The US government may be neglecting its own people in its quest to preserver its dominance over China. Image: Getty via AFP

In the years following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, one of the questions that bedeviled the American political establishment was who should be held responsible for having “lost China”; that China was not America’s to lose was fittingly overlooked.

Seventy years later, it is now the turn of part of China’s establishment, particularly the part operating in the area of trade and manufacturing, to ponder, albeit discreetly, the question as to “who lost America.”

That question, if anything, is a vivid reminder of the extraordinary capacity of both countries to misread each other. And, paradoxically, the more each one is open to the other, the less it has proved capable of coming to grips with what the other stands for and how it should be addressed.

Coming to grips with what the “other” stands for is actually a double-pronged process. Indeed, while geopolitical considerations are paramount in shaping a nation’s foreign policy, they are often held hostage to domestic political considerations. Thus what might appear illogical, not to say counterproductive, in terms of geopolitical interests can acquire a logic of its own when viewed in terms of domestic policy.

And when push comes to shove, the general inclination of sovereign states is to put domestic policy considerations before geopolitical concerns.

The end result is that in a macro-political perspective, the current crisis between the US and China is not an isolated incident but part of a chain of events that, from the Chinese side, traces its roots to the collapse not so much of the Soviet state as such but rather, and more specifically, to that of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

At its inception, the Communist Party of China (CPC) was a progeny of the Soviet Union both in terms of ideology and organization. Slowly, in the decades following its creation, the party weened itself from its original mentor to develop its own personality. This was in essence the doing of Mao Zedong, and his motivation, beyond all other considerations, was in essence the execution of his vision of social engineering implemented through the unrestricted exercise of personal power.

If Mao was a law unto himself, his successor Deng Xiaoping was in essence a pragmatist for whom the important was not the color of the cat but whether it caught mice. What followed his accession to power was a period of reforms that steered China away from both from the aberrations of Mao and the doctrinaire dogmas inherited from Leninism and the Soviet system.

Coming during the reform process, the collapse of the Soviet Communist Party had a major traumatizing effect that reverberated throughout its Chinese counterpart. Not only had the impossible occurred but the agonizing question for the Chinese Communists was whether they would be next. The conclusion reached after a protracted process of introspection that hinged, for the party, on how to keep its grip on power, was threefold.

First, it was the economy that proved the undoing of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Second, the Soviet model was no longer relevant as an economic development blueprint. And third, the state apparatus was the base on which the power of the party rested.

The end result was “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” a strange hybrid that owed nothing to Leninism  and which, while paying lip service to “socialism” as a source of its legitimacy, was for all practical purposes a modern reincarnation of China’s imperial order, with Xi Jinping as its paramount leader and the Communist Party establishment as its new mandarins.

For the constituents of the imperial order, the overriding priority is to stay in power, which in turn requires that two conditions be met.

First, the imperial order should have a monopoly of power. This does not require that all social activities should be either monitored or controlled, but any development that could lead to the creation of an alternative power should be rigorously pre-empted.

Second, force alone will not ensure either the legitimacy or the preservation of the imperial order. Ultimately, this will require the loyalty the population. This can only be achieved if it has the feeling that its concerns are met. So social stability enhanced by economic development was the formula adopted by the CPC to ensure that its hold on power endured.

Notwithstanding China’s population base, development could not be achieved using only domestic resources. Thus opening to the outside world became an imperative if China was to become a developed economy, with one caveat. Development was not an end in itself.

The end objective was for the CPC to retain its hold on power. That to do so the party would have to renege on all the tenets of Marxism that had been its ideological regimen for decades was of little importance. That it retained the name “Communist” was partly a cosmetic exercise and partly a reference to the legitimacy it acquired when it defeated the Kuomintang (KMT) during the country’s civil war.

While the CPC saw development as a means to preserve its hold on power, Washington, Beijing’s main counterpart, saw an inverse scenario. The conventional wisdom in Washington held that economic development would bring about an increased level of “democracy” in China and weaken the hold of the Communist Party on the country, thus ensuring that it would become increasingly aligned with what stood for America’s interests in the region.

The end result was that for some 30 years China operated freely in an open Western environment while Western economic actors operated within heavy constraints in a restrictive Chinese environment. That this situation would unleash a backlash in the United States – irrational as it may be – was obviously never considered in Beijing.

In a country where it is often said that short term is three months and long term six, it would have been overly optimistic to expect the successive Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations to look at the relationship between China and the US in a 50- or 100-year perspective and to try to establish some guidelines in what was clearly an asymmetrical relationship: on one side a state-run economy in a one-party system operating through a combination of state-owned companies, partly state owned or private but subject to state oversight, and on the other a Western free-market environment subject to erratic political scrutiny.

For the Americans the problem was compounded by the fact that they were dealing not with just another Third World economy aspiring to develop but with a civilization that had endured uninterruptedly for 2,000 years with some 1.4 billion inhabitants steeped in an imperial tradition and the harbinger both of considerable intellectual resources and a strong work ethic.

As for China, while it is now dealing with the world’s only remaining superpower, it is  also dealing with an unsettled one. Unresolved domestic tensions and a weakening industrial base walked hand in hand with the incapacity to translate into substantive achievements its unique military potential.

From Vietnam to Afghanistan to Iraq to Syria, Washington proved unable to translate its military successes into political accomplishment. The end result was the election of a president who promised to make America great “again,” thus implying that it was no longer “great.”

And considering the reservoir of suspicion that never ceased to endure within the establishment in Washington regarding “Communist China,” it should come as no surprise that domestic considerations have caught up with a relationship that could anyhow be viewed with reservations.

It took some 30 years for the two systems to come head to head, with on one side a superpower that is slowly losing its primacy and on the other an aspiring superpower that has not quite yet made it to the apex.  

As of today, there are few indications that the two are ready to come to terms as how to manage the relationship between two incompatible systems. Conversely, if and when they do so, China will have to concede that it cannot only play by its own rules and Washington will have to acknowledge that the days when it can aspire to exercise its unconstrained global hegemony are over.

Pending the two coming to their senses, China no more “lost” America than America “lost” China. The only thing that they “lost,” or probably never had, was a realistic vision of each other.

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Alexander Casella

Alexander Casella PhD has taught and worked as a journalist for the likes of Le Monde, The Times, The New York Times, Die Zeit, The Guardian, and Swiss radio and TV, writing primarily on China and Vietnam. In 1973 he joined the UNHCR, serving, among others, as head of the East Asia Section and director for Asia and Oceania. He then served 18 years as representative in Geneva of the International Center for Migration Policy Development.