More than 64 years ago, on Oct. 4, 1957, the launching of Sputnik, the world’s first satellite, triggered the sudden and palpable fear that the Soviet Union was lurching ahead of the U.S., shook America out of its postwar complacency and pushed the nation to do what it should have been doing for many years.
Even though the U.S. did it under the pretext of national defence – it called it the National Defence Education Act and relied on the Defence Advanced Research Projects Administration (DARPA) for basic research leading to semiconductors, rocket and satellite technology, and the Internet – the result was to boost U.S. STEM education, technological development and productivity and American wages for a generation.
Sputnik was the starter’s pistol in an exciting new race, the beginning of the Space Age.
When the Soviet Union imploded in 1990, America found its next foil in militant Islam, fanning hysteria about the existential threat of Muslim Jihadic Terrorism to justify funding the Military-Industrial Complex to the tune of a trillion dollars a year.
Today, with the disastrous Global War on Terrorism winding down, the new punching bag is China, whose increasingly aggressive geopolitical and economic stance in the world is unleashing a fierce bipartisan backlash in America.
That’s fine if it leads to more public investment in basic research, education, and infrastructure – as did the Sputnik shock of 1957.
The United States and China are embroiled in a contest that will be more enduring, more wide-ranging, and more intense than any other international competition in modern history, including the Cold War.
In the past decade, Washington has shifted to a more confrontational posture toward Beijing, a process that reached its peak during the Trump administration, which expressed open red-hot hostility to China and vilified the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The recent change in U.S. administration has produced a different tone, but not a dramatic shift in substance.
The Biden administration in March, asserted that China “is the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system.”
“A stable and open international system” – read: American hegemony, the U.S. as the world’s sole global superpower, justified by notions of “American Exceptionalism” and “America’s Manifest Destiny” as pre-ordained by God
The CCP’s official response is that bilateral ties should be guided by the principle of “no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation,” as Chinese President Xi Jinping described it in his first telephone conversation with U.S. President Joe Biden, in February.
Nevertheless, just as American views on China have hardened in recent years, so have many Chinese come to take a harsher view of the United States.
During the past year, China’s self-confidence has been buoyed by a series of stark contrasts with the United States.
By October 16, the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 was over 724,000, whereas China—with a far larger population—had lost fewer than 4,700.
Even if there is skepticism about the exact numbers, it has been clear that China has been much more effective in dealing with COVID by more than 2 orders of magnitude.
In recent years, the United States has supplied a steady drumbeat of stories about mass shootings, police brutality, urban racial unrest, widening economic inequality, antivaxxer hysteria, QAnon and other conspiracy theories and deep political polarization – a degree of chaos and violence without parallel and unimaginable in China.
And the controversy surrounding the 2020 U.S. presidential election, culminating in the January 6 assault on the Capitol by rioters attempting to overturn Trump’s defeat, revealed a high degree of social and political instability in the United States, especially compared with the order and predictability of the Chinese system.
Against this backdrop, many Chinese analysts highlight the political dysfunction, socioeconomic inequality, ethnic and racial divisions, and economic stagnation that plague the United States and other Western democracies.
They also point out that many developing countries and former Socialist and Communist countries that emulated Western models after the Cold War are not in good shape, and they note how Afghanistan and Iraq, the two places where the United States intervened most forcefully with regime change and “nation building” continue to suffer from poverty, instability, and political violence.
For all these reasons, many Chinese, especially the younger generation, feel fully justified in meeting US pressure with confidence and frankly, a sense of defiant triumphalism.
Most Chinese now believe that the United States is driven by fear and envy to contain China in every possible way, to prevent China from assuming what they view as China’s rightful place in the world.
And although American policy elites are clearly aware of how that view has taken hold in China, many of them miss the fact that from Beijing’s perspective, it is the United States—and not China—that has fostered this newly adversarial environment, especially by carrying out what the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) views as a decades-long campaign of meddling in China’s internal affairs with the goal of weakening the party’s grip on power.
Under Biden, official U.S. rhetoric on China has become less belligerent but still reflects an antagonistic mood.
China has “an overall goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world,” Biden said at his first press conference, in March.
“That’s not going to happen on my watch, because the United States is going to continue to grow and expand.”
Beijing believes that the United States is driven by fear and envy to “contain” China.
In Chinese eyes, the most significant threat to China’s sovereignty and national security has long been U.S. interference in its internal affairs aimed at undermining the CCP and changing the country’s political system.
Americans fail to appreciate just how important this history is to China and just how much it shapes Beijing’s views of Washington.
The CCP’s rise to power in 1949 completely wiped out U.S. political, economic, and cultural ties to the Chinese mainland.
In response to Washington’s reactive effort to contain and completely isolate China, Beijing forged an alliance with Moscow and soon found itself in 1950 directly fighting the United States during the Korean War.
In I956, the CCP took note when the United States and its allies supported anticommunist rebellions in Hungary and Poland.
For the next two decades, guarding against Western subversion and preventing a “peaceful evolution” toward Western-style capitalism and democracy remained at the top of the party’s agenda.
In 1978, the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s “Reform and Opening” policy ushered in a dramatic political and economic transformation and led to engagement and the warming of U.S.-Chinese relations.
Deng’s famous proclamation, “to get rich is glorious,” inspired a wave of free-market entrepreneurship that still grips China today.
In 1981, Canada’s GDP was greater than China’s.
In 2021, China’s GDP IS 10 times larger than Canada’s.
On whether China’s economy should be based on Capitalism or Communism, Deng said, “It matters not if the cat is white or black as long as it catches mice.”
Moreover, China has done this while consciously flouting advice from the West, using the free market without being seduced by its every little charm.
After the enormous economic and social changes Deng Xiaoping unleashed, China can best be described as “free-market state-capitalism” within a framework of Communist party rule.
“Socialism With Chinese Characteristics.”
After President Richard Nixon took the dramatic first step toward normalizing relations with the communist People’s Republic of China in 1971, commercial activities and civil society links between the two countries boomed in the 1970s and 1980s.
Closer ties, however, also fed Chinese suspicions that the U.S. intended to sow the seeds of dissent in China and eventually topple the CCP.
The U.S. media’s intense coverage of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989 and the sanctions that Washington and its allies levied on Beijing in the wake of those events confirmed the CCP’s concerns about American intentions.
Ever since, anytime the CCP has encountered political turmoil at home, it has believed the United States to play a hidden hand.
In the late 1990s, after Beijing cracked down on Falun Gong, an organization the CCP identified as an “evil cult,” its leader and some followers fled to the United States and established a stronghold there, and the U.S. House of Representatives denounced China’s “persecution” of the group and its adherents.
Falun Gong administers a variety of extensions in the United States and elsewhere, which have received notable media attention for their political involvement and ideological messaging, particularly since their involvement in the 2016 United States presidential election.
Falun Gong extensions include The Epoch Times, a politically far-right media entity that has received significant attention for demonizing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), promoting conspiracy theories and trumpeting support for then-U.S. President Donald Trump
The United States has also hosted and given consistent support to a number of Chinese dissidents.
In October 2010, Liu Xiaobo, a well-known intellectual and fierce critic of the CCP, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
The U.S. House of Representatives congratulated Liu and called on China to release him from jail.
It is widely believed in China that U.S. politicians pushed the Nobel Committee to award the prize to Liu.
Chinese officials are particularly irritated by what they see as American meddling in restive regions of China.
In 2008, when a riot took place in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, the CCP saw the violence as the intentional result of long-term U.S. support for Tibetan separatists living overseas and led by the Dalai Lama, who has personally met with every U.S. president, some multiple times, since 1991.
Chinese state media in early 2009 asserted that “the Dalai Lama clique has in fact become a tool for hostile U.S. interference into China’s internal affairs and attempts to split China.”
In 2018, Trump enacted a law that requires the U.S. Department of State to punish Chinese officials who bar Americans from traveling freely to Tibet, a move that China’s Foreign Ministry condemned as “grossly interfering in China’s domestic affairs.”
More recently, the western Chinese region of Xinjiang has become a major source of friction.
There are over 12 million Uyghurs, Sunni Muslims, living in Xinjiang.
The Uyghurs speak their own language, which is similar to Turkish, and see themselves as religiously, culturally and ethnically close to Central Asian nations.
Beijing charges that violent riots in July 2009 were planned and organized from abroad by Uyghur activists in the United States who received encouragement and support from American officials and organizations.
The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) is an extremist group of native Uyghurs who wish to establish a separate country called “East Turkistan'” carved out from the Xinjiang province.
China held the ETIM responsible for over 200 terrorist attacks in Xinjiang since 1990, which killed 162 people.
ETIM has a close financial relationship with al-Qaeda and many of its members’ received terrorist training in Afghanistan, financed by al-Qaeda.
In 2020, the U.S. pointedly and controversially removed the group from its terror list, stating that “there has been no credible evidence of the group’s continued existence.”
The U.S.’ move was criticised by China but celebrated by members of the Uyghur diaspora.
This month, the Taliban has removed Uyghur ETIM militants from an area near Afghanistan’s border with China, in a move that signals growing coordination between Beijing and the Afghan militant group.
China denies all allegations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
China says the crackdown in Xinjiang is necessary to prevent terrorism and root out Islamist ETIM extremism and the camps are an effective tool for re-educating inmates in its fight against terrorism.
It insists that Uyghur ETIM militants are waging a violent campaign for an independent state by plotting bombings, sabotage and civic unrest
In 2019, the United States accused the CCP of engaging in the surveillance and torture of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities and of detaining at least one million people in camps in Xinjiang.
And in March, the Biden administration infuriated China by labelling China’s actions in Xinjiang a “genocide” and sanctioned Chinese officials in charge of security affairs in the region.
Beijing has repeatedly denied that allegation and accused Washington of being “obsessed with fabricating lies and plotting to use Xinjiang-related issues to contain China and create division and chaos in China.”
U.S. policy toward Hong Kong represents another long-running source of Chinese mistrust.
In 2014, a series of street protests that came to be known as the Umbrella Movement occurred in Hong Kong in reaction to Beijing’s decision to reform the territory’s electoral system.
Beijing believed that the U.S. government, the CIA and U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations had helped stage the protests.
When protests flared again in 2019–20 in response to proposed changes to the extradition agreement between the mainland and Hong Kong, security forces cracked down, and the Trump administration levied sanctions on a number of Chinese and Hong Kong officials.
In March, the Biden administration added additional sanctions in response to Beijing’s imposition of a new national security law in Hong Kong.
Finally, no issue has bred as much Chinese distrust of the United States as the status of Taiwan.
For decades, Washington’s “One China” policy has generally had the intended effect of preventing disagreement over the island from sparking a U.S.-Chinese conflict.
But there have been many near misses, and the policy’s ability to paper over tensions is wearing thin.
In 1995, as pro-independence factions in Taiwan gained momentum, the island’s president received a U.S. visa to visit Cornell University, his alma mater, where he gave a speech that angered Beijing.
In reaction, China conducted military exercises near Taiwan, and Washington sent two aircraft carrier battle groups to the area in the spring of 1996.
In Beijing’s view, the crisis left little doubt that Washington would remain a major stumbling block to unification.
During the administration of the Taiwanese leader Ma Ying-jeou, from 2008 to 2016, tensions between Beijing and Taipei subsided.
But since 2016, when the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party took power in Taipei, Beijing’s stance has hardened again.
China has steadily mounted political and military pressure on Taiwan to deter the DPP from making moves toward de jure secession.
Meanwhile, in recent years, Washington has begun to push the envelope when it comes to Taiwan.
In December 2016, when he was president-elect, Trump received a phone call from the Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen to congratulate him on his election victory, the first time since 1979 that a U.S. president had directly spoken with a Taiwanese president, a conversation that provoked angry protests from Beijing.
Although Trump himself did not seem particularly focused on Taiwan, he signed a number of pieces of legislation aimed at augmenting U.S.-Taiwanese ties and bolstering the island’s international position.
In January, Biden became the first U.S. president since 1978 to host Taiwan’s envoy to the United States at his inauguration.
Days after that, the U.S. State Department released a statement confirming Washington’s “rock solid” commitment to the island.
In Chinese eyes, the most significant threat to China’s sovereignty has long been U.S. interference.
The CCP believes that all these perceived U.S. attempts to foment dissent and destabilize China are part of an integrated American strategy to westernize (xihua) and split up (fenhua) China and prevent the country from becoming a great power.
Beijing believes that CIA was the driving force behind the “Colour Revolutions” that took place in 2000 to 2010 in former Soviet states including the Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus and Kyrgyzystan and that the CIA instigated protest movements against authoritarian regimes around the world, including the Arab Spring revolts of 2010–11.
The CCP believes that those U.S. interventions are a blueprint for Washington’s plans to undermine and eventually topple the CCP.
China’s increasingly assertive posture is a reaction to the CCP’s perception that the United States is attempting to weaken the country and delegitimize the party.
Since 1949, China has been in fear of blockades of its long coastline, and the string of islands off its coast makes the leadership feel even more vulnerable.
Many U.S. officials were late to recognize just how seriously Chinese leaders considered this U.S. “threat” to be.
The accumulation of evidence to this effect convinced many in Washington to look at Chinese perceptions differently.
China is far less interested in conventional force projection overseas than it is concerned with countering the American threat.
Many in the Chinese military fear that China could be easily blockaded by a foreign power because of the maritime geography of the first island chain stretching from Japan to Okinawa, the Ryukyu and Senkaku Islands to Formosa to the Philippines, that is perceived to be vulnerable to fortification.
The islands are seen as a natural geographical obstacle blocking China’s access to the open ocean, leading to China’s preoccupation with the South China Sea today.
Indeed, a former Japanese naval chief of staff openly boasted that Chinese submarines would be unable to slip into the deep waters of the Pacific through the Ryukyu island chain, north or south of Taiwan, or through the Bashi (Luzon) Strait without being detected by U.S. and Japanese antisubmarine forces.
The United States has built a blockade system of antisubmarine nets, hydroacoustic systems, underwater mines, surface warships, antisubmarine aircraft, attack submarines, and reconnaissance satellites.
And now, the US will be supplying Australia with nuclear attack submarines.
Many Chinese geopolitical and military writings touch on the vulnerability of China’s sea lines of communication, especially the petroleum lifeline in the Strait of Malacca.
Advocates of a Chinese blue-water navy cite the insecurity of China’s energy imports.
According to them, the U.S., Japanese, Indian, and now Australian and British fleets, together “constitute an overwhelming threat to China’s oil supply.”
Remember that the U.S. economic blockade and oil embargo on Japan pushed the Japanese to Pearl Harbour 70 years ago this Dec. 7.
For at least a decade, Chinese military authors have assessed the threats from U.S. aircraft carriers and analyzed how best to counteract them.
The Chinese anti-carrier missile is one of the responses to this fear of carrier strikes.
The original “carrier killer”, the ground-based DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile has a range of 1,500 miles.
China’s latest aircraft carrier killer is the CH-AS-X-13 air-launched hypersonic anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM).
Being carried by a bomber will massively increase its overall reach.
The H-6N bomber which carries it has aerial refuelling to further increase their range.
China’s carrier-killers are therefore a threat to U.S. carriers beyond the first island chain and South China Sea, able to potentially hit U.S. carriers in the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, or Indian Ocean.
This year, two U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups are on station in the South China Sea, and a U.S. guided-missile destroyer sailed through the Taiwan Straits, the 110-mile-wide strait between Taiwan and China, as China denounced the United States for threatening peace and stability.
The Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group and the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group conducted a multitude of exercises in the South China Sea.
Besides the 2 “super carriers”, each carrier strike group includes 2 guided-missile cruisers, 2 guided-missile destroyers, one anti-submarine guided-missile frigate, 2 attack submarines and one supply ship carrying fuel, food and ammunition, extra missiles and bombs.
Each aircraft carrier has 9 squadrons with a total of 80 aircraft, more airpower than most countries – 160 aircraft altogether, including nuclear bombs, nuclear-tipped missiles and nuclear-tipped torpedoes.
In Beijing, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said the frequent moves by U.S. warships and aircraft into the South China Sea in a “show of force” were not conducive to regional peace and stability.
Imagine the reaction in America if two Chinese aircraft carrier attack groups were on extended station in the Gulf of Mexico or the Caribbean Sea.
Or if China paraded warships through the Florida Straits, the 90 miles between Florida and Cuba.
How would America react if China decided to supply Cuba with nuclear attack submarines?
How would America deal with 12 million Muslims living in Texas?
How might the Department of Homeland Security respond if those 12 million Muslims proceeded to organize a Texas Muslim Independence Movement and set off a few bombs?
The U.S. has over 200 overseas military bases and installations in over 70 countries around the world.
China has 1 overseas military installation, a naval base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.
Imagine America’s reaction if China had 200 overseas military bases surrounding the U.S.A.
Although China holds its political/economic model up as a contrast to America’s increasingly-illiberal democracy and obscenely unequal predatory version of capitalism, the CCP has no interest in exporting or imposing its ideology on other countries.
Contrast this to America’s messianic crusade of “nation-building” since 1945 to impose its version of democracy and capitalism everywhere around the world
The U.S.-Chinese relationship revolves around an implicit understanding on two issues, the internal order that the CCP maintains in China and the international order that the United States wants to lead and sustain.
Until the current downward spiral in the bilateral relationship, which began in 2017, Washington and Beijing maintained an implicit agreement: the United States would not openly attempt to destabilize China’s internal order, and in turn, China would not intentionally weaken the U.S.-led international order.
Within the framework of this mutual understanding, the two countries tremendously expanded their commercial and civic links—to the point of close interdependence.
They also started to coordinate and cooperate on various global issues, such as counterterrorism, pandemic planning and climate change.
The implicit understanding has now unraveled, however, as the United States seems determined to weaken the CCP and China appears intent on defying U.S. leadership of global institutions and Western values more broadly.
The prospect of a vicious cycle looms.
To avoid open conflict, leaders in Washington and Beijing need to accept two fundamental realities.
The first is that the CCP enjoys immense popularity among the Chinese people.
The CCP’s grip on power is unshakable.
The CCP has lifted more than 800 million Chinese out of poverty and created the world’s largest middle class, more than 400 million people, larger than the entire US population.
The U.S. middle class (household incomes ranging from about $48,500 to $109,500) is 51%, 165 million people, the lowest ratio in the OECD.
China’s middle class will reach 550 million in two years — more than one-and-a-half times the entire U.S. population today.
For the first time in history, more of the world’s wealthiest people live in China than the United States.
Out of the hundreds of millions of people that make up the wealthiest 10% of people on the planet in 2018 (the global top 10% have net worths above $109,500), 100 million lived in China and 99 million lived in the United States, according to Credit Suisse’s Global wealth report 2019.
Since China began to open up and reform its economy in 1978, GDP growth has averaged almost 10% a year, and there have been massive improvements in access to health, education, and other services.
China is on track to become by 2025, the world’s largest market for personal luxury goods, which includes clothes, jewelry, watches, beauty products, leather goods, fine wines, and luxury experiences like travel to exotic locations, private jets and yachts.
China is the world’s largest market for outbound tourism, having skyrocketed from 4.5 million travelers in 2000 to 150 million Chinese tourists in 2018.
A far cry from the popular Western image of impoverished Chinese peasants working knee-deep in rice paddies.
If Lenin or Marx were reincarnated in 21st century Shanghai and managed to avert their eyes from the city’s glittering skyscrapers and conspicuous consumption, they would not be able to recognize China’s economy as Communist.
“Freedom’s Just A Word.”
China’s urban middle class may wish for more political freedom, but it hasn’t dared rise up en masse against the state because it has so much to lose.
Over the last three decades, the party has enacted a broad array of economic reforms, even as it has clamped down hard on dissent.
The freedom to consume — be it in the form of cars, real estate, or well-stocked supermarkets — is much more attractive than vague notions of democracy, especially when individuals pushing for political reform could lose their livelihoods and even their freedom.
The Chinese people are happy to accept an authoritarian government in exchange for the socio-economic benefits.
Although China has its issues with authoritarianism, when it comes to economics, the CCP really is putting the success of their people as a whole first.
The second reality is that, for the foreseeable future, the United States will remain the most powerful actor in shaping the global order.
The country’s problems are obvious: racial tensions, political polarization, socioeconomic inequality, and weakened alliances.
Its strength, however, lies in its diversity, its culture of innovation, and the resilience of its civil society—and those attributes remain unchanged.
Many countries might be frustrated by Washington’s hypocrisy, dysfunction, and flagging leadership, but few, even in China, genuinely wish to see the United States depart from their region and leave behind a power vacuum.
Given these realities, both countries should abide by what the Chinese have long referred to as an approach of “mutual respect.”
Washington should respect Beijing’s internal order, which has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and brought stability to the world’s largest country, and Beijing should respect Washington’s positive role in the existing international order, which has helped promote economic growth and technological advancement—and which has, in fact, greatly benefited China.
The two countries will continue to compete in many areas: which government serves its people better, which country will prosper more economically, which country will recover sooner from the COVID-19 pandemic and keep its citizens healthier, which country is more popular in the world, and so on.
There will be and should be a peaceful though intense competition between the US, a (generally) liberal democracy with a loosely-regulated capitalist economy and China, with an authoritarian government and an economy of state capitalism.
The “new normal” in US-China relations is hardening competition but deep interdependence.
The greatest existential danger the “American Experiment” faces today is not from China.
It is America’s internal drift toward proto-fascism.