Irrespective of the any trade agreement to be achieved in the months to come, or any continuation of the trade-negotiations saga, experts agree trade is just the first major episode in a continued bilateral struggle between Washington and Beijing in terms of great-power competition.
What may be interesting for the reader is a summary of how both sides communicate strategically, and how they demonize each other and respond to the other side’s attacks. Maintaining moral high ground is important to leaders in both capitals, each one trying to win the legitimacy card as regards its key audiences at home and abroad. While the US focus is on “winning” (including the recent “game over, we win!” in terms of trade), China looks more into presenting itself as the courageous, strong victim (who will “fight to the end“) and the adult in the room, taking “rational” measures (including when retaliating on trade).
Why it matters
The US-China relationship is the most consequential the world will see in the years to come, affecting both countries and, more widely, global (dis)order.
Words also matter, particularly their repetition and contribution to the wider narrative. In terms of storytelling, the US is telling a story meant to energize both an audience at home (for political support) and one abroad (secure existing allies and dissuade possible Chinese allies among developing countries), by creating doubts as regards China’s intentions, contain its projects and block its global charm offensive.
Beijing in its turn is pivoting to fill the (perceived) void left on the global arena by the US in the first two years of President Donald Trump’s administration, presenting itself as a (more) reliable global partner (so part of the solution) in a disrupted world (Trump, the disruptor, being part of – if not the – problem).
Alternative futures are also of interest: While Trump has no exact soundbite or vision yet for the world to come, his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping talks about a “community of a shared future for mankind.”
What to watch
There are several layers to watch, from grand-strategy indications to daily ping pong in declarations between the two sides. Check repeating patterns (China is accused of X, and the regular response is “no, X not true, US mean to China,” for example here), and revolving topics (political/human rights – Uighurs; economic – Made in China 2025; regional – South China Sea), but also testing ground on new issues (“social credit system”) and, do watch for this as well, tactical silence.
For example, the first Chinese response this week to Trump’s threat to ramp up tariffs was “no reply” in state media, followed by a signal of continued negotiation (confirmation of Chinese delegation visit to Washington) and appeal to “calm” (read here and here).
“Resisting (US) pressure” is a repeated soundbite for China, and so are “tranquility” and “peace” in terms of security. If the Trump administration is excelling at demonizing China, putting it periodically on the defensive, for “theft” and “profiting on us,” the Chinese are playing the common-sense, victimization card, hoping for solidarity from the developing world in front of the “madman” (theory or not, Trump does not enjoy a lot of affection and respect in allied or neutral capitals, a fact reflected also in global polls on US leadership).
Some big things
One big thing is a huge intercontinental project: the Belt and Road Initiative, dubbed by Xi the “project of the century,” to which the US has not yet found a viable alternative. It remains to be seen if the soon-to-be-announced upgrade to the Indo-Pacific strategy (allegedly to be presented in Singapore), will be a match for the BRI, while competing with the latter is hard: China reports more than 170 intergovernmental cooperative undertakings with more than 150 countries and international organizations under the Belt and Road. And the numbers are growing, sometimes symbolically as well, as the Italian “first G7 country” example showed in February.
The initiative has been branded by the US as “non-sustainable,” a “debt trap” and “new colonialism,” so the Chinese adapted: President Xi reframed the initiative recently at the second BRI Forum, calling it now “greener” and “fairer,” and scored a pop-culture global goal when alluding to Game of Thrones. This shows a difference between the US and Chinese tactics if not strategies: While Trump uses strong words for his audience at home (he can’t “lose,” he only “wins,” right?), he does not try to reach out to any Chinese hearts and minds (difficult perhaps because of media control, but not impossible), while the reverse may be true for his counterpart. When would Trump allude to Wolf Warrior or Yanxi Palace, for example? Perhaps when they are more watched on Netflix or Hulu.
Another big thing is diversification vs focus: If the US has a multilayered attack platform on China, from the Uighur issues and Huawei to intellectual-property theft, Confucius Institutes, Made in China 2025 and the South China Sea, Beijing is mostly focusing on using any perceived Trump excess or abuse to gather sympathy and build partnerships with the Europeans or countries in the developing world. It also knows how to be agile and play momentum: There is no better moment to call Emmanuel Macron or Angela Merkel than after an offensive Trump tweet on NATO or EU trade.
The bottom line
The US and China may not be heading for a clash of civilizations (yet – Xi dismissed this in a recent warning), as a senior US State Department official suggested last week, triggering backlash at home and abroad, but for sure are engaged in a constant, to-be-continued, clash of communications.
Winning hearts and minds at home and abroad is no easy task and will demand creativity and allies on both sides: While Washington has the upper ground as the experienced power, the Chinese are learning fast, and the competitive edge will get smaller each year. A concrete symbolic example, in terms of soundbites and positioning: If the US has the Bay Area, guess what, China has now a “Greater” Bay Area on its mind.
Also, beyond words and soundbites, dissemination is key: While the US is still No 1 in mastery of spinning and global media reach/impact (CGTN is growing, but not enough yet, and the recent example of the multi-state-media network to support the Belt and Road is relevant but again not enough), Americans should pay attention to how fast China is adjusting strategy and evolving on its learning curve as a great power.
One competitive advantage China may have beyond flexibility (the US has agility in its DNA as well) is institutional memory beyond administration changes. It’s not easy for any new US administration to hit the ground running, whether in 2020 or, for sure, in 2024. A recent CNBC article on Democrat contenders’ positions on China shows some differences on substance and style as compared with Trump, but also a strong awareness of great-power competition in the decades to come.
So the clash of words, and worldviews, between China and the US will continue; the only modification will be, from time to time, the tone, the timing and the style.