American and Chinese flag pair on desk over defocused background. Horizontal composition with copy space and selective focus.Photo: iStock
American and Chinese flag pair on desk over defocused background. Horizontal composition with copy space and selective focus.Photo: iStock

Nobody wants a trade war”, wrote Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in an opinion piece for The Washington Post, one of the most influential newspapers in America. This viewpoint must be widely echoed by most people who advocate free trade and globalization, but will the “America First” Trump administration be happy to agree?

It is good news that a US delegation headed by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin may visit Beijing in early May to try to resolve the differences over trade with China. Optimists believe that a trade war will probably be avoided as it is highly possible for the two countries to reach a deal in which China is likely to make more concessions just like in past trade frictions.

However, pessimists warn that more friction between America and China far beyond trade is yet to come, and even a “new Cold War” between the two countries is brewing.

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Different perceptions

There are four pillars underpinning America’s dominant power in the world, namely the military, technology the US dollar and culture. China is considered a strong competitor and even a threat to America in almost all domains. And those perceptions lead to real actions.

Along with Russia, China was identified as a “strategic competitor” in the Trump administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy and 2018 National Defense Strategy. The two so-called “revisionist powers” are thought to be undermining the international order and stability and posing a strategic threat to America.

China’s strategic plan – “Made in China 2025” – is to transform itself into a global technology nexus was considered “frightening” by US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. That explains why America emphasizes intellectual property protections and restricts high-tech exports to China, such as the recent chips ban imposed on ZTE, a leading Chinese telecom giant.

Moreover, China’s recent launch of RMB-denominated oil futures was viewed as an attempt to dethrone the US dollar. In the cultural domain, there has been an intensive crackdown on Confucius Institutes across America, citing concerns that they are part of China’s spying and covert influence operations.

America and China are inevitably going to compete, but it would be unwise and even dangerous for the two countries to become enemies

Meanwhile, China has its own perceptions of America. In Mao Zedong’s view, “Imperialism and all reactionaries are paper tigers,” which was why the Chinese leader dared to directly fight with America in the Korean War (1950-1953). In Deng Xiaoping’s view, “The China-America relationship can never be too good or too bad,”, which was why Deng suggested the two countries might “fight without splitting” (dou er bu po, 斗而不破). Currently, China views itself and America as “different, but not distant,” following Confucian philosophy “accommodating divergent views” (he er bu tong, 和而不同).

From the Chinese perspective, the “Thucydides Trap” – wherein a rising power causes fear in an established power, which escalates towards war – is not inevitable. Therefore, China has proposed building a “new type of major power relations” of “no conflicts and confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation” with America, but unfortunately, the US seems reluctant to buy such idea.

Difficult to be friends

In Chinese, we call America “meiguo” (美国) — meaning “a beautiful country.” Nowadays, most Chinese people do not view America as an enemy. In contrast, a recent poll shows that Americans now consider China to be their third greatest enemy, after North Korea and Russia. Americans see China’s growing economic power as a “critical threat” to the “vital interest” of America.

It is difficult for America and China to become real friends, because “persons who walk different paths cannot make plans together” (dao bu tong bu xiang wei mou, 道不同不相为谋). America is a missionary nation that wants to spread its democratic model to the whole world, but China insists on developing its socialism with Chinese characteristics in its own way. China’s recent development towards strongman and new authoritarianism politics is against American values such as individualism, equality and freedom. For most Americans, it is unacceptable to be overtaken by China, a non-democratic communist regime.

Unwise to be enemies

America and China are inevitably going to compete, but it would be unwise and even dangerous for the two countries to become enemies. The Chinese and American people have much more to gain by maintaining a friendly and cooperative partnership with each other than the other way around.

A possible trade war between China and America has panicked the whole world, thus confrontation or conflicts between the two countries will definitely make the entire world suffer. It will be very dangerous for America to use a “new cold war” to break down China because a highly united and centralized China is not another Soviet Union. To avoid a “hot war” or a “new Cold War,” America as the existing greatest power and China as an emerging one have no choice but to collectively forge a “new type of great-power relationship.” Coexistence and cooperation must overcome confrontation and conflicts.

Without the cooperation of both countries, none of those big global and regional challenges, such as global economic recovery, climate change, terrorism and nuclear proliferation, will likely be fully addressed. Sooner or later, the two countries will have to cooperate as they did in World War II to keep a peaceful and prosperous world together. A recent good example is that America thanked China for addressing the trouble-making North Korea.

China-America relations will remain the world’s most important bilateral relationship for many years to come. We sincerely hope it can be true that “the broad Pacific Ocean is vast enough to embrace both China and America.” As a good start, the two countries need to update their perceptions towards each other in a more positive but realistic way.

Sun Xi

Sun Xi, a China-born alumnus of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, is an independent commentary writer based in Singapore. He is also founder and CEO of ESGuru, a Singapore-based consultancy firm specializing in environmental, social and governance issues.