Ambassador He Yafei, a high-ranking former Chinese diplomat currently affiliated with a Beijing think-tank, warned recently that in the absence of any official strategic dialogue between the United States and China, tensions between the two countries could escalate.
“Unfortunately, the political environment prevailing in the U.S., especially during the election year, is not conducive to such an approach,” he said. “Let us keep our fingers crossed. Maybe after the election, we could possibly restart such a dialogue.”
Amb. He was speaking during a pathbreaking “public dialogue” session held in mid-October by Just World Educational (JWE), the small US non-profit that I head. (The full video, audio, and transcript of the hour-long conversation can be accessed here.) Pairing with Amb. He in the dialogue was Dr. Michael Swaine, a longtime expert on Chinese strategic affairs who heads the East Asia program at Washington DC’s Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
For his part, Amb. He is currently a senior fellow with the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Beijing’s Renmin University, which is JWE’s partner in organizing the public dialogue project.
Amb. He previously served as counselor of the Chinese permanent mission to the United Nations and Vice Minister of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He participated in our dialogue—which covered a range of both historical and current aspects of the US-China balance—from Guangzhou, China.
Near the beginning of our public dialogue session, Amb. He said he did not see China and the United States as engaged in any kind of contest that resembles the Cold War that marked Washington’s tense relations with the former Soviet Union from the 1940s through 1990.
“I believe it is highly debatable to say there is a cold war… between the U.S. and China.,” he said. “I do not believe so. Though there are many issues of concern, tension, and even some confrontations… China has made it very clear at the highest level that it will not seek hegemony or spheres of inference, will not engage in a cold or hot war, as President Xi pronounced at the recent UN General Assembly debate.”
He noted that the close intertwining of the two countries’ economies—which, he said, “has brought enormous benefits in the last four decades to the two countries and their peoples”—is another essential difference between US-China relations and the situation during the historic Cold War.
Dr. Swaine agreed with Amb. He that the now decades-long linkage between the two countries’ economies is one of the key differences between the current US-China situation and the earlier Cold War.
For his part, Amb. He noted that current efforts by the U.S. administration to decouple the two economies, “will no doubt hurt both economies deeply.”
He warned that,
The pandemic this year has accelerated major powers’ strategic competition, both in scope and depth, increased the risks of geopolitical conflicts, sparking possible confrontation in South China Sea, or as we have seen, trade wars and technological decoupling. Essential cooperation to the provision of global commons in support of a functional global governance system, unfortunately, is failing and fading fast with more intense geopolitical entanglements between the two…
I can see clearly the U.S. anxiety, or strategic anxiety, over the balance of power shift in general, and between the U.S. and China in particular, is pulling its foreign policy to the extreme, almost on the verge of a precipice of deadly confrontation with its locked-on major strategic competitors, including China.
The emerging decoupling between the U.S. and China, especially in high tech field, is particularly worrying, worrying to me and to many others. Though, I will say it is not yet certain that decoupling has a solid consensus among the whole society of the United States. It certainly would not be a full reality very soon.
The Chinese specialist noted that the situation was very different during the historic Cold War, since in those days “the two blocs were economically separate, with no or little trade between them.”
Regarding the present, he stated that, “China has expressed its determination to refuse to be forced into decoupling, refuse to be forced into a cold war or hot war.”
He identified other key differences between the two eras existing at the military and ideological levels:
China is not exporting its model. China has no military bases outside of China. It’s not seeking military confrontation worldwide. But that was the case during the cold war between the U.S. and USSR. They were deeply engaged in worldwide military rivalry and confrontation, even though it was carried out through proxy wars because, you know, both of them had huge stockpiles of nuclear weapons, and because of the MAD [mutually assured destruction] theory, known to all. Certainly, no such rivalry existing between China and United States.
As for ideological competition and it is true, I will say, China believes in its own path of development and its own political system that proves to be quite effective and beneficial to China’s people, and it has been universally accepted by its people over many, many decades. So it is highly unlikely to find another country that can claim to be politically stable, socially coherent, economically viable nowadays. This made me proud, too.
For his part, Dr. Swaine agreed with many of Amb. He’s judgments on the differences between the historic Cold War era and the present situation between Washington and Beijing. But he also noted an additional factor:
whether both nations like it or not, both the U.S. and China must cooperate deeply to deal with an array of highly challenging transnational threats that did not exist during the U.S.-Soviet cold war, especially, as we know, climate change and pandemics, which we are now both experiencing. As we’ve already seen, their failures, both on the part of the United States and China to some extent to really address these two challenges in a major way is damaging to everyone.
At some points in our public dialogue, the two experts expressed some disagreements with each other. For example, at one point, Dr. Swaine argued that,
China in recent years has in some ways reduced its power and influence in my view. Although it’s more overall, more influential on the world stage, I think it’s also tarnished its own image among most developed countries and even some developing countries because of its more repressive domestic policies under President Xi Jinping… and because of its sometimes ham-fisted diplomacy overseas regarding disputes with its neighbors, some influence activities in places like Australia and in some of its loan assistance to other countries.
Like the U.S., China can appear at times arrogant, excessively selfish and intolerant of the interests of others… And I would say that for most democratic countries, it’s certainly not a terribly attractive model for a political system or development. And I’d say its handling of COVID, although I would say better than that of the United States, has nonetheless been somewhat of a mixed picture.
So I’d say that while the level of China’s hard power has increased notably, its soft power in some ways has diminished in recent years.
Amb. He expressed clear, but collegial, disagreement on that point: “I would say soft power about China or on the part of China actually grows to be a bit stronger or even stronger than before. This is not due to the export of China models, because China does not do that. This is due to the attractiveness of what China has achieved through its unique set of economic development or economic growth model, and its supporting political institutions and systems.”
The conversation between these two experts (that I felt honored to be a part of) addressed a total of four topics. Among them: they dove in some depth into the complex military-political interaction their two countries engage in, in the South China Sea; and they assessed the possibility of their countries finding themselves in what Harvard political scientist Graham Allison has called a “Thucydides Trap”—that is, a situation in which a deep change in the power balance between two consequential countries can be a situation of instability or even conflict.
Both experts agreed that China and the United States are not inexorably “destined” for war. Both sides, Dr. Swaine said,
have ample reason to avoid conflict. Neither views its security as dependent on the destruction or the major weakening of the other side—at least not yet. In other words, neither [poses] a genuinely existential threat to the other. Both have nuclear weapons, both are heavily engaged economically with one another and depend on a larger global economic system for their prosperity. So the imperative is to avoid backing one another into a corner with little easy escape and avoid inflating the stakes involved in any one encounter.
This means that the U.S. needs to be careful about what defines and challenges its credibility, and China needs to be careful about what defines and challenges its legitimacy in nationalist terms and especially over sovereignty issues. Both countries need to be aware of these high-stakes threats that the other could pose to it.
Now more broadly, this means that the U.S. needs to develop a reasonable and stable alternative to its past dominance in Asia, and China needs to work with the U.S. to do the same, avoiding its own search for dominance. And in the process, reduce the likelihood of misperception of actions and avoid overreacting. China could overreact thinking its legitimacy is challenged and that its leverage and commitment is in a test of will, and that it’s greater than what it actually thinks it is. And the U S could overreact, thinking that it must disabuse China and others of its loss of any credibility towards its position in Asia.
Amb. He responded, “I don’t believe in the inevitability of the Thucydides Trap, whereby two major powers are doomed to confrontation. I don’t think U.S.- China today, their relationship is going into a full confrontation. This is not inevitable, not doomed.”
Earlier in the conversation, he had talked about, “what we’ve called ‘the great convergence’” which, he said, had been
the historical hallmark of the second part of the last century and also the first two decades of this century, with a large number of emerging markets and developing countries growing economically and politically—in particular, China with its achievements of opening up and reform in the last four decades…
The sweeping globalization and ensuing free movement of goods, services, people and information globally has produced numerous miracles in wealth accumulation and economic growth with ever greater connectivity among countries and individuals demonstrated in a dense and highly interconnected global supply chains and various social networks.
Now, in the discussion about the Thucydides Trap, he said,
The ‘great convergence’, the historical background that we have seen… does not indicate the incumbent power—in this case, the United States—is a waning power. It is still the dominant power. And on the other side, the rising power in this case, China is not really challenging the dominant position the U.S. enjoyed for several decades. Maybe in the minds of some U.S. politicians or strategists, but it’s not the reality.
He noted, though, that the global shifts of recent decades
will naturally give rise to certain changes in international systems and the global governance architecture. For instance, it will give more voice, a better voice, a greater voice, to developing countries in general and China in particular, when addressing the challenges of global importance, such as climate change, the shift in global supply chain, global free trade and investment, cyber security, etc.
For the United States, as the dominant power in the current international system, it has relied very much on its a military power, monetary power, meaning financial power, as well as high ground in science and technology to maintain such a position. And its perception of other countries growing economically, politically, and militarily or otherwise, have often turned that United States into a state with high anxiety about its hegemonic position.
He indicated that a combination of factors had led the United States to move towards pursuing what he called (citing Prof. John Mearsheimer’s work on this topic) “offensive realism”, saying that this is “coupled with a stubborn ideological bias against China and the CPC [the Chinese Communist Party of China.]”
The Chinese specialist warned that,
The U.S. has embarked, I believe, as I see it, on the dangerous road of confrontation with China in recent years, especially in the last two or three years, with military threats, sanctions, economic decoupling, etc., which if it really carried to reality, to be a reality, could lead both countries down the road to this trap, the Thucydides Trap.
China is fortunately clear-headed enough to refuse to play such a deadly game.
I am mindful of what Dr. Swaine has suggested. Neither side should overreact. I agree with that. We should not engage in overreaction to any provocations that could lead to a cold war, even hot war, with each other.
Amb. He was forthright in calling for renewed dialogue between his country and the United States—
especially strategic dialogue about this [Thucydides] trap, because if we’re not serious about it, it could become real. It is not real [now], but it could become real. Unfortunately, the dialogue has not been happening and has been cut off. So we need to revive that.
Any differences, be they ideological or economic should be address wisely in political negotiation and a strategic dialogue. Definitely not through coercion or confrontation.
In a subsequent blog post, I will summarize the key points of the two experts’ discussion of issues related to the South China Sea,