Sino-US relations, Trade, and Values

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A long time ago, Grecian Aesop told such a story, saying, “One winter, a farmer found a snake being frozen to half death. Out of compassion, he took it up and placed it in his bosom to warm it back to life. The snake revived soon, but when it had enough force, out of natural instinct, it gave the kind benefactor a deadly bite. Lastly, the farmer said to those standing around when he was dying, ‘Not take pity on a villain.’”

The story of Sino-US relations since 1989 is fairly like this one.

In 1989, the Chinese government, to crack down on its people’s democratic movement, massacred barbarously thousands of its citizens in Tiananmen Square. But following this, the US administration stretched out its gracious hands to it to invite China, a country viewed at that time by it as a backwater, to join the international economic system to help it develop and thrive. Later on, in 2001, China entered the World Trade Organization(WTO), an international economic institution which has been still most important for development to date.

Today, China has been the world’s second largest economy and has had the world’s second biggest military expenditure, but more importantly, it is tenacious to challenge the international order headed by the US and more relentlessly suppress the huma values universally recognized by the international community of freedom and democracy. In addition, it doesn’t conceal its intention to occupy the center of the world stage instead of the US either.

To achieve the aim, not only did China set up an it-led multilateral financial institution, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), but it designed and carried out an ambitious project, the One Belt, One Road (OBOD) venture, to interlink economic activities throughout Eurasia and the Pacific to gain more political and economic influence.

Moreover, China doesn’t forget using its economic clout to lift its soft power overseas. By Hanban, an affiliate of China’s Education Department, China has set up over 500 Confucius Institutes in more than 130 countries all over the globe. At once, it also launched an international $6.6 billion media expansion campaign, which includes creating a monstrous media outlet called Voice of China, to tell China stories overseas, propagate China’s ideas, and boost China’s image.

China doesn’t likewise forget exerting its economic clout to bow foreign companies and academic institutions to its will. Last year, it demanded Cambridge University Press to pull out from China Quarterly more than 300 articles and book reviews seen as sensitive by it. This year, it ordered more than 30 international airlines, including some US carriers, to delete any information from their websites that could suggest that Taiwan, Hong Kong or Macau are not part of China. At once, China also employs its economic clout to put up its first overseas military base in Djibouti and has started using the base to goad, even injure US troops near the base.

All these events seem unlike some separate ones but more like part of a great national strategy, especially when associated with large-scale military exercises recently conducting by Chinese troops in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea and the eventful fact that the Chinese government has removed presidential term limits from its constitution for its sitting president Xi Jinping to become an actual dictator.

In history, an autocrat was usually both ambitious and a nuisance of war, for instance Alexander the Great, Gaius Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Napoleone Buonaparte, Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and so on. For his part, Xi isn’t short on ambition: his China dream to rejuvenate the Chinese nation is just a good proof. For Xi, what Xi lacks or needs is a momentous achievement to prove himself to be on a par with his two predecessors Mao and Deng.

Unlike his another two antecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, the two ones had both marvelous martial accomplishments and aspirations for changing the country’s history. Mao was both one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party(CCP) and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army(CPLA) and the founder of the People’s Republic of China(PRC). Deng was first one of the prime acolytes of Mao and then as the supreme leader of the country, he designed China’s economic reform and opening-up policy and firmly supervised its execution.

Jiang and Hu had no military backgrounds and compared with the former two, as presidents, they both were not only mediocre but feeble, yet it was under their rule that the country went through its present-day history’s best and longest economic growth and also it was during Hu’s presidency that the country came to become the world’s second largest economy, which has hold the title since that time the whole way until today. Besides, Jiang also finished another historical task, namely recovering China’s control of Hong Kong and Macao. The two regions had been the UK’s and Portugal’s colony before respectively.

Thus, if Xi is keen to surpass Jiang and Hu to fall into the dictatorial ranks of Mao and Deng, he needs to solve the following two issues:

(1) leading China to the position of the world’s largest economy or most powerful country;

(2) bringing Taiwan back to China’s reins.

This is the only two both feasible and glorious things his ancestors left him to resolve, but both them involves the US and their settlement seems to be not so easy.

Now, the US is the world’s biggest economy and strongest country. Moreover, it is also China’s largest trading partner and largest export market and still has a law which can be invoked to aid Taiwan in emergency, the Taiwan Relations Act and especially significant, the US has come to wake up to and is starting seriously reacting to threats from China.

At present, the president of the US, Trump both designates China in his national security strategy (NSS) as the US’s key strategic rival power, a revisionist country and also signs off the Taiwan Travel Act to enhance relations between the US and Taiwan governments, but more importantly, he is fulfilling a series of hardline trade policies on China: his administration has proposed to impose $150billion in tariffs on Chinese imports to avenge its unfair trade behaviors and lower its as much as over $300 billion trade deficit with China. Furthermore, it also banned US companies from selling high-tech products to a Chinese telecom equipment maker named ZTE for seven years because it had continued violation of US sanctions against Iran and North Korea. This will surely make the firm, which is now China’s second biggest telecom equipment manufacturer, grind to a halt because it can’t buy the irreplaceable US microchips again it uses in its products, according to some technical reports.

Yet nevertheless the Trump government’s objective isn’t still containing China but stressing competition with it, as stated in its NSS. This isn’t much different from the former Obama government’s goal. Still and all, there is a big discrepancy between them: the Obama government’s aim was stressing earning peace by diplomacy and dialogue, but the Trump government’s end was emphasizing gaining it through strength. Such large transmutation in means or behavior will have sizeable meaning.

In Obama’s times, the US government was picking up peace by non-violent means and sometimes even by unprincipled non-violent means. In 2012, Obama draw a red line, vowing that if the Syrian government used chemical weapons, the US would take military action in response. But a year later, when Syrian President Bashar Assad employed sarin gas to kill hundreds of his citizens, the Obama governement failed to follow his promise, instead letting Russia broker a deal for Assad to give up his chemical weapons.

Obama’s naked betrayal and inaction gave the whole world a definite signal that the US wouldn’t resolve international disputes or conflicts by military means. Afterwards, Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine and a year after this, militarily intervened in Syria in Assad’s favor. At once, China also sped up the reclamation and expansion of maritime land in the South China Sea. The Obama didn’t take any action in response to these behaviors.

Moreover, in Obama’s days, with his passivity, Iran’s navy never stopped harassing US navy vessels in the Persian Gulf and even one time detained two US navy ships and the US sailors aboard them and then publicly humiliated them on television. In Obama’s presidency, Iran never received any punishment for the behaviors, but when Trump entered the White House as successor of Obama, the situation came to change. The Trump government reacted by strong military action to chemical weapons reuse by the Syrian government and out of expectation, Iran’s navy stopped badgering US warships, let alone demeaning.

For Obama, a particularly diabolical fact was that during his eight year presidency, the world just encountered an eight consecutive years of decline in democracy and freedom: Obama won peace by his extra appeasement and omission but let the values of democracy and freedom pay down.

No sign shows that Trump is steadfast adherent of these values. In fact, according to Freedom House, in his first year as US president, these values suffered further loss, with 71 countries having net decreases in political rights and civil liberties and only 35 registering gains. But still Trump manifests by his action that the authoritarian countries can be deterred effectively only by strength.

In the past 40 years, only two US presidents, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, had worked with such policy to win peace or promote democracy with strength. Ronald Reagan’s hardline was the direct cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union and Communism and paved the path for Eastern Europe’s succedent democratic revolutions while the direct result of George W. Bush’s hardline was directly overthrowing by the US by force Iraq ‘s autocracy and Afghanistan’s ultraconservative Taleban government and building up democracy in the two countries, abolishing authoritarianism. So, both the presidents boosted tremendously the development of the world’s democracy and freedom by their hardlines.

In present Sino-US relations, Trump could also make history if he is determined to go on his hardline on China.

In present Sino-US relations, China’s weakness lies in trade, in addition to education, science, and technology while the US’s fragility sits only in trade. This is an outcome of the US’s nearly 40 years of economic integration policy. This policy’s aim was turning China into a liberal democracy by assimilating it into the international economic system led by the US. But now the two countries’ economic relationships are so close that the fluctuation of either of them in economic activity will touch correspondingly another. In a Chinese word, in present Sino-US relations, if the US would like to start a trade war with China, then this is akin to that it kills 1000 enemies but itself loses 800 as well.

But nevertheless this isn’t a reason why the US shouldn’t kick off a trade war: there are three reasons why it needs to do so:

(1) running concession and tolerance would only further encourage China’s unfair trade behavior and heighten its resolution to challenge the current international order;

(2) the US needs to redress its own unprincipled trade expansion demeanor;

(3) such a war would likely give China a chance to reshape itself and push it towards democracy and freedom.

US past immoral trade behavior is the root cause of present China’s unfair trade behavior. While the US claimed that the idea of letting China enter the WTO was changing it into a liberal democracy, this couldn’t hush up the two facts, namely

(1) using the event, it opened China’s huge domestic market for its goods and services;

(2) the thing that China was allowed to joine the WTO was taking place after the its government put down bloodily the country’s democratic movement in Tiananmen Square and happening at the time following this the government still kept on quashing the country’s democratic movement but didn’t fulfill any political reform towards democracy and freedom.

So, If the US government really believed that the values of democracy and freedom are the same important as trade, it wouldn’t have initially admitted China into the establishment or at least it should have set up an international trade institution based on the values.

This is why Xi utilized a series of remarkably high-profile events to mark the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth of late, because Marx asserted over 100 years ago that the limitless greed of capitalism would bring disaster to itself. For Xi, the US’s wrath at China’s trade behavior is just the start of such a calamity and Xi also believes that it is the US’s gluttony that renders China an opportunity to develop itself.

The US still should remember such a fact: it is it that helps kill China’s democratic enthusiasm and cause by trade and then creates a monster for itself. At the same time, the US should also ask itself such a question: if it is willing to kneel under China’s foots and lick its toes for more trade and prosperity.

For China, it is the US’s inordinate pragmatism and mercantilism that terminate its hope for democracy and freedom. China itself has no free and democratic heritage; it needs to introduce thought of the values from overseas, especially the West, to build up a democratic tradition for itself, but such hope has broken up since after 1989. While the Chinese government’s ruthless suppression is the main occasion of its breakdown, the US’s rapidly growing business with China is also an inescapable important factor. Sino-US business has been simply about money and weath because the Chinese government strongly resisted political reform for democracy and freedom from the commencement.

Yet Sino-US trade flourishing makes the Chinese government able to gather more money for buying advanced equipment for repressing the democratic movement. Now, not only does the Chinese government have the world’s most complex surveillance network, but also it has the world’s most complicated firewall. Thus, as expected, present China is also the country having the world’s least Internet freedom.

At the same time, Sino-US trade thriving and the rapid development of the Chinese economy also offer a heap of work opportunities for common Chinese. This makes them have more choices and chances for their living, but this also make them think that there is no need to go to risk pursuing a cause that looks beautiful but is destined to cost a very high price, even life. In their own words, dying with glory isn’t better than living in humiliation.

This is why since after 1989, never has a democratic movement or revolution fallen in China, the territory, where the disappearance of the democratic movement is only because at here the will and fervour for democracy and freedom have been cut to the bone by trade and prosperity, surveillance and suffocation.

By comparison with this, the languishment or decline of the West’s democratic movement seems to be because too much familiarity breeds too much contempt. Present Westerners are so accustomed to their democratic traditions and beliefs that they have forgotten how these democratic habits and beliefs were established. So Trump said, “it is great that Xi is president for life now, and maybe we’ll give that a shot some day.” Taking democracy and freedom for granted but not thinking that they are a belief and cause needing to defend with action and passion is a worrying thing.

Now, the West has many human rights organizations conducting research and observation, such as Amnesty International and Human Right Watch but no or only very few bodies willing to back the international democratic movement by practical action. Lack of action is a mark of faith loss. So, it seems that what west non-governmental organizations (NGO) say is far more than what they do, in the eyes of a foreign person. This may be one of the weighty origins of the persistent downturn of democracy and freedom worldwide.

Back to Sino-US relations. Current Sino-US relations are at the crossroads. When the Trump government planned imposing $150 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods and has imposed 25 percent tariffs on Chinese steel products and 10 percent on Chinese aluminum products, the Chinese government vowed to retaliate with equal-degree tariff measures and has already levied 25 percent tariffs on US soybeans.

Yet it seems that the US has yet to be sure how to deal with an aggressive China, when it sent its top economic team to Beijing to discuss the escalating trade war. In Obama’s age, the US government debated trade disputes and human rights issues with the Chinese government every year but all to no avail.

So, the problem is not that the US government doesn’t know that the Sino-US trade dispute isn’t too possible to resolve by talks but that it has yet to prepare to entail itself in an all-out trade war with China. Yet the US has no other choice unless it intends to accept China’s unfair trade behavior. Trade war is a bitter pill for the US, but this is a result of its own long-running unscrupulous trade behavior; China is only cunningly and unflinchingly taking advantage of it in its own favor.

Immoral trade behavior also lies in other West countries, such as the UK. About 150 years ago, the UK was the first west nation that made China open its national doors by force for business, while now it is also the first west state which joins the AIIB set up and led by authoritarian China.

A crucial feature of such behavior is that it puts trade over values, so it can also called the Trade First principle. This rule has never been explicitly expressed by the West, but it encourages China’s malformed development and leads to the decline of the whole world’s democratic developmental level. So, the US should end such unethical trade behavior and come back to a one balancing trade and values.

In this respect, the first thing the US can and should do is making a law requiring that all students from authoritarian countries, especially China, studying in the US first or at once know or learn knowledge of democracy and freedom if they would like to learn sciences and technology in the US. The US can’t help authoritarian countries, especially China, breed a great number of scientists and technicians any more but not teach them what are democracy and freedom. Such cases are particularly necessary and valuable with these students from authoritarian countries, especially China, because the kind of knowledge is unable to be learned or strictly prohibited in their own countries.

In order to promote democracy and freedom and erect strong faith in them, the US has no reason not to do it. In history, every democratic movement or revolution, whatever successful or unsuccessful, had a run-up to it when knowledge of the values took an active and widespread propagation. This makes the diffusion of such knowledge extraordinarily important. The US has a chance to do so: now, for China alone, it sends hundreds of thouands students to the US for study every year and half the number of them are learning sciences and technologies. This is just where China’s proneness lies. The country’s scientists and technicians haven’t even had the capacity of engineering a high-performance engine for its fighter. So, it is no surprise that in Sino-US trade, US companies have been required to hand over their intellectual property to Chinese firms for access to the Chinese market.

For the US, aside from trade war, another ostensibly imminent crisis will be from the Taiwan Strait. The status of Xi in the CCP isn’t so strong as expected usually. He now has almost all the most important powers, being a real tyrant, but so far he hasn’t finished any historic mission proving that he deserves all the powers. So as a despot, his status is factually more susceptible than his four predecessors. Thus, he needs an honor to show himself. Taiwan is just the place being likeliest to bring glory to him. This is mainly because Taiwan is China’s last domestic issue of territorial integrity.

So, for Xi, the Taiwan issue is of extreme importance, as if he doesn’t take any action to bring it back in his pocket, this will make his China dream of making China great again become a joke: how can a partite country become great over?

The reality also attests that Taiwan is just his most wanted objective: in the last two years, Taiwan has seen the Chinese military carry out drills near it as never seen before, with the CPLA executing 16 exercises in 2017 alone.

For the US, in present Sino-US relations, it still has the upper hand, but if it keeps on with the Trade First rule, it needs to ask itself if it will go on putting up with the country’s unfair trade behavior until some day it receives a fatal bite from China, the viper.

Damien Edgar
Damien Edgar
scholar and commentator

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