War is a trendy word again.
Bad blood from the trade war between the United States and China have led to speculations of financial war, cyberwar, cold war, and even World War III.
Despite mutual awareness of the Thucydides trap – the dangerous interaction between a rising power and a ruling power that develops from cooperation to competition to conflict – the world’s largest and second-largest economies have consistently chosen to disrupt their fragile status quo. The recently signed trade agreement designed to cool tensions between the two is but a temporary band-aid on a permanent geopolitical tear. The long-term trajectory looks grim.
Growing up between Beijing and Los Angeles, I had provocative friends who occasionally asked me which country I would side with if the two were to go to war. I answered that it was absurd – asking me to choose between the country that gave me life, China, and the one which raised me, America, was the equivalent of asking me to choose between my mother or my father.
In my teenage years, China joined the World Trade Organization with promises of dropping tariffs and liberalizing markets, and voted in favor of UNSCR 1373, publicly supporting the coalition campaign in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. Beijing worked closely with Washington on denuclearizing North Korea, and the squabble over Taiwan was temporarily quelled by the election of Ma Ying-jeou, the soft-spoken Harvard grad who campaigned on a platform of rapprochement with Beijing. New visa policies under President Bush paved the way for an influx of Chinese students, who became the largest contingent of international undergraduates in the US. They arrived on campus, wide-eyed, with their shiny new iPhones designed in California and made in Shenzhen. What’s more, China surpassed Japan as the largest holder of US treasuries during the financial crisis. We were all on team Chimerica, admiring the phosphorescence of mid-aughts goodwill, and for a moment it appeared that the two nation’s interdependence had become too deeply intertwined to falter.
Cue ominous music as we now file this moment under “obvious foreshadowing”.
Today, the Sino-US relationship has splintered into a hundred virulent pieces. China is ruled increasingly dictatorially by an unelected party apparatus that punishes free expression and keeps tabs on its 1.7 billion citizens via mass surveillance – a technology it has exported, much to the chagrin of US officials, to other emerging markets from Ecuador to Angola. The US is governed by a capricious President and gridlocked legislature, mired in impeachment proceedings and seemingly uninterested in filling the leadership void its withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Paris Climate Accord left behind. The Trump Administration has upended relations with major trading partners, threatened its neighbors and barely avoided a military confrontation with Iran in recent days. Last year, the US Justice Department arrested the CFO of Huawei, the darling of China’s proud 5G rollout, the Treasury labeled Beijing a currency manipulator, and the President signed a bill backing protests in Hong Kong. Tariffs from both sides have continued to escalate with no clear deal in sight. The US Navy has had 18 unsafe encounters with Chinese military forces in the Pacific since 2016. And Taiwan, the last place where a real military confrontation took place between the two countries, just re-elected its anti-Beijing candidate.
Depending on who you ask, China is becoming increasingly isolationist, and America increasingly erratic, or vice versa. These dynamics, amplified by a tenacious media landscape that thrives on conflict, showed me just how insightful my friendly provocateurs were. So, as I grow out of my blind naiveté and into full-fledged adulthood, I believe that the countries that created me must also find ways to develop a mature relationship, overcome cultural differences and mutual struggles, and improve trust. The alternative would be far too deleterious to bear.
How can trust be repaired between two wildly different parties? In typical millennial fashion, I believe it starts with deep meditation and examination of core beliefs. America underestimates China’s agility and overestimates its desire for global dominance, while China underestimates America’s adherence to political ideology and overestimates the magnitude of its internal divisions and discord.
Washington should accept that Beijing will continue to challenge its dominance in Asia. Balance of power in the region has already shifted, with many countries bending to the Chinese capital’s demands despite negative perception of the government itself. But unlike Soviet Russia during the Cold War, China does not carry a zero-sum mentality – it wants more influence but does not yet want to lead. On UN Security Council resolutions over the years, China has turned abstention into an art form, rarely using its veto, as opposed to the US, which vetoes more than any other member nation. It will be easier for China, which still views itself as a scrappy newcomer, to imagine a multipolar world than for the US to share its global authority.
China’s ambitious military expansion in recent years boosted its capability with enough ballistic missiles, aircraft, and warships to match US forces in a fight along its borders. This new geostrategic reality means Washington’s focus should be redirected from containing a regional Chinese hegemon to preventing the emergence of a hostile one. The US can do this in two ways. First, strengthen its alliance with regional partners, especially India and Japan, while minimizing misunderstandings by fostering radical transparency with Chinese leaders. And, second, with the joint-creation of an Asia-Pacific regional security architecture, in which the establishment of responsibilities, contribution procedures such as funding, equipment, and logistics, and guiding principles on resolving air and sea disputes will be written together, with input from both governments.
Many Chinese still hold the misguided belief that America wants to contain Beijing’s ascent because it believes the rightful leader of Asia-Pacific is a western, Caucasian one. China has built up – and benefited from – the narrative that it persevered despite a century of humiliation by the West, beginning in the First Opium War and ending in the Second Sino-Japanese War. But it is no longer the underdog on its turf. Beijing would be wise to accept that America’s intervention in the East is due not to racism, but strict adherence to the ideals of universal suffrage and multiparty elections. It remains to be seen if China’s one-party rule will impede its future growth as a world leader, but for now, the US should acknowledge the Communist Party’s legitimacy in its own country, while maintaining to partners that the China model cannot be exported.
Much of the conflict between the US and China will be played out in the virtual world, where both sides are in the process of building two distinct ecosystems, a splinternet governed by incompatible rules and run on entirely separate infrastructure. This includes big data, artificial intelligence, 5G, nascent quantum computing innovation, and cyberwarfare. As both nations continue their perspective roadshows on their competing development models, they’ll also be hawking their digital ecosystems. As a bridge, Ian Bremmer of Eurasia Group proposes a World Digital Organization, uniting governments that believe in “online openness and transparency in an organization that China will ultimately have an economic and security incentive to want to join”, especially if it is a prerequisite to accessing developed markets.
Finally, nothing repairs a relationship more effectively than a bonding activity. For China and the US, a real potential for bilateral cooperation lies in Africa. Both countries are already deeply invested in building infrastructure, fighting poverty, treating disease, and coordinating peace and security operations in the region, sometimes even cooperatively. China supplies much-needed infrastructure projects and enhances intra-African trade, while the US is more likely to hire local laborers, transfer industrial technologies, and promote workers’ health and welfare. China has an advantage in building speed and efficiency, while the US has superior technology, and Africa benefits from both. Continued healthy competition and cooperation will produce synergies for Africa and help restore trust in the vital relationship between America and China.
Born after the Cold War, my peers and I have had the privilege of taking peace for granted, a luxury that left many of us apathetic toward foreign policy. After all, there are enough problems at home, wherever home is. But a peaceful world requires artful compromise, and that occurs only when diplomats and leaders come to the table together, after rounds of direct negotiation and rapport. Given their deeply complex and extraordinarily nuanced relationship, Washington and Beijing need to go back to the basics and re-open channels of communication below the presidential level, especially on the technological front. Presidential tweets are not enough.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t prefer living in the states. This essay is written in English, and I used Google for the research, not Baidu. But my Chinese vocabulary has left an indelible imprint on my English one, and liberty and the pursuit of happiness matter to me just as much as harmony and filial piety. It’s too late for me to “decouple” the two – and I wouldn’t want to.
China and America are my home, and I choose them both.