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Competing with China: the ‘Harding way’ or the ‘harder way’?

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Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding were ice skating rivals in the early 1990s. In January 1994, Kerrigan was attacked with a 21-inch baton by someone hired by Harding’s ex-husband. Kerrigan quickly recovered and won a silver medal in the 1994 Winter Olympics. Harding finished 8th and was subsequently banned for life by the U.S. Figure Skating Association. Out of this one of the biggest sports scandals in history derived the term “the Harding way.”

Aimed at disadvantaging one’s opponent by intentionally harming them, the “Harding way” seems to have found its way to the rivalry between the United States and China today. Facing challenges from China’s rise, the United States has yet to come up with a reasonable and viable policy. The Trump administration’s confrontational approach toward China, including its treatment of Huawei, smacked of the “Harding way” of handling competition from China. Labeling China as the largest national security threat, the Trump administration launched the whole-of-government and whole-of-society campaigns against China, attempting to block China’s advancement and suppress China diplomatically.

The “Harding way,” which shows no sportsmanship in competitions, is doomed to fail in international politics as well.

First, history shows punitive policies against one’s adversaries have a very low chance of success in international relations. For example, despite heavy and persistent international sanctions, North Korea has achieved the nuclear state status anyway, and decades of U.S. embargo against Cuba has failed to transform the island nation.

Second, the days are gone when the United States can inflict injuries upon China without hurting itself. China’s $14.3 trillion economy is about 70 percent of America’s $21.4 trillion now. China was able to control the pandemic within its borders and was the only major economy that grew in 2020, during which it also overtook the United States as the world’s top destination for new foreign direct investment. China’s economic power is strong enough to withstand America’s trade war.

Third, few other countries have joined or will be part of the U.S.-led coalition against China. In November 2020, China joined 10 Southeast Asian nations and several U.S. allies to establish the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the world’s largest free trade agreement. Despite U.S. warnings, China and the European Union concluded the negotiation of a China-EU comprehensive investment agreement at the end of 2020.

Clearly, it will be extremely difficult for the United States to garner support from others in a new cold war against China. Leaders from key U.S. allies and partners such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong have explicitly opposed forming an alliance against China. Who wants to be forced to choose between the United States and China?

The “Harding way” that is intended to frustrate or contain China has plunged the U.S.-China relationship to the historic low and is detrimental to the interests of both countries. The United States can do better by handling the China challenge in a “harder way.”

The ‘harder way” means the United States will work with other countries to engage in a smart and constructive competition with China. The United States will work harder–be smarter, become more innovative, and take up the China challenge more confidently from a position of strength.

Foreign policy hawks in Washington who have dominated the China discourse prefer the “Harding way.” But isolating or constraining China will only create a resentful and revengeful China and push China further away from a democratic path that the West has long hoped China would pursue. The “harder way” is a better approach that serves America’s national interests. Smart and constructive engagement with China remains a more sustainable option and has a better chance of turning China into a more cooperative, rule-based international player.

According to a recent CBS poll, 54 percent of Americans surveyed said that “other people in America and domestic enemies” posed the “biggest threat” to American society now, and only 8 percent believed such threat came from “foreign countries.” Indeed, Americans must get their house in order first in order to stay competitive globally.

Managing rising powers has never been easy, but it does not have to end in conflict. Engaging China in a smart competition is not endorsing China’s policies and behaviors, but it has the potential to influence China’s future development.

A healthy competition between the United States and China serves everyone’s interests in the international community since a rising tide lifts all boats. Treating China as the enemy and designing policies to counter China’s every move have become a major obstacle to a normal U.S.-China relationship. As the Biden administration develops its China policy, it is well advised to follow the “harder way” — pursuing fair and smart competition with China, which is more likely to achieve America’s policy goals as well as restoring America’s global leadership.

Zhiqun Zhu is Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Bucknell University.

Tags China–United States relations cold war with china Tariff us-china policy

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