No ‘middle way’ in US-China struggle — China must change

Now that China and the United States are embroiled a trade war, can they avoid a real war? That is the question that arises from recent headlines about tensions between the two.

The answer is yes. Each has the capacity to head off the escalating crisis and prevent armed conflict. All it would take is for China to stop its aggression against the United States (and the West), or for America to stop defending against China’s aggression. But if neither of those titanic developments occurs, conflict appears inevitable. The situation no longer can be finessed, “managed,” or left to the next generation to handle. It is the existential challenge for this generation.

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The decisive question is this: Is the People’s Republic of China more committed to its quest for regional hegemony and global dominance than the United States of America is to the liberal world order it was preeminent in building and protecting?

Unlike ancient historical analogies, this is not a simple matter of a rising power challenging an established power over territory or resources or pride of place. This is ideological and existential, every bit as much as were the struggles in World War II and the Cold War. Like those global confrontations, it goes to the very identity of the contesting parties and the kind of world they each seek to create, or to preserve.

From its establishment, Communist China has been committed to the destruction or the drastic reconstruction of the global order — even after it was welcomed into what Richard Nixon earnestly called “the family of nations” and encouraged to grow and prosper peacefully. Wired into its communist DNA is the philosophy of Mao Zedong that “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” both domestically and internationally.

Since October 1917, the major communist regimes have sought power for its own sake, so that they can control their own people, their neighbors and as much of the rest of the world as they can reach.

By contrast, the modern liberal West, led by the United States, is devoted not to territorial expansion, but to the expansion of political freedom — the ideal that individuals and communities of individuals should be left to pursue their own aspirations, and that governments have defined and limited roles to play in the lives of their citizens.

Western democracies believe in government by the consent of the governed; Communist China imposes subjugation by fiat. America follows the rule of law; China rules “by law.” The West aspires to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; China imposes the ubiquitous power of the party-state.  

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The two values systems, governing models and worldviews are inherently incompatible. China’s rulers have known that from the beginning; it is their reason for being. Western leaders have willfully ignored the stark truth for decades until the emergence of Xi Jinping forced a more jaundiced view of what is happening — not unlike the West’s blindness as Germany and Japan prepared for war and conquest in the 1930s.  

Yet, the warning signs were there even before the era of Deng Xiaoping, who was both the West’s model of a progressive Chinese reformer and the murderer of thousands of Chinese citizens who wanted political as well as economic reforms. Deng famously cautioned his party colleagues, “Hide your capabilities, bide your time.” Western scholars and officials dutifully recited the aphorism, even after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, as meaning China should be polite in its dealings with the outside world, modest and self-effacing like the diminutive Deng himself in his Texas 10-gallon hat.  

They failed to ask for what China was biding its time. And whether it was hiding not only its capabilities but its intentions. Those questions were never asked, but Xi now has provided the answers and they have shocked most in the world of China experts.

An end to the current trade war will not end the larger U.S.-China confrontation, the new Cold War that China has been waging virtually from its creation and that the Trump administration has joined. It is a multi-dimensional, across-the-board challenge that cannot be compromised. One side must prevail and one must change; both see their national identities at stake. As Ronald Reagan said of the Cold War with the Soviets: We win, you lose. There is no middle way.

In the short term, China is unlikely to yield on any of the range of non-trade issues: Taiwan, South and East China Seas, even North Korea. And certainly it will hold firm on accepting the notion of human rights only “with Chinese [communist] characteristics.” The question goes to the essence of its authoritarian, Leninist identity. And, just as assuredly, the United States will not be able to compromise on its human rights stand, which defines America’s own reason for being.

The United States has had 243 years working on implementing its ideals. And, while China has thousands of years of history, as China hands such as Henry Kissinger like to remind us, the vested interest of the the People’s Republic in its communist system has been less than 70 years in the making.

Beyond the values imperatives that keep America on course, there are multiple strategic and even commercial interests that do not allow for further indulgence of China’s aggressive policies. American businesses, among the first to seize the lucrative opportunities presented by Nixon’s opening to China, now have become vocal in objecting to China’s predatory practices in intellectual property theft and other commercial areas.

On the security front, Taiwan, navigational freedoms, North Korea, cyber warfare, support for rogue regimes, and proliferation of highly dangerous weapons have made China’s policies a clear and present danger. The merger of national interests and American values means there is no more room for give. It is China that will have to get itself on the right side of history. If it refuses for much longer, the world is destined to see the third major conflict in the past 100 years.

As Richard Nixon said when he launched his historic opening, China must change.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the Secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010.  He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies, and is a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute.