If China Forgoes Hegemony, Will the World Cease to Struggle?

By Chang Teng-chi

China Times, July 30, 2021


The Tianjin "meeting" between Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman of the United States went through a series of twists and turns; the reluctant encounter yielded very limited results.


First, Sherman was already en route to Japan and South Korea, with the United States threatening to cancel the stop with China in response to the proposed meeting counterpart, Vice Foreign Minister Xie, who was not seen as an appropriate candidate. Then, both sides took a step back, with China nominating Wang for the meeting. The U.S. press release stated that Sherman would meet State Councilor Wang Yi "and other officials." The actual arrangement was for Wang Yi to "meet" in the reception room and give the United States a refresher course and a bottom line, while Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng would hold the “talks" in the conference room with a list of topics as arranged.


During the meeting, Sherman directly raised the issues of "genocide" in Xinjiang, democracy in Hong Kong, the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea, Chinese cyber-attacks, and cooperation with the Wuhan “lab leak” investigation — hard-line Trump area ideas making a reappearance in Tianjin. 


Wang Yi and Xie Feng responded that any country has the right to choose the appropriate path to pursue modernization, a stance in-line with conscience and justice. China, as a beneficiary of the world order as structured by the United Nations, has no stake in whether the United States wins or loses nor does it harbor a desire to “replace the United States." The foundation of Wang and Xie's position holds firm to "not making life difficult for each other" and a belief that "the Pacific Ocean is sufficient for both to co-exist” as Chinese President Xi Jinping said years ago. In other orders, China is "leveling the playing field" with the United States.


In fact, before Sherman’s visit, the United States and China were not actively building up to the talks. The departure of Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai in June downgraded U.S.-China relations to the level of Chargé d'affaires. Following the U.S. military plane carrying three senators to visit Taiwan last month, two more American military planes landed in Songshan Airport this month. Before Sherman’s departure, Lithuania agreed to establish a "Taiwan Representative Office," a development “welcomed” by the United States. Furthermore, it was frequently reported that American and British aircraft carriers have been planning to conduct naval exercises around China.


At the same time, media rumors have sprung up around 200 newly built Chinese intercontinental missile silos. The Chinese side has also countered the World Health Organization's change of heart to pursue "laboratory leaks" and started calls for an investigation into U.S. flu cases in the fall of 2019 and the alleged links to the Fort Detrick Biological Laboratory. 


In fact, before the Tianjin talks, U.S.-China relations had hit rock bottom; the goal of the talks could only optimistically be said to simply keep the two sides “in contact.”  


The mainland Chinese media reported that Sherman’s agreement to "continue the one-China policy and not to support Taiwan independence" is one of the very few "guardrails" that the two countries have reluctantly set up—at least to avoid triggering a war. However, China and the United States still have full agendas for the coming year and it is unlikely that policy makers will show weakness at this juncture.


In the medium to long term, there are allusions to the waxing and waning of power between the United States and China, parallels to the "Sputnik moment" or the "Pearl Harbor moment." The former was the successful launch of a satellite by the Soviet Union in 1957, sparking fear in the United States that the country was falling behind in the arms and space race. The latter was when Japan, dominating the Pacific Theater of World War II, "fired the first shot" in response to U.S. trade pressures and led to a Japanese justification for declaring war. The underlying logic behind these two "moments'' is that there cannot exist two suns in the sky or no hegemons in the oceans. For the new paradigms of Michael Pillsbury, Miles Yu, and Rush Doshi who replaced Henry Kissinger and Richard Bush: an "equal view" under the sovereignty system is only a pleasantry and “multipolar coexistence” a bad habit in European diplomatic history that cannot be taken seriously.


President Joe Biden is still a disciple of old school of diplomacy, but those in the Donald Trump camp look on covetously, pushing the "guardrails” to assert pressure on China—the military-industrial complex and the diplomatic upstarts may be inching toward their own "Pearl Harbor." At the same time, what is happening in Afghanistan and Iraq? Are the allies really ready? Many issues are still in play and demand attention.  


For China, the past century has brought about transformation not only in the apparent power balance between the United States and China but also a change in economic and social governance. If Zhengzhou had not transformed itself into a “sponge city,” casualties from the recent floods would hardly be in the hundreds. Other systemic issues come in the form of monopolies caused by the rough development of capital, holding the ruling party hostage and the endangering of capital security. These problems can no longer be solved by Deng Xiaoping's "theory of getting rich first".


Some scholars believe that in order to defend against Washington, China's per capita gross domestic product (GDP) must be at least half that of the United States. Of course, it also cannot continue to rely on foreign capital and must turn to domestic circulation. However, unless “peace is driven to desperation,” it ought not to “build while engaged in battle.” To resist the temptation of a "Pearl Harbor" moment, China cannot rely solely on party discipline and legal constraints, but also on "leadership." In this regard, China's rejection of the supreme hegemony and its advocacy of a club-like international order in which the old and the new coexist is not only a rational choice, but also in line with the ancient wisdom: "If one does not compete, no one can compete with him.” 


(The author is a professor of political science at National Taiwan University.)


From: https://www.chinatimes.com/newspapers/20210730000500-260109

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