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Unstoppable force meets immovable object — America’s China policy contradiction

Initial optimism that the Biden Presidency would reinvigorate US-China relations didn’t even make it as far as January’s inauguration. At the start of the campaign Biden struck a conciliatory tone towards the Chinese, stating: “I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks…” The realities of the campaign trail, however, saw a rapid shift.

Public opinion was a big driver and likely shaped by his predecessor’s increasingly confrontational stance. A year into the Trump administration, 53% of Americans had a positive view of China: 12 months later — in 2019 — amid an escalating trade war, this had slumped to just 41%. Further, those who saw China as an economic threat jumped by five points to 46%.      

It was, perhaps, overly simplistic to think that a change in President would result in a different relationship. In this geo-political dance, the partners change but the music stays the same. The reality is that the unstoppable force of Chinese expansion is meeting the immovable object of American dominance.

A new China playbook

Washington’s thinking has shifted. There is a growing consensus that conciliation — based on a premise that increasing Western engagement will see China’s increasing Westernisation — will always fail. In this new playbook, China isn’t seen as a liberal democracy waiting to happen, but rather the representative of an opposing and incompatible political doctrine.   

Powerful White House voices argue that China is, and should be treated as, a global competitor: short term friction is inevitable and acceptable; the US needs to protect its technological advantage (while not interfering with international trade); the US should, like the Chinese, compete first and cooperate second; and that the US needs to treat China’s economic threat as seriously as it did the Soviet military’s during the cold war.

While there’s evidence to suggest that the ‘Western engagement/Westernization’ model was indeed naive, the jury is still very much out when it comes to the new, hard-nosed China playbook. If US policymakers were expecting confrontation to deliver greater cooperation, they have been severely disappointed. 

Double down

Flashpoints in the Himalayas, Hong Kong, the South China Sea, Taiwan and Xinjiang remain as tinder-dry as ever. Indeed, exhibitions of western strength here have been met with increasing nationalism and demonstrations of growing military power. Sanctions and other efforts to deny Chinese companies’ access to sensitive US technologies are, if anything, accelerating the country’s race to develop domestic capabilities. China doubles down on threats to its own global companies, making it clear (both to the US and its own burgeoning entrepreneurial class) that it is willing and able to sacrifice billions and even trillions of dollars. 

China now wields significant influence far beyond its borders. Its wealth, applied through international investment and policies such as Belt and Road, mean that traditional US allies may now feel divided loyalties. Western companies, unable to resist the spending power of Chinese consumers, may not play ball as willingly as Washington might once have expected. It’s a conflict of interest that may have been behind the watered down communique at the G7 in June, which highlighted China’s human rights abuses, but singularly failed to call it out for forced labour practices. It seems that for some, access to cheap goods and vast markets trumps liberal international norms.

Unstoppable force vs. immovable object

It is apt that the ‘unstoppable force/immovable object’ concept is sometimes known as the sword and shield paradox — based on an ancient Chinese story about an all-piercing spear and an unpierceable shield, which in turn is the origin of the Chinese word for ‘contradiction’. For the immovable object side of the equation (the US), any policy is fraught with contradiction.

While conciliation and attempts to woo China from totalitarian state to liberal democracy have failed, a more competitive policy is revealing its own costs and new geopolitical fault lines. It is a shift, however, that after decades of trying to engage through concession, now sees the US levelling the playing field. 

Until China and the US find common ground and easier coexistence, the knife-edge balancing act for both parties will be to ensure that contradictions don’t escalate into conflict.

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