Are Asian Americans indifferent to politics? Why?

Strategic rivalry between USA and China

Volker Perthes

Dimensions of strategic rivalry: China, the USA and the position of Europe

The rivalry between the US and China has become a guiding paradigm in international relations over the past two years. It shapes strategic debates, but also real political, military and economic dynamics, and this is likely to remain so for some time. This does not mean that the competition between Washington and Beijing or even the great power rivalry in general determine all other international problem and conflict situations. However, this rivalry is increasingly forming the framework through which various actors view significant events and developments. For the USA at least, the strategic rivalry with China has replaced the "fight against terrorism" paradigm that has been prevalent since 2001.

In the official strategy documents of the US government, China has been operating as a "long-term strategic competitor" since 2017. In its London Declaration of December 2019, NATO spoke for the first time of the challenges (but also of the opportunities) arising from the weight and international politics of China.1 China's political elite is - arguably rightly - convinced that the US wants to at least contain the expansion of Chinese influence. Disputes over trade policy or trade balances are at the forefront of public statements by the US President and have a direct impact on the global economy. Nonetheless, trade disputes represent only one and by no means the most important aspect of rivalry. As Peter Rudolf explains, the conflict is multidimensional.

A separate strategic approach of Germany and the European Union (EU) with regard to the Sino-American rivalry requires first of all analytical clarity: only if we understand the multidimensional nature of the conflict constellation can we find appropriate political answers and develop the necessary instruments.

Global power competition

Obviously, it is about global balances of power and their status in the international system. There is some evidence that US President Donald Trump sees superiority, especially military dominance, as an end in itself and not primarily as a means to advance certain interests and values. President Xi Jinping seems to be driven more by a world order vision of Chinese provenance, in which superiority is both a means and an end. But the conflict also has a security policy, an economic, a technological, an ideological and, if you will, personality dimension. We go into each of these dimensions and their connections in the articles of this study, as well as the effects of American-Chinese rivalry on international institutions and on Europe. In any case, it is about the influence of the established and developing superpowers on other states, regions and societies.

From the Chinese point of view, according to Hanns Günther Hilpert and Gudrun Wacker, America will never voluntarily grant China greater international influence. In the US, China is seen as a revisionist power striving for global hegemony in the long term. As can be seen from the contribution by Marco Overhaus, Peter Rudolf and Laura von Daniels, there is a far-reaching consensus between Republicans and Democrats, between society, business and politics. There are more balanced positions, but they are rarely heard in the public debate. The main contentious issue is the choice of means in this dispute.

This is another reason why tough security policy challenges are becoming more acute and a classic security dilemma is emerging. As Michael Paul and Marco Overhaus point out, this is especially true for China as a great power that is expanding its scope of action and, step by step, is transitioning from the doctrine of coastal defense to that of active defense in the maritime space. But it also applies to the USA, which sees China's growing military capabilities not only as a threat to its own military bases in the Pacific, but also to its partnership and alliance system in the Asia-Pacific region and, in the future, to its nuclear deterrent.

Conflicts over trade, economic and financial policy

Economic competition and conflicts over trade, economic and financial policy form a real, separate dimension of the rivalry, not only because the United States has taken a protectionist course under President Trump. The American criticism of Chinese trade behavior, of unfair competitive conditions in China or of Chinese rule violations is largely shared in Europe. As both Hilpert and von Daniels explain in their contributions, the trade conflict is closely linked to questions of global governance, which are of vital importance from a European perspective. This applies, for example, to the future of binding, multilateral trade rules and institutions. These issues also have domestic political relevance in both countries and also have high potential for mobilization, in some cases regardless of the extent to which global developments actually affect the employment situation in certain sectors. Overall, however, according to Hilpert, the material advantages that both sides, especially the USA, derive from their economic cooperation have decreased compared to the two and a half decades after 1990. Today, bilateral trade between the US and China is no longer a stabilizer that can alleviate political conflicts. Rather, trade disputes are instrumentalized politically, but at the same time could also represent the most easily resolved knot in the complex web of American-Chinese rivalry. In other words, the strategic rivalry between the US and China will have a major impact on international politics for the foreseeable future, even if Washington and Beijing come to an agreement on key trade issues before the upcoming US presidential elections and conclude a corresponding agreement.

Technological dimension

The technological dimension of this rivalry is more decisive. It would outlast a settlement of the trade dispute, if it succeeded. Certainly, the competition between technologies is about absolute and relative profits, about who gets the greater part of the cake immediately and in the longer term, for example by setting technical standards. Technological competition, however, is always of concern from a security point of view. Otherwise, the intensification of competition and the growing mistrust that is now noticeably restricting the exchange and cooperation on technologies cannot be explained. This competition is also combined, as Matthias Schulze and Daniel Voelsen explain, with geopolitical questions in the traditional sense: »Technopolitical spheres of influence, which are established by means of digital products and services, can no longer be understood purely territorial today, but still allow geopolitical ones To operate power projection and to cement international dependencies.

Questions of technology development and use are increasingly combined with political and ideological aspects. They become part of a systemic antagonism or systemic competition that has the internal order as its object: the relationship between state and society, between rulers and rulers. Hilpert goes into this political-ideological dimension, which is part of a global competition between liberal and democratic ideas of society on the one hand and authoritarian ones on the other. In all countries, including Europe, this may initially be an internal dispute, but it is partly determined by the polarization between the USA and China. Obviously, defending democratic values ​​or liberal elements of the world order is not a priority for the incumbent American president. For the Congress, on the other hand, both are in the foreground of the Sino-American rivalry. That is why both chambers are endeavoring, most recently with the passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act in November 2019, to enforce a more decisive government policy in this regard.

The debate in the US is characterized by fears of the rise of China and a possible lapping by the adversary. That is why it may go under that the Chinese elite still feels threatened in their claim to power, as Hilpert explains, namely by liberal values ​​and world views. The fact that China has refuted the liberal expectation hypothesis of the West has not changed that: in Western countries, it was hoped that the rule of law and democratic conditions would arise almost automatically in China when the country develops economically and generates growing prosperity. In fact, while China's development model is successful, liberal values ​​are still extremely attractive, especially to well-educated, young and mobile members of Chinese society. This explains China's nervous view of Hong Kong, the, it seems, exaggerated fear of the Chinese leadership of color revolutions and the extensive efforts to secure their own rule with technological precautions and ideally a harmonious society in Beijing's sense of the word.

As Schulze and Voelsen emphasize, technologies are not value-neutral. Technological competition will be more closely linked to the political-ideological dimension of strategic rivalry, the more technological developments affect fundamental questions of political and social order, be it in data acquisition and use, artificial intelligence or biotechnology. European and German politicians must also grapple with what a large-scale outflow of personal data made possible with the help of Chinese technology investments would mean for the European model of state and society, which is committed to safeguarding individual rights. In addition, it must be critically examined how the development and export of surveillance technology and techniques of social control by Chinese high-tech companies not only help authoritarian and repressive regimes, but also promote the spread of illiberal ideas about governance and society.

Different leadership styles

How far the personal factor, the peculiarities of the presidents in Washington and Beijing, represent a separate dimension of the American-Chinese rivalry is open to discussion. In any case, argues Günther Maihold, the different, but on both sides highly personalized leadership styles of Trump and Xi will help shape further relations between the USA and China. Trump's “transactional” and Xi's internally and externally “transformative” styles are hardly compatible. They tend to undermine what still exists in terms of trust, limit the possibilities of diplomacy and exacerbate bilateral conflicts. Other powers, including the European Union, could gain room for maneuver in individual cases. Primarily, however, they will have to endeavor to limit the damage and to uphold international rules and institutions that are damaged in different ways by both actors.

International effects of rivalry

Even if the conflict or competition constellation described here is understood and in some cases staged as a bilateral rivalry, its significance and its consequences are global: It affects relationships with other powers, influences regional dynamics, even in Europe, and shapes work in international organizations and forums - such as the G20 or the United Nations (UN) and their sub-organizations - and often enough, as Laura von Daniels explains, undermines multilateral institutions. This is particularly clear in the case of the World Trade Organization (WTO), whose rules are being violated by both states and whose functionality is also being weakened by the Trump administration. Especially in its regional environment, China is building new international forums and organizations that correspond to its own Sinocentric conceptions of order. Unlike the USA, however, China is not withdrawing from international and multilateral institutions at any point. Rather, the country is actively trying to expand its influence with the United Nations and its agencies and sub-organizations. This is happening in part, and not least in UN peacekeeping, where China is assuming greater responsibility and higher costs. At the same time, however, it tries to enforce its own political terms and values ​​in the language of the United Nations. For example, under Trump, the United States left the UN Human Rights Council, while China is striving to assert its ideas within the council, for example by relativizing the importance of individual human rights.

The European Union and its member states are directly and indirectly affected by the Sino-American rivalry. Europe's view of China has become more critical, probably more so in Germany than in other EU countries. For Europe, China is no longer just a negotiating partner with different interests and economic competitors, but also a system rival who seeks to spread “alternative governance models”.2 Nevertheless, from a European perspective, China remains an indispensable cooperation partner in overcoming global challenges - primarily, but not exclusively, when it comes to climate protection. Europe cannot be interested in a "decoupling", an extensive cutting of technological or economic ties with China, as is being discussed and in some cases also being prepared in the USA. Like numerous other states and groups of states, Europe will have to evade a bipolar logic according to which it would have to choose between an American and a Chinese economic and technological sphere. Instead, there will be no avoiding forms of long-term interdependence based on real interdependence and common rules. An equidistance to China and the USA, as it is occasionally suggested by interested parties in European debates,3 is, however, not an option: the gap between Europe and China is too wide for that in terms of questions of values, the political system and the rule-based international order. And the ties of the European-American community of values ​​and security are likely to remain much closer in the future than the relations between the USA and the European states with any other international partner.

New strategy for Europe

As Annegret Bendiek and Barbara Lippert underline, Europe will become aware of its own strengths and will have to develop a China policy that is not conceived as a “country strategy” but as part of a comprehensive European strategy of self-assertion, or, in other words, the pursuit of more European sovereignty or strategic autonomy.4 This requires more supranationality or, according to Bendiek and Lippert, a "supranational geopolitics" when dealing with China. Work is already underway on instruments that can underpin a self-confident, prudent China policy, such as a European investment screening complemented by national legislation. The trick is to prepare Europe for tougher competition while strengthening social and technological resilience without weakening cooperative and interdependent relationships. However, such a strategy affects not only the direct relationship with China, but also the international and global profile of Europe as a whole. Many countries and societies in Asia and Africa appreciate China's economic commitment and its "Belt and Road" initiative, but fear one-sided dependencies. The EU's connectivity strategy towards Asia is a sensible approach here. The same applies to the already extensive funds that Europe is making available for African infrastructure, for example through the European Investment Bank. Ultimately, the European states will have to increase their engagement in the United Nations and other multilateral organizations and forums. In the event of doubt, they will have to fill gaps that have been opened up by the disinterest or the withdrawal of the current US administration. This offers the chance to bear witness to the fact that Europe's understanding of multilateralism and international rule-boundness differs fundamentally from sinocentric multi-bilateralism.

Peter Rudolf

The Sino-American world conflict

For international politics, the strategic rivalry between the USA and China harbors the risk of condensing into a complex world conflict with economic and military risk potential that structures international relations.* The great power competition between the two adversaries could create a new "geo-economic world order". The question of the relative distribution of benefits and concerns about the consequences of economic interdependence, which are problematic in terms of security policy, could play a far more important role here than in the last few decades. If economic and security interests are permanently readjusted in light of these aspects, the level of integration could fall, even leading to a kind of deglobalization.

China's rise as a threat to American supremacy

China's rise is widely seen in the US as a threat to its own position of power in the international system. The idea of ​​an unstoppable economic and military rise of China and a relative decline in power of the USA rests on questionable assumptions and projections. Nevertheless, China is the only actor who can threaten the status of the USA as a potential superpower. Shifts in power, it is said, can jeopardize the stability of the international system if the dominant and rising powers are unable to agree on the governance and order of the international system. This suggests the transfer of power theory, which is the subject of lively debates in the USA as well as in China and which has radiated into public discussion in recent years under the keyword "Thucydides Trap". This theory is problematic, its explanatory value disputed. As a framework for interpretation, however, it influences perceptions both in the USA and in China. On the one hand, this interpretation framework sensitizes people to the risks of a transfer of power, on the other hand, this interpretation condenses individual rather regional or local conflicts into a global hegemonic conflict.

On the structure of the American-Chinese conflict syndrome

The American-Chinese conflict syndrome is made up of several elements. Its basis is a regional, but also increasingly global status competition. China's rise in power has sparked fears in the United States of losing its status as the dominant international superpower. States (or the actors that represent them) may strive for status as an end in themselves, as is postulated in socio-psychological approaches. According to this, a high status creates a psychologically satisfying feeling of superiority over other persons or states, and the fear of a loss of status appears to be a threat to one's own identity. But there is also material gain associated with status. In the long term, China threatens not only the US's status as a supreme power, but also the privileges and economic advantages that result from it. It is suspected that China could gain dominant political, economic and technological influence in the world, set rules and standards on a large scale and establish a kind of »illiberal sphere of influence«. In this case, the security and prosperity of the USA would no longer be guaranteed to the same extent as before.

This competition for influence is mixed with an ideological antagonism. Certainly, the human rights situation in China has repeatedly been the cause of irritation in American-Chinese relations. But as long as the rise of China was not perceived as a global challenge and as long as there was hope that China would liberalize itself, the country was not seen in the USA as an ideological antagonist. From the Chinese perspective, this ideological dimension has always been more pronounced, because Western ideas of liberal democracy and freedom of expression threaten the ideological dominance of the Chinese Communist Party. It is to be expected, however, that on the American side the system conflict comes more and more to the fore, a system conflict between, as it is sometimes called, "digital authoritarianism" and "liberal democracy" - it is suitable for sustained domestic political support for one to mobilize economically not cost-free power conflict with China.

Even if the ideological conflict is not the most important layer of conflict, it is to be expected that an increasingly accentuated »ideological difference« will intensify threat perceptions and thus intensify the security dilemma between the USA and China. Since the USA and China have seen each other (again) as potential military opponents since the Taiwan crisis in 1995/96 and are aligning their plans accordingly, the security dilemma is shaping the relationship structure. Both sides are not particularly sensitive to the mutual threats that this creates. Because the antagonists see themselves as defensive, peaceful powers, but assume that the other side has offensive intentions.

Dimensions and dynamics of rivalry

Since China and the USA are potential military opponents and not just status competitors and system antagonists, the relationship between the two can be understood as a complex strategic rivalry. This is particularly pronounced on the maritime periphery of China, dominated by military threats and the American view that China wants to establish an exclusive sphere of influence in East Asia. In the South China Sea, the American claim to free access to the world's oceans collides with the Chinese efforts to establish a safety zone and to thwart the American ability to intervene. The geopolitical conflict over the South China Sea is also intertwined with the nuclear dimension. China seems to be developing this sea into a protected bastion for nuclear armed submarines, with which the country wants to ensure the second strike capability against the USA.

The global competition for influence is closely interwoven with the technological dimension of the American-Chinese rivalry.

Less significant, but nonetheless present, are the perceptions of military threats in the global competition for influence, which now also includes the Arctic. The current administration believes that China's growing economic and political presence around the world is at the expense of the United States. Washington is therefore trying to use incentives and pressure to dissuade other states from expanding economic ties with China.

The global competition for influence is closely interwoven with the technological dimension of the American-Chinese rivalry. It's about technological supremacy in the digital age. This dimension of the conflict is so essential because technological leadership creates global economic competitive advantages and secures the basis for military superiority.

What is emerging in the campaign against Huawei is the departure from the positive sum logic in economic relations with China. As long as Washington did not fear the rise of a strategic rival, economic logic prevailed. In absolute terms, the United States benefited from economic exchanges. It didn't matter that China might have benefited relatively more from it. This economic logic, which is based on absolute benefits, was linked to the expectation that economic interdependence would promote cooperation and stabilize peace. With the feared rise of China to a global strategic rival, economic logic has fallen behind. Under Trump, rhetoric and practice were dominated by the logic of security policy, combined with concerns about the relative distribution of benefits and the view that economic interdependence had negative consequences for the technological basis of military superiority.

consequences

Should the strategic rivalry between the USA and China solidify into a permanent global conflict constellation, this could set in motion a kind of deglobalization and create two orders: one dominated by the USA, the other by China. If the American-Chinese conflict worsens and encourages the bipolarization of the international system, the basis for global multilateralism is likely to dwindle. The US-Chinese world conflict also poses the question of whether, to what extent and under what conditions German and European politicians should support the USA in the dispute with China. Because one thing seems certain: whether President Trump will be re-elected or whether a Democrat will move into the White House in January 2021 - the strategic rivalry with China will leave its mark on American foreign policy.

Washington will probably perceive the world, and thus also Europe, primarily through a "China prism".

Washington will probably perceive the world, and thus also Europe, primarily through a "China prism". This may mean that for the USA, if it is more fixated than before on the Indo-Pacific and the competition for influence with China, crises in Europe and the European periphery will become secondary and the fear of costly entanglements will shape politics in and around Europe. Washington's pressure on its allies to take a stand in the worsening US-Chinese conflict and to take a clear side with the United States is more likely to grow than decrease.

Hanns Günther Hilpert / Gudrun Wacker

Chinese narratives about the United States

The superpower USA has always had a particular fascination with China's political elite, but it has always been a source of uncertainty for them. Given this obsessive fixation on America, political scientist Graham Allison clearly struck a chord when he used the "Thucydides Trap" metaphor for Sino-American relations.5 According to Allison's historical comparative observation, the gain in influence of a rising power inevitably leads to geopolitical power shifts and adjustment processes or even to violent conflicts: What happened in antiquity, as described by Thucydides, between Athens and Sparta, is threatening today in the relationship between China and the USA. Such warnings are in contrast to China's own rhetoric of the country's peaceful rise.

According to China's understanding, its own gain in economic and political importance is nothing more than a resurgence.

From the Chinese point of view, this ascent is natural and inevitable. A frustrated, self-wrangling America, however, according to Beijing's image, tries to maintain its own supremacy by geopolitically containing the People's Republic and hindering its economic, technological and military development. They are convinced that their own success story of the last four decades is not responsible for American weakness, but primarily the hard work and resourcefulness of China's people, the commercial skill of its companies and a clever, far-sighted policy of the Beijing government. and party leadership.

One can only speculate about the actual perception of the USA in China, since official statements and the representation in official media are heavily controlled, academic publications in turn are either subject to self-censorship or are intended to convey certain political messages to the other side. The following are the America-related narratives that can be identified in China's official and published opinion. Posts in social media were also used. In addition, personal conversations with scientists in the country served as a source for some of the opinions presented.

China as "Champion of the South"

From the Chinese point of view, one's own gain in economic and political importance is nothing more than a resurgence. Until the late 18th century, China's per capita income exceeded that of Western Europe and North America, and the Middle Kingdom was the undisputed supremacy of Asia. It was only after western colonialism and imperialism had reached China that the country suffered a 100-year decline and experienced economic exploitation, political humiliation and military invasions ("Century of Humiliation"). Today's view of the USA and the West is correspondingly ambivalent. On the one hand, America is fascinating because of its ability to innovate, its economic strength, its universities, its military capabilities and also its political system; all of this arouses respect and admiration in China. On the other hand, one approaches the West with distance and mistrust in view of one's own painful experience. In addition, Western reputation has suffered severely as a result of the global financial crisis, America's military interventions in the Middle East and Trump's erratic policies.

In spite of its economic successes and its great power status, China still locates itself in the global south. The political leadership still speaks of China as the "largest developing country in the world". The north-south dimension of a global development and power gap between the west and the rest of the world is arguably even more important in the Chinese discourse than the more ideological east-west division. Because China stylizes itself as a representative and frontrunner of the rising economies and the developing countries, not as a systemic opponent of the USA and the West. From this perspective, America sets the standard for modernization. It is important to reduce the gap to the USA and finally to draw level with them in order to make the world fairer and more just. This self-classification modifies, as it were, the triumphalism that always resonates in Beijing's recurring narrative of Chinese ascent and American descent.

An America that stands in the way of China's rise

The People's Republic has always looked at America with deep suspicion. The US was assumed to want to corrupt and transform China internally - like the communist world as a whole - by means of »peaceful evolution«, i.e. infiltration and subversion. From Beijing's point of view, such fears were shockingly confirmed in 1989 with Tiananmen and the collapse of the Soviet empire, which began almost at the same time. Since then, the perception of the USA as an obstacle on China's path to old greatness has been at least a subliminal motif in the discourse of the People's Republic.

From China's point of view, the example of the Soviet Union warns - an open conflict with the USA should therefore be avoided.

The fate of the Soviet Union also shaped the attitude of all subsequent Chinese leadership generations. Open competition or even conflict with the USA was to be avoided, be it in the form of an arms race or through confrontation in other areas. Correspondingly, America's perceived attempts to contain it were countered with rhetoric of cooperation ("win-win") and concepts such as "great power relations of a new type", in which both sides would respect the "national core interests" of the other. While realistic analysts from China see the relationship between ascending and descending powers as an inevitable zero-sum game - according to which one loses as the other wins - they see the governments of China and the United States as being responsible for whether or not a conflict breaks out even to prevent war.6

Beijing's fear that the US would ultimately seek regime change in China was intensified with the so-called color revolutions of the 2000s and the Arab Spring in 2011. In China, one wonders whether the US will support the rise of the People's Republic and its possible leadership role in new technologies ( Artificial Intelligence, 5G) would accept if the country were a democracy based on the Western model. Is the preservation of American supremacy the main interest of the USA - so the consideration - or would it be conceivable for it in certain areas to give up this role if China were to change fundamentally, i.e. to democratize?

A world order dominated by the USA

China's view of the liberal world order after 1945 and the values ​​and institutions that support it is also ambivalent. This order and the process of globalization based on it made it possible for China to industrialize and modernize itself through market opening and market economy reform, to largely eradicate absolute poverty and to gain international power and status. But ultimately, from the Chinese perspective, the liberal Western system remains a manifestation of American hegemony. In Beijing, one does not expect that the USA will grant the People's Republic a right to have a say in this system that would be appropriate to the economic and political weight of the country.7 It is believed that America and the West will never voluntarily give China more influence internationally.According to this, the role of a “responsible stakeholder”, as the then US Deputy Foreign Minister Robert Zoellick of Beijing first called for it in 2005, would primarily strengthen America's claim to hegemony - but it would not benefit China's economic development and certainly not the country's political rise. In any case, it is interpreted in the People's Republic as a hegemonic discourse when the West advocates a liberal world order and the universal validity of human rights.

The US under Donald Trump

Donald Trump's election as US President in 2016 was officially welcomed in China; scientific assessments were cautiously optimistic about the prospects for bilateral relations. Although Trump had used anti-China rhetoric in the election campaign, it was believed to be a familiar pattern. Earlier candidates for the American presidency (Carter, Reagan, Clinton, Bush Jr.) had portrayed China as a competitor and opponent in the election campaign. After taking office, the new US administration sooner or later always found its way back to a pragmatic and cooperative policy towards Beijing. Trump was also assumed to be able to create a stable working basis with him as a businessman. Officially and in press comments, the reaction to Trump's attacks was cautious (except for the Taiwan question). There was also little public criticism of his competence and leadership style. Even in China's social media, initial reactions to Trump's election victory were cautiously positive. He was characterized predominantly as an unorthodox personality, and his refusal to be politically correct was perceived as refreshing.8

In China today it is openly admitted that the threat posed by Trump was underestimated.

In the meantime, deep disillusionment seems to have set in.9 It is openly admitted that they underestimated Trump's unpredictability, his potential for escalation and the dangers he poses for China's growth. The President's trade policy allegations against the People's Republic are rejected as unfounded, insubstantial and illegitimate.10 In the nationalist Global Times it is now bluntly said that the USA has switched to a course of containment vis-à-vis China, which is manifested, among other things, in Washington's Indo-Pacific strategy.11 But the sheet also demonstrates new self-confidence. Containment of China is no longer possible, and if it is attempted, it will do more harm to America. But even that Global Times does not consistently fuel a confrontational stance towards the US. Rather, she is cautiously optimistic that a solution will be found in the trade dispute. A new Cold War is "unrealistic".12 In official and published reports, the prevailing tenor is that in view of the bilateral tensions in the economic field, both sides must seek a compromise in order not to harm themselves. On the other hand, skeptics warn that with a President Trump a permanently reliable trade peace will not be possible.

Official statements and media reports are extremely critical when it comes to the recent protests in Hong Kong. The US is under severe attack on this issue; the American Congress and the CIA are accused of supporting the riots not only verbally but also financially. Here the narrative comes into play again, the USA tried to weaken the Chinese system and ultimately to achieve a regime change in Beijing. Because with Hong Kong, "core national interests" such as China's territorial integrity are at stake.

Back to the Future?

China's American observers are divided when it comes to assessing the further development of the Sino-American relationship. One camp hopes that both sides will return to pragmatic and constructive relationships, be it through reaching an agreement with Trump on the trade dispute or by being voted out of office. Another camp interprets the change in American China policy as permanent and structural. Accordingly, there is a non-partisan consensus in the USA that will determine the bilateral relationship for the foreseeable future ("no turning back").13 More reform-minded scholars from China perceive the leverage used by the Trump administration as counterproductive because they hardened the defensive stance in China's leadership. From this point of view, it is particularly harmful to the reform forces when the system is attacked in such a fundamental way.

This is indirectly confirmed when official media write that the ongoing trade disputes have strengthened China's determination to defy US face-off methods and defend its own rights and interests. Chinese observers of the economic conflict also point to the opportunities that the People's Republic would create beyond the loss of trade and growth. America’s technology boycott could accelerate China’s striving for autonomy in this field. In addition, Beijing's role at the global level has benefited from the fact that Washington pursues a destructive trade policy directed against the World Trade Organization (WTO) and has withdrawn from a number of international organizations and agreements.14

A differentiated perception of Europe

China's view of Europe is less marked by extremes. Geographically located on the opposite side of the Eurasian major continent, it is indeed a core component of the West and a political ally of the USA. From the Chinese point of view, however, Europe is hardly seen as a hindrance to their own advancement compared to America, and even as rather useful. In addition, China acknowledges that Europe is committed to maintaining multilateralism and a liberal world order and, for its part, has political and economic problems with the Trump administration.

In the face of Trump's attacks on the international order, China likes to profile itself as a defender of multilateralism.

In the face of Trump's disruptive attacks on the international order, China likes to profile itself as a defender of multilateralism; It is also an ideal alliance partner for other countries. But Germany and Europe shouldn't be blinded by Beijing's rhetoric. In fact, China opportunistically violates multilateral rules as soon as its own interests dictate. In its foreign trade policy, the country disregards the fundamental WTO principles of non-discrimination and transparency, just as it disregarded the judgment of the International Court of Arbitration in the territorial dispute with the Philippines, which was unfavorable for the People's Republic. In any case, there is a fundamental difference between the European and the Chinese understanding of multilateralism.15

Marco Overhaus / Peter Rudolf / Laura von Daniels

The perception of China in the USA

A consensus critical of China has developed in Washington over the past 15 years, which includes both parties in Congress as well as a broad spectrum of economic and social actors. China's policies in the South China Sea, perceived as aggressive, the mercantilist economic practices, the authoritarian hardening - all of this has changed the image of the country in the USA for the worse.

Closely related to this is the view that the engagement approach pursued by the USA since the policy change of the Nixon administration in 1972 has failed. This view was summed up in the Trump administration's first National Security Strategy from 2017: “For decades, US politics was rooted in the conviction that support for China's rise and for its integration into the international post-war order would liberalize China . "16 The associated hope that China will develop into a “responsible stakeholder”, as the then Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick put it in 2005, has, according to almost unanimous opinion, been dashed in Washington.17

From the US perspective, China is no longer just a regional, but a global challenge.

China's rise is increasingly seen in the USA as a threat to its own position of power in the international system. In the relevant strategy documents of the Trump administration, China is portrayed as a thoroughly revisionist power that strives for regional hegemony in the Indo-Pacific region and wants to achieve global supremacy in the long term.

Several factors have contributed to the fact that the fundamental mood critical of China has solidified in the US political system in recent years.18 China's rise and the accompanying gain in power and influence in more and more political areas and regions of the world have increased fears and defensive reflexes in the USA. These received additional nourishment from President Xi Jinping's inwardly authoritarian, outwardly nationalist course.

In terms of American domestic politics, China is an excellent enemy for Donald Trump's agenda and campaign slogans. But actors beyond the Trump camp also see their chance to hold China responsible for deindustrialization and other economic or social problems in the USA, even if they arise partly from national failures and partly from technological changes.

Normative, security policy and economic dimensions of criticism of China

The US's critical view of China has normative, security and economic dimensions. The normative dimension - the threat to human rights and democratic values ​​from China - has been at the center of the US debate since the bloody suppression of the student movement on Tiananmen Square in 1989. Human rights groups, which traditionally have a difficult stand against the China lobby in the American economy, see their concerns confirmed as Beijing is expanding the surveillance state and setting up so-called re-education camps in the autonomous region of Xinjiang.19 For example, the human rights situation in China has led to bipartisan initiatives in Congress that are intended to induce the US administration to react to the repression against the Uyghurs, for example through sanctions against Chinese party officials.20

In the form of the Democratic Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, democracy and human rights groups also have a powerful supporter in Congress today. Pelosi links her demand for a tough economic course vis-à-vis China, which also includes import tariffs, with the human rights issue.21

At the beginning of the 2000s, the security policy dimension of the rivalry between the USA and China became increasingly important. Since the National Security Strategy of 2002, several US administrations have made the modernization of the Chinese military a priority.22 Initially it was mainly feared that China would sooner or later intimidate its US allies in the neighborhood, especially South Korea and Japan, but the country is now seen as a global security threat. This is also due to the fact that, in the eyes of American actors, the economic and security components of the rivalry with China are increasingly merging. This view is expressed, for example, in the fact that the Pentagon, in its annual report on China's military power, considers its investments in security-relevant areas and views it extremely critically. This primarily concerns investments in technologies that have a military use. The Pentagon is also concerned about investments in foreign infrastructure, which China is making as part of the Belt and Road initiative and which bring the country strategic advantages, for example through the expansion of ports.23

Much of the US private sector shares the Trump administration's criticism of "predatory" economic practices in China. The Americans see government subsidies for Chinese companies, the forced technology transfer by foreign companies and the unsanctioned theft of intellectual property as particularly problematic. However, not all companies and industries support Trump's protectionist tariff policy and the tough economic line against China.

The president continues to receive support from sectors of the economy that have come under increased competitive pressure in the past due to cheap foreign imports, such as steel and aluminum producers. Companies that are already negatively affected, either directly or indirectly, are resisting Trump's economic escalation policy, be it through import tariffs on intermediate products or counter-tariffs from China and other trading partners. This applies to US importers, for example retailers, as well as to more and more export-oriented companies such as agricultural producers, automotive groups and digital companies.

After Trump threatened to noticeably increase tariffs again in two stages by the end of 2019, criticism from US companies, from the Republicans in Congress and from the unions, soared that the President could no longer ignore them.24 Instead of imposing new tariffs, the US government is currently declaring that it has agreed a limited "phase 1 agreement" with China,25 the further agreement and a mutual tariff dismantling could follow. A renewed escalation in the trade war would be averted for the time being. However, caution is still advised with Trump, who has declared himself a "tariff man".

As far as the geographic dimension of the Sino-American conflict is concerned, Washington now sees China as a threat to American and Western interests in regions that lie outside the Indo-Pacific "core area" of this power rivalry. This basically applies to Africa and the Middle East, but is currently most evident in the Arctic. The USA not only fear a battle for resources there, but also the development of a Chinese military presence.26

The Congress in the China Debate

In China policy, Congress is a factor that supports and strengthens the hard line of the administration rather than moderating it. That goes for both parties.27 Leading Democrats in the US Congress and almost all Democratic candidates for the 2020 presidential election are propagating a similar policy to China as President Trump, even if they criticize his style of politics via tweet and accuse him of neglecting his allies in Asia and Europe. For example, the leader of the Democratic minority in the US Senate, Chuck Schumer, declared in May 2019: "We have to have tough, strong policies against China, otherwise they will continue to steal millions of American jobs and trillions of American dollars."28

On the one hand, the initiatives and bills of the Congress reflect the changed mood that prevails in society, business and politics about dealing with China. On the other hand, politicians from both parties with their statements critical of China had already had a major impact on the mood in society before the Trump administration took office.

The President and Congress have taken a tough line on China, but are at odds over the means of confrontation.

Between the Trump administration on the one hand and the two parties in Congress on the other, positions differ on the question of which means are best suited to the dispute with China. Republicans and Democrats alike criticize the president for threatening tariffs and other measures, alienating economic and security allies in Europe and Asia, thereby weakening America's hand against China. Against the background of the looming election campaign in the USA, the Democrats are particularly vocal in this criticism.

Opinions between the administration and Congress also differ on Trump's preferred instrument vis-à-vis China, the unilaterally imposed import tariffs. As in the private sector, concerns about the negative effects of the trade conflict with China are growing in both political parties, especially for American consumers and the agricultural sector. With the presidential and congressional elections approaching in November 2020, the Trump administration and Republicans are at risk of being penalized for customs policy at the ballot box. For example, Senate Republican majority leader Mitch McConnell said the trade conflict could harm the US.29

Even before the last congressional elections in November 2018, democratic candidates spoke out against protectionist tariffs in those congressional districts where agriculture is of great importance.Even though most of the democratic presidential candidates basically support the unyielding attitude of the president towards China, here too the "tariffs by tweet" approach is viewed critically by parts of the Democratic Party.

Trump's campaign advisors are reportedly keeping a very close eye on how the Democratic presidential candidates position themselves in China policy. Politically, it is in Trump's interest to demonstrate a hard line in the looming election campaign with continued economic sanctions or their threat. Due to the general mood that is critical of China, it would not be politically opportune for Trump if at the end of the economic negotiations there were a compromise that could be criticized as weak in the interests of America.30 Political incentives to oppose the basic mood that is critical of China and to paint the threat from China in other than dark colors are only available if the economic situation deteriorates significantly before the 2020 US elections.31

Beyond the "hard" areas of economy and security policy, a new concern of this kind is spreading in the USA about the Chinese influence on society and politics, be it through the Confucius Institutes, be it through Chinese grants or investments in think tanks, universities , Media and business.32 Congress picked up on this mood with a number of hearings and legislative initiatives, including the Foreign Influence and Transparency Act and the Countering Foreign Propaganda Act.33 Concern about the Chinese influence is paired with fear of espionage.34 This anti-Chinese mood in politics and business has rubbed off on public opinion against the background of the trade conflicts.35

Moderate voices are ignored in Washington

In this respect, those foreign policy and China experts who draw attention to the dangers of a predominantly confrontational policy, who by no means assess the previous China policy as a failure and who try to counteract a narrowing of the discourse are politically marginalized. An open letter to the President and Congress, initiated by some China experts and signed by around 100 other people, including many who were involved in China in previous administrations, expresses a fundamental unease about developments in China policy. They strongly advise against treating China as an "economic enemy or an existential national security threat." They consider the administration and Congress to be exaggerated that China will replace the USA as the leading global power, if it sees this as a realistic or worthwhile goal at all.36

Representatives of this position, a kind of “smart competition”, warn against giving up any cooperation with China and trying to prevent Chinese gains in influence everywhere. The previous American policy, with its mixture of cooperation, deterrence and pressure, was overall successful from this perspective. In their opinion, however, it needs a correction, a change in the mix in favor of pressure and deterrence, in order to respond to China's more mercantilist economic policy and its growing will to assert itself in foreign policy.37

In the interests of German and European interests, it would be desirable if the American critics of a one-sided China policy based on confrontation could make themselves heard more in Washington. A US policy that weighs cooperative and confrontational approaches more carefully against one another would also reduce the pressure on Berlin and other European capitals to have to choose between the USA and China in almost all relevant areas.

Michael Paul / Marco Overhaus

Security and Security Dilemmas in Sino-US Relations

A military conflict between the US and China would have far-reaching regional and global implications. Both Beijing and Washington claim for themselves fundamentally defensive intentions, while they assume that the other side has an aggressive policy.38 In the administration and in the US Congress, the prevailing view today is that China - like Russia - is a "revisionist power" that seeks to push back the dominance of the USA and undermine the rule-based international order.

Unlike Russia, however, the United States believes that China has the political, economic and, increasingly, military means to expand its influence globally. Beijing, on the other hand, accuses the US of wanting to hold down China and curb its rise. The historical experience of vulnerability and the "century of humiliation" (1840–1949) shape the strategic culture of China to this day and are an important element of Chinese nationalism, which unites nation and party.

Against this background, the relations between the USA and China show the characteristics of a classic security dilemma: the individual striving for more security ultimately creates more uncertainty on both sides. To make matters worse, an ascending power meets an established power.

The perspective of Beijing

China sees itself in a geopolitical environment that is one of the most difficult in the world. The country lacks the "island" security of the USA.39 There are 14 neighboring states on the 22,000-kilometer Chinese land border, four of which are nuclear armed, namely Russia, India and Pakistan, as well as the erratic dictatorship in North Korea. There are six more neighboring states along the coastline, which extends for more than 18,000 kilometers, and the upstream US armed forces are also stationed there. The People's Republic has peacefully resolved many border conflicts over the past few decades. However, the rise of China to a great power also creates new, complex security problems.

Beijing countered the historic humiliation of China by foreign powers with the promise of new strength.

China pursues an ambitious foreign policy and is equipping its armed forces to meet the security needs of state and party. Growing prosperity in the country is a development goal of the Communist Party. Political stability therefore also depends to a large extent on maritime trade routes, which are to be secured with the help of naval armaments. But military armament is increasingly at odds with the official rhetoric of a peaceful development path. As a military power, China is now far superior to other states in the region. The well-equipped military enables Beijing to pursue an increasingly robust foreign policy, which is of great concern to neighboring Asian states and the USA. This can be seen, for example, in the fact that Japan now regards China as the most pressing security threat, even ahead of North Korea.

The Chinese leadership cultivates the idea of ​​the country's role as a victim and justifies it historically with the humiliation by foreign powers. Beijing is countering this role with a promise of new strength, both to foreign countries and to its own people. From this point of view, even taking possession of the South China Sea seems justified, because here too China sees itself as a victim of historical events. It therefore invokes a moral exceptionalism with which it even legitimizes the illegal appropriation of territory.

Map 1