The writer, a distinguished fellow at the National University of Singapore, is the author of “Did China win?
Last month, Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, and Jake Sullivan, national security adviser, gave a public charge on democracy and human rights to Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi, China’s top foreign policy officials in Alaska last month. They did so in the belief that the US will slowly and patiently triumph over a communist opponent.
But while the US won the Cold War, China may have a better understanding of why Soviet communism failed. It is determined not to make the same mistakes.
China’s analysis would be similar to George Kennan’s, the US chief strategist. Kennan wisely predicted that the Cold War would be determined by Washington’s ability “ to create among the peoples of the world in general the impression of a country that knows what it wants, that can successfully cope with the problem of his internal life and with the responsibilities of a world power ”. Here’s the shocking comparison. The US was ahead of the Soviet Union on all three points. This is not the case with regard to China.
The first indicator of the collapse of the Soviet Union came from negative trends in indicators of social well-being: life expectancy, infant mortality, suicides, opioid (or alcohol) addiction. Today it is the US that is doing poorly. Unlike other developed societies, life expectancy in the US is declining. American teenagers’ educational standards lag behind those of many advanced industrial nations.
If Kennan were alive today, he would be shocked to see the US spend $ 5 trillion on unnecessary wars when the bottom 50 percent of Americans have seen their income stagnate for decades. There is a “sea of despair” among the white working class.
China is doing the opposite of the former Soviet Union. China believes the Soviet leaders failed because they lost contact with their own people and ignored their well-being while engaged in foreign wars. China hasn’t waged a major war in 40 years. Unlike the Soviet Union, it controls military spending.
No country has improved the well-being of its people as much as China. In terms of human development, the last 40 years were the best four decades in 4,000 years of Chinese history.
China is still struggling with many internal problems. Success is not guaranteed. But against the backdrop of a century or more of humiliation and suffering, the lives of the Chinese people have never been better. Therefore, the US Cold War strategy will not work.
The Biden administration is making a strategic mistake by continuing Donald Trump’s policy on China. Oddly enough, Biden himself stated in 2019 that Trump’s trade war had not helped the American workers. The data supports Biden’s assessment. In 2009, the size of the Chinese retail market was $ 1.4 trillion, compared to $ 4 trillion for the US. In 2019, after Trump’s three-year trade war, the Chinese market approached $ 6 trillion, ahead of the US at $ 5.5 trillion.
Even if Biden’s government wanted to change China’s course, it is constrained by a rising anti-Chinese mood in the politics of the American body. Unwise measures taken under Trump remain in effect: the closure of the Chinese Consulate in Houston, restrictions on Chinese journalists, Peace Corps termination and Fulbright Scholarship programs in China.
Biden government officials are clearly afraid of being seen as ‘soft’ on China. But if they wanted to, they could build a strong argument to reverse Trump’s policy. They could point to the reality that the Trump administration has actually strengthened China and Xi Jinping, its president. How?
The Chinese people can see that their government has protected them well in the Covid-19 emergency. Meanwhile, the Trump administration failed, resulting in the deaths of more than half a million Americans. When US Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hurled insults on China, they only strengthened the position of the Chinese government. Likewise, most Chinese thought their policymakers had won the Alaska public discussion. So did many other Asians.
All this points to a wiser course for Biden’s administration. It should, as Biden did before, declare Trump wrong in China. It should then hit the pause button of the US-China geopolitical contest while assessing whether Washington can formulate a better strategy against such a formidable competitor.
Ending the trade war with China would boost US economic growth and help Biden in the 2022 midterm elections. And most of the world would cheer if the Biden administration hit the pause button, especially while Covid-19 still raging.