isolate yourself from one another. Trump recently talked about how 500 billion dollars could be saved if the trade with China was abandoned without further ado. But such a mind game only makes sense if you misunderstand every dollar spent abroad as lost money and ignore how much America benefits from globalization.

Trump does away with illusions

However, Trump is to be credited for having ruthlessly dispelled some illusions about China. An old master of diplomacy, Henry Kissinger, once said that Trump could be one of the occasional random characters who mark the end of an era and force contemporaries to say goodbye to outdated assumptions. This includes wishful thinking that China will open up with increasing integration into the world economy and also liberalize politically. The vision of such a China has been upheld by American and European politicians for decades. As nice as this idea is - it has the flaw that it has little to do with reality. Under Xi Jinping, Beijing intensified its repression against dissenters, established a horrific forced camp system in Xinjiang, undermined Hong Kong's special liberal status and began to challenge America's hegemony in the Pacific region.

Just four years ago, the White House forbade the Pentagon from publicly calling its relationship with China a great power rivalry; one rather wanted to maintain the old ideal of a partnership. Today in Washington they are no longer afraid to call things by their names. Even if some agitators are now overflowing with their rhetoric, the Europeans shouldn't turn up their noses because of this, but rather admit that they later awoke as the Americans and misjudged the giant in the East. For the foreseeable future, China will neither become a constitutional state nor fit into the western-style liberal world order.

It would also be wrong to assume that the crisis in the US-Chinese relationship is a mere thunderstorm that will quickly disappear once Trump is voted out. On the contrary: the turnaround in relation to Beijing is widely supported in Washington. The aforementioned sanctions laws, for example, passed unanimously through Congress. A President Joseph Biden would probably forego Trump's bullying, but not stop the reorientation of American foreign policy towards a battle of strength with China.

And Europe?

A new era has begun, and the rivalry between the two greats is likely to dominate world politics for many years to come. As in the Cold War, the pressure to join a camp will increase. The UK's decision to exclude Huawei from setting up its 5G cellular network is evidence of this.

Such a step is not simply an act of vassal towards America, but in the very own interest of every European country. Communication infrastructure is synonymous with power; To entrust them to a corporation that is ultimately at the mercy of the Beijing dictatorship would be stupid. It is just as short-sighted to accept the destruction of the contractually guaranteed autonomy of Hong Kong in the hope of being able to sell some additional Mercedes and Volkswagen in the Middle Kingdom with such a cautiousness. China will only take this as proof that the West is divided and, in case of doubt, sacrifices its much-invoked values ​​for pecuniary interests.

A united West, on the other hand, would have the chance to finally find a strategy for dealing with China. Central questions remained open under Trump. A complete decoupling from China is neither possible nor sensible - but for which areas is a policy of selective decoupling necessary? Where should export controls be tightened, and where should investment supervision be strengthened? In which areas - climate protection is one example - is it possible to work more closely together despite all the rivalry?

Last but not least, Americans and Europeans should set realistic goals. China's rise cannot be reversed. Even working towards the overthrow of the communist regime is pointless. But it is in the interests of the West to prevent Beijing from exporting its model of an authoritarian surveillance state to other countries, from forcibly gaining supremacy in East Asia and from bringing international organizations under its influence. Appeasement is not a recipe for success. The more clearly China feels resistance in these areas, the more likely it will change its behavior.