In early October, US Vice President Mike Pence delivered a China-bashing speech at the Hudson Institute. Observers say his speech may be indicating a looming new Cold War. How does Pence’s speech bear on US policy on China? Global Times (GT) reporter Hu Jinyang recently talked with Yan Xuetong (Yan), Dean of the Institute of International Studies, Tsinghua University, on the issues.
Photo: Li Hao/GT
GT: Some people found similarities between Pence’s speech and the Iron Curtain address delivered by Winston Churchill in 1946. What’s your take?
Yan: Churchill’s speech is not the reason why the Cold War started, but the symbol of it. The National Security Strategy (NSS) document released by the administration of US President Donald Trump in December 2017 concluded for the first time that strategic competition between major powers has become the centerpiece of international strategic conflict and defined China as the primary rival of the US. The NSS report is more important a hallmark than Pence’s speech which just elaborated the key ideas in the former.
I believe the current bipolarization will result in a bipolar configuration that differs from the Cold War. It’s an uneasy peace – people always worry a head-on war will break out between powers, but it won’t.
Pence made such a speech on the one hand to win votes for the Trump administration in upcoming midterm elections since negative views of China have become mainstream in US society since March; on the other, he expected to garner more public support for Trump’s China policy which is considered unprofessional by many Americans.
GT: Days after Pence’s speech, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during his trip to China that the US has no intention to block China, nor does it have any policy to completely contain China. What do you think of the two senior US officials’ diverging remarks?
Yan: The US started making a new China policy no later than mid-November last year, probably before Trump’s trip to China that was wrapped up on November 10.
Pence’s address is actually carrying out the basic principle guiding policy after an overview of US-China relations, not starting crystallization. And literally Pompeo is right about what he said because Washington is still working on its specific policy about completely containing China and will probably not use the word “contain” when the policy comes out later.
In this sense Pence and Pompeo are not in conflict over what they said. Pence focused on the principle direction of US policy on China while Pompeo referred to the details.
GT: Was Pence’s tone different from previous administrations when he mentioned Taiwan several times in the speech? Will there be a steep increase in the risk of war over Taiwan?
Yan: Upon his election victory Trump had demonstrated a gesture backing Taiwan independence through a variety of actions. He had a phone conversation with Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen, said the US didn’t necessarily have to stick to the one-China policy, sent US Navy ships to sail through Taiwan Straits the day after Washington threatened to levy additional tariffs on Chinese imports, to name a few.
It makes no sense to prove by any means that Trump doesn’t dare to support Taiwan independence. What’s unclear is how fast his backing for Taiwan independence will ratchet up and how far Washington will go in restoring military alliance with Taiwan.
Despite the uncertainty about Trump, it’s certain that he doesn’t dare to launch a nuclear war. He abandoned the initial idea of military attacks on North Korea for fear of Pyongyang’s limited nuclear capability and would not risk a direct war with China. He wants Taiwan independence through peaceful ways. As Beijing now upholds a peaceful reunification across the Taiwan Straits, there would be no risk of war over Taiwan during Trump’s tenure.
GT: Some scholars think China-US competition now only runs high in fields like trade and technology, with no risks in traditional military security, political arena and diplomacy. How do you think of this?
Yan: We certainly hope the China-US strategic conflict can be confined to sectors of trade and technology, but this depends on what strategic choices the two sides make.
So far there appears to be a high probability that the conflict will spread to military and security spheres. The US withdrew the invitation to China to attend the Rim of the Pacific exercise in May, bolstered military cooperation with Taiwan and imposed sanctions on a Chinese general involved in military cooperation with Russia.
The East Asia hotspot is no longer the North Korean nuclear issue, but it is increasingly shifting to Taiwan and the South China Sea. Yet although Sino-US military conflicts will rise inescapably, the possibility of a direct war remains low due to their possession of nuclear weapons.
What worries me most is that the two countries’ strategic competition may expand from security to ideology and by then there will spring up the danger of proxy wars.
GT: Trump seems not to plan to unite US allies toward his goals and has instead irked them. Why did he do this?
Yan: We need to fully assess Trump’s unorthodox leadership that differs from his predecessors. It is a typical Trump that doesn’t rely on allies in strategic competition.
His leading the US to be at odds with its allies bears a similarity to China’s insistence on non-alliance principle because the two nuclear-armed states see a near zero possibility of war breaking out between them and hence think a military alliance is unnecessary. After all, there is a cost of maintaining an alliance.
Trump’s strategy of taking on China on its own has presented opportunities for Beijing. Since 1989 China has come under collective pressure from US allies. As the US’ relations with its allies have deteriorated, China sees less such pressure during its rise. This factor overtakes the negative impact of Trump’s confrontational policy on China.
Since Trump took office, China’s relations with US allies including Japan have generally improved. Actually I think China is seeing the best strategic opportunity since the end of Cold War. People who only focus on Sino-US ties would think the current situation is unfavorable for China but those who look beyond Sino-US relations would think otherwise.
GT: Will intensified competition between China and the US last for a long period? Are there any positive factors in Sino-US relations?
Yan: Former US President Barack Obama adopted the rebalancing of Asia-Pacific strategy in 2010 with the aim of balancing or countering China’s rise. Since then, Sino-US relations have been defined by competition rather than cooperation, though some people are reluctant to admit that competition is the nature of a relationship between a rising power and a hegemon. And it remains so in 2018, just with the US-China competition getting fiercer. Trump has acted more rudely than Obama in countering China, making it harder to deny that competition underlies their bilateral relations.
As China’s economic growth slows down, it will take longer time to narrow the gap in its national strength with the US and see the result of the strategic competition between the two.
Historically, once a bipolar configuration takes shape, it will last for 20 years or more. I therefore predict that China-US strategic competition will not end in 10 years.
With a harsh tone on China, Pence’s speech however concluded with willingness for cooperation. The stark contradiction indicates there are still positive elements in bilateral relations.
In times of globalization, the US is unable to completely break its ties with China, as it did with the Soviet Union. The US still needs China’s cooperation on global issues like nuclear non-proliferation, anti-terrorism and crackdown on international crime.
It still needs to keep high-level exchanges with China, attract Chinese tourists and property buyers, import Chinese goods and enroll Chinese students who pay expensive tuition fee or work as teaching assistants on science subjects. This will create conditions for us to stabilize bilateral ties through more opening up.
We need to draw upon the experiences of Deng Xiaoping in breaking Western blockage against China in the early 1990s – more opening of all sectors. This will not only help win the trade war with the US, but bring early success in China’s rise.
In the information era, internet is crucial in strategic competition between major powers. Thus more internet freedom will considerably improve China’s strategic competitiveness.