Competition, not confrontation. The United States has described its present foreign policy with China several times in those terms — without publicly defining either the purpose or outcome it wants to achieve. However, from the measures adopted over the last few years, we can infer that in general (but not in clear terms), past and present administrations seek to influence the global balance of power in favor of the United States and its allies.
Ronald Reagan defined its competition with Russia in clear terms: purpose and objective to defeat the evil empire. When the Allies fought Germany, Churchill did not adopt the ambiguous Chamberlain policy towards Hitler. This is not present in the US-China “competition” paradigm, which President Biden defined as the competition between two models: autocracy vs. democracy. But beyond the description of the pros and cons of both models, there is no definition of the purpose and outcomes of such competition. What will be considered a success? What is the vision? Destroy China? Change its political system? Its economic system? All of the above?
So far, the US has had a globalist policy and Biden has been successful in leading the pack in the case of Russia and Ukraine. Not so with China, and I believe it is because of a lack of vision, purpose, and long-term strategy. Allies will not commit their support if they cannot visualize what will be the end result of such “competition.” Furthermore, democracies like the US by nature include the possibility of changes according to the popular vote which can change every four years. That is why the USA is perceived as ambivalent and for many, consequently, untrustworthy.
Can the two systems coexist and contribute to the world peace and development? Shall conflicting visions always end in a fight for survival? Should competition always be characterized as a contest that ends in winners and losers, as in the most traditional free market definition?
Peace between two enemies can only be achieved with a zero-sum policy. Nobody can win but both can lose: a clash that could end in a stalemate or an apocalypse. The history of the world is our best manual to learn.
It is clear to me that China couldn’t invade the US nor vice versa (even if some politicians have the illusion that India can play a pivotal role in such a doomed scenario). Confronted with this reality what can we do without compromising freedom and human rights which in principle are the moral standards of the so-called Western civilization?
First, we should preserve and consolidate our existing international system which with all its defects has provided a forum for stability and peaceful resolution of disputes that otherwise would have ended in multiple wars or a global war. We should integrate China into that system, not isolate it. As we often have done with internal political rivals, we should support China’s inclusion in international bodies — it has shown a willing disposition to do so. We should also integrate China in joint efforts of technological, sustainable, medical, development, space missions, trade, and logistics for economic integration.
I should paraphrase the Democratic slogan “It’s the economy, stupid” to show that joint economic development unites people and promotes peace and respect for human rights.
Today, the goal should be to keep China and the US living in a global system that regulates different aspects of social and economic interests like climate control, trade norms, and financing in such a way that we all conclude that the best way for each national interest is the common interest and be governed by the same international rules and standards.
It will not be easy due to the nationalistic wave that is triumphant in Western democracies as well as in autocratic countries.
Furthermore, democracies like the US by nature include the possibility of changes according to the popular vote. That is why the USA is perceived as ambivalent and for many consequently untrustworthy.
The progress achieved by the constructive engagement policy of the Nixon/Kissinger/Den Xiaoping era — abandoned by the modern US and Xi Jinping — should be taken into consideration and revalued. Xi and Biden have the chance to restore this constructive approach after the meeting in California on the week of November 14th. Right now, expectations are not high. Political internal pressures in the US in an election year put a premium on a confrontational discourse.