A year is certainly a long time in international relations. A fawning hagiography of Xi Jinping by Xinhua News Agency last November praised the Chinese president for “enhancing trust,” “reducing suspicion” and helping “avoid a ‘clash of civilizations,’ the so-called ‘Thucydides Trap’” between China and the United States.
But less than a year later, in myriad ways, the opposite is true. On October 13, the Global Times, an influential offspring of the People’s Daily, China’s flagship newspaper, even admitted: “There has been unprecedented strategic distrust between China and the US.”
Indeed, the world’s two biggest economies and militaries are now fundamentally at odds with each other on virtually all key issues – from trade, cybersecurity and human rights to geopolitical flashpoints like Taiwan and the South China Sea.
On September 21, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced Beijing’s “awful abuses” of detained Muslim Uighurs and expressed concern about its “intense crackdown on Christians.” On September 24, the day its tariffs on US$200 billion worth of Chinese imports came into effect, the US approved a $330 million arms sale to Taiwan. A day later, it arrested an army reservist from China on allegations of spying.
On September 27, US President Donald Trump, who for months had touted Xi as a great friend despite trade and other disagreements, said the Chinese president “may not be [his] friend any more.” On the same day, at a festive reception at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, just after China’s ambassador to the US called for “cooperation” rather than “confrontation” between the two superpowers, Matt Pottinger, one of Trump’s top Asia advisers, bluntly stated that the Trump administration had updated its China policy “to bring the concept of competition to the forefront.”
A few days later, a Chinese destroyer almost collided with a US warship in the resources-rich, strategically vital and hotly disputed South China Sea.
Such an all-around adversarial reality was plainly laid out in US Vice-President Mike Pence’s “remarks on the Trump administration’s policy toward China” at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC, early this month. Delivering what is probably the most critical and comprehensive indictment of China’s behavior by any American leader since the Cold War, Pence accused the Asian power of “employing a whole-of-government approach to advance its influence and benefit its interests” at America’s expense and vowed the Trump administration will respond in kind.
The intensifying and alarming hostilities between Washington and Beijing were raised by United Nations Secretary General António Guterres in an address to the UN General Assembly on September 25. Citing Graham Allison, who coined the term ‘Thucydides Trap’ in 2012, Guterres urged world leaders to take seriously the threat of conflict between China and the US and seek to avert it
The intensifying and alarming hostilities between Washington and Beijing were raised by United Nations Secretary General António Guterres in an address to the UN General Assembly (UNGA) on September 25. Citing Graham Allison, who coined the term “Thucydides Trap” in 2012, Guterres urged world leaders to take seriously the threat of conflict between China and the US and seek to avert it.
Drawing on the Greek historian Thucydides’ insights of the Peloponnesian War and reviewing many examples of rivalry in the past, Allison, a Harvard political scientist, had warned that a rising China and global leader America were destined for war – “unless both parties take difficult and painful actions to avert it.”
As he has appeared very anxious about such a danger, Xi Jinping has, on several occasions, warned against it. Speaking to a group of Western investors in 2013, he reportedly urged: “We must all work together to avoid the Thucydides Trap.” In a key speech in the US in 2015, while maintaining that “there is no such thing as the so-called Thucydides Trap in the world,” he warned: “Should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might create such traps for themselves.”
However, it seems that the Chinese supremo hasn’t always practiced what he has preached.
In assessing the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides said: “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” Such an explanation is also the core insight that Graham Allison uses to develop his “Thucydides Trap” theory.
Whether their current hostility will further intensify and lead to war remains to be seen. It is hoped that this will not happen. It is, however, indisputable that China’s rise and, especially, the fear it has created in America is the main reason behind the latter’s growing confrontation with the former. What’s more, whether it’s intentional or not, it is Xi – or, more exactly, his forceful posturing both at home and abroad – that has considerably intensified such a friction.
At the National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) last October, Xi not only declared that China “has stood up, grown rich, and is becoming strong” and “with an entirely new posture, now stands tall and firm in the East.” He also urged his rising country to “stride forward at the forefront of the world” and “take center stage” in the world.
More precisely, in the three-and-a-half-hour speech, Xi vowed to turn China into “a global leader in innovation” by 2035 and “a global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence” by 2050. Implicitly, he set out new ambitions for his country to overtake the US economically by 2035 and in all key areas by the middle of the century.
In many other statements and manifestations, Xi makes clear that the Middle Kingdom is determined to realize its “Chinese Dream” to become a, if not the, leading global power – technologically, economically and militarily.
In fact, Xi’s China is willing to compete with the US not just materially but ideologically as well. In his marathon address to the CPC’s 2017 congress, he claimed that “socialism with Chinese characteristics is now flying high and proud for all to see.” Such socialism, he boasted, is “blazing a new trail for other developing countries to achieve modernization … offers a new option for other countries and nations, who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence” as well as “offers Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach to solving the problems facing mankind.”
Such self-assertion and self-confidence has further stoked fear and rivalry in America. In his address to the UNGA, President Trump denounced “socialism or communism” and called for “all the nations of the world to resist” it because, in his view, “virtually everywhere socialism has been tried, it has produced suffering, corruption, and decay.” Though he mentioned only Venezuela by name, Trump’s remarks were also pointedly aimed at China, where “Xi Jinping Thought on socialism” is now the guiding ideology.
Of course, not all allegations about China by Trump, Pence and other Trump officials are right and fair. That said, China – or more specifically, its core leader, Xi Jinping – should share a large part of the blame for Washington’s tough posture.
Xinhua’s “Xi Jinping and his era” opus was published only three weeks after the CPC’s 2017 congress, also dubbed Xi Jinping’s congress, as he amassed sweeping power at the five-yearly conclave. Shortly after that, the Trump administration announced its first National Security Strategy, which labeled China as a revisionist authoritarian power that is seeking to “shape a world antithetical to US values and interests.”
Its National Defense Strategy and Nuclear Posture Review, released shortly afterward, also painted the communist-run state very adversely. In effect, in the first two strategies, the People’s Republic was put first among the four biggest security challenges facing the US while in the last document, it was placed second, after Russia.
Beijing has blamed Trump and his “America first” policy for the worsening relationship. But while they find themselves at odds with many of Trump’s domestic and foreign policies, when it comes to China, American politicians across the political spectrum, by and large, agree with his diagnosis and treatment.
For instance, on trade, prominent Democratic Party figures such as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have publicly called China America’s “real trade enemy” and praised the Republican president’s “actions on China.” There is also bipartisan support for Taiwan in the US Congress, where the two parties seldom reach a consensus on any key issue. A cross-party group of lawmakers has recently called for sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for human-rights abuses against Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang.
Speaking at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations last month, Wang Yi, Chinese state councilor and foreign minister, said: “I don’t think China will become the United States, and China will not challenge the United States. Still less will China take the place of the United States.”
His remarks were aimed at dissuading the American concern that “China is about to seek hegemony in the future and even challenge or displace US leadership,” which he called “a serious strategic misjudgment.”
Yet such remarks are hardly reassuring or convincing. The one that has made “a serious strategic misjudgment” is not Trump’s America but rather Xi’s China. It is Xi’s authoritarian and forceful posturing that has fueled America’s fear of his country. For example, had he followed Deng Xiaoping’s “bide your time, hide your strength” axiom – wise advice that China followed until 2012 when Xi came to power – he definitely wouldn’t have bred so much alarm and pushback from the US.