On the world stage, a new era of US-China parity has begun

On the world stage, a new era of US-China parity has begun
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The looming prospect of a trade war with China is the opening bell on a new era of the U.S.-China relationship. Whether or not a trade war actually develops, China has responded as an equal, not as a lesser power. China is not protesting American behavior, it is countering our actions with equivalent actions of its own. An era of parity has begun.

Previously, China was careful in challenging the U.S. because of the greater American capacity to respond. In the early 1980s China was quite concerned about continued American military sales to Taiwan, but rather than directly threatening retaliation, it suspended diplomatic relations with the Netherlands because the Netherlands was negotiating the sale of submarines to Taiwan.

Similarly, China was upset when we sold F-16 fighters to Taiwan in 1992, but it responded more harshly to France’s sale of Mirage fighter jets the same year, closing the French consulate in Guangzhou (Canton) and freezing out French companies trying to enter the China market. The Netherlands and France backed down, but the real cause of China’s concern was the U.S. China behaved in accord with the old Chinese adage of “killing the chicken to show the monkey” (act against the lesser to send a message to the greater).

China did stand up to the U.S. in various ways. It was very critical of NATO’s attacks on Serbia in 1999, and when its embassy in Belgrade was destroyed Chinese generally assumed that it was because of Chinese support for Serbia rather than an accident as we claimed. Thereafter, China was careful to avoid public criticism of our invasion of Iraq. While military brushes have occurred on China’s periphery, both sides have been careful to avoid escalation.

But Party Secretary Xi Jinping has announced a new era for Chinese politics. On the one hand, it includes a slower, “new normal” rate of growth. China is no longer doing whatever it takes to barrel along at 10 percent growth, it is now happy to pursue sustainable growth in the 6 percent range. A more moderate rate is less scary to China’s neighbors, many of whom are also growing at that rate, and they are attracted by China’s offers to build new Silk Roads to integrate Asia.

On the other hand, as China’s tit-for-tat response to our tariffs demonstrates, China now considers itself a great power. Since Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from Trump-Biden debate clash The Memo: Debate or debacle? Democrats rip Trump for not condemning white supremacists, Proud Boys at debate MORE’s election Xi Jinping’s formula for the U.S.-China relationship, “a new model of great power relationships,” has slid into the background, but only because that formula optimistically assumed that a “win-win” relationship based on mutual respect was possible. But, as the senior Chinese scholar Yan Xuetong has said, “China, for the first time, is not in a humble position regarding the United States.”

China’s rise to parity is not simply a matter of attitude. According to the CIA’s World Factbook, China’s economic output is already 20 percent larger than ours, and four times that of Japan. But China is not wealthy by our standards. Its per capita product is back in the pack, similar to Brazil, a bit more than a quarter of ours. China’s huge population gives it advantages of scale, but it also brings with it vast demands and responsibilities. China’s minibus may be a bit more powerful than our sports car, but it has four times as many passengers. It is going faster, but it is also heading uphill as its population ages.

So China’s parity with us is asymmetric — population versus wealth, regional leadership versus global leadership. We are each other’s biggest concern, but we are vastly different in capacities and geopolitics. As the trade dispute demonstrates, our interests are not the same, and we both have the means to hurt the other. But China has its hands full in Asia, and we feel overburdened by our global responsibilities. Moreover, our interests are overlapping as well as competitive. A stable world order and a prosperous Asia benefit both. And there is the possibility, however remote it might seem now, that we could cooperate in important areas of global leadership. After all, not so long ago Xi Jinping and President Obama led the world in the Paris Climate Accord, joined by 192 other states and the European Union.

The new era of asymmetric parity is definitely not a return to the Cold War. China is not closing itself off and militarizing its economy, and we are not leading the free world with Marshall Plans and free markets. More importantly, all other countries are linked tightly to both great powers and would avoid choosing camps. Globalization made possible China’s challenge to America unipolarity, but it has made bipolarity impossible as well.

Win-lose is no longer a viable great power strategy. Lose-lose is possible, but some form of win-win would be preferable.

Brantly Womack is the author of “Asymmetry and International Relationships” and holds the C. K. Yen chair at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.