VISITING the United States recently, I was told by virtually every American I met that attitudes towards China had shifted. This phenomenon, they claimed, cut across bipartisan lines as well as government, business and academic circles.
The US was frustrated at not having shaped China in its own image, despite bringing the country into the World Trade Organisation and helping to enable its economic takeoff. Instead, China had “ripped off” the US by taking advantage of it in trade and business. There was concern at how fast China was climbing up the global economic and technological ladder, and that its military was threatening to “elbow out” the US from Asia.
Although attitudes may have changed, I’m not convinced they’ve settled yet. Judging from American history, major strategies are usually shaped through trial and error, in response to specific challenges. Consensus develops along the way. Any adjustment in the US posture towards China will therefore take time. This also means that the
final outcome will be affected by how the two countries act and react in the coming months and years.
In evaluating next steps, the Chinese people first have to ask whether US criticisms are fair. It’s true that economic growth hasn’t produced in China a political system similar to the US’s. Interestingly, I recall attending an American government programme in the mid-1990s designed for diplomats from developing nations. The topic was US security strategy and policy-making. I had one question: What were America’s strategic objectives for the post-Cold War era? The answer — to promote US-style democracy and human rights worldwide. And indeed, the US has pursued those goals consistently over the last two decades, at huge cost to itself and others.
Given what’s happened to some countries since the “colour revolution” and the “Arab Spring”, the US should be thankful that its efforts haven’t thrown China into political turmoil and economic chaos. The fact is that China has maintained social and political stability and followed its own economic path and contributed to global economic growth, especially after the 2008 financial crisis.
Taking advantage of the globalisation promoted by the US and Europe, hardworking Chinese gained access to global capital, technologies, expertise and markets, all of which facilitated the growth of industry. Hundreds of millions of Chinese came out of poverty, and living standards in the country have risen substantially.
But, it’s important to remember two things. First, Chinese workers paid a steep cost for these developments, just as American workers did. After entering the WTO, Chinese enterprises were suddenly thrown into direct competition with global peers. Many of them didn’t survive, leading to huge layoffs all over the country.
Second, China’s gains have benefited the US as well. According to Oxford Economics, US-China trade helps each American family save US$850 (RM3,522) every year. Between 2001 and 2016, US commodities exports to China expanded five times, much higher than the 90 per cent average increase. The advent of the “Internet of Things” and rapid growth in the number of China’s middle- and upper-class consumers will offer even more opportunities for US companies. China is not only an integral part of the global economy, but also an indispensable source of growth. Any attempt to “decouple” it from the US or the global economy will hurt all countries, including the US.
China is not adopting a more confrontational stance towards the US. Its current attitude is part of its overall foreign policy, which is aimed at ensuring a sound environment that facilitates effective cooperation with the outside world to serve China’s development goals. For its purposes, there’s every reason for China to maintain “constructive cooperation” with the US.
The changes in US-China relations may help to push China’s own desired reforms. The government is, in fact, opening up: Eight of the 11 market-opening measures announced by President Xi Jinping in April have been put in place, covering banking, securities, insurance, credit rating, credit investigation and payment, and so on. The government is also working harder to improve the business environment and strengthen intellectual property protections for both Chinese and foreign enterprises.
But, make no mistake: China will stand firm against US bullying over trade. There is talk about China’s economy “sliding down” as a result of the trade war. Some expect China to succumb soon. This is just wishful thinking.
Yes, China is in the process of de-leveraging, which is uncomfortable and painful. But, it is a price worth paying for sustaining healthy development. It’s worth remembering that China adopted a stimulus programme to help overcome the global recession triggered by the 2008 financial tsunami in the US.
Finger-pointing and hurting each other won’t solve problems. They will only make things worse. This is why China will continue to work with all countries, including the US, in areas of mutual concern — from climate change to transnational crime, and epidemics to nuclear nonproliferation.
This is also why China should continue talking to the US. Many in China believe that the root causes of US troubles lie within — and therefore need to be solved by the Americans themselves. But, that doesn’t relieve China of the responsibility to engage in dialogue, to find out where the two sides can and can’t agree, and to seek solutions, or at least ways to manage persistent disputes.
The writer is vice-chairperson of the Foreign Affairs Committee of China's National People’s Congress and chief expert of the Academic Committee of China's Institute of International Strategy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences