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American elites fail to accept US losing dominant position

By Alexander Lukin

July 16, 2020 "Information Clearing House" - Sino-US relations have reached their worst point at least since 1972 as the Trump administration has taken an extremely hardline stance against China. There are several reasons for this. The fundamental general reason is geopolitical: competition between a rising power and an established power. Professor Graham Allison described it in his Thucydides Trap theory. However, this competition can be realized in various forms and historically has not inevitably led to a war. In the current situation when it can lead to a nuclear catastrophe and when the world is much more globalized than before, there are a lot of new factors that reduce the likelihood of the toughest scenarios. They, however, do not make a war absolutely impossible. A lot will depend on other factors, including personal leadership. 

There are several theories about the current Sino-US confrontation. One maintains that the main reason of its intensity is the difference between the ideology and political systems. According to this view, after World War II, it was much easier for the UK to cede its dominate position in the world to the US because the two countries were allies and shared their values and general worldview. 

They also had a common threat coming from the USSR and its camp. Another theory says that the conflict was inevitable anyway, and that the previous period of cooperation was just a preparation for confrontation when China was not strong enough to seriously challenge the US. According to a third point of view, the current period of confrontation is not normal and Sino-US relations eventually are going to become much more constructive when they both realize that cooperation in the globalizing world serves their basic interests much better. 

I believe that all these theories should be considered, but the real situation will depend on the specific policies on both sides. A certain level of confrontation is inevitable. The disappointment in the US elites with the loss of their country's dominant status in the world has been growing for a long time. Of course, they could not blame this on their own policy mistakes or general historical trends because in their view, history was bound to end with a triumphant US. So China's growth was an obvious scapegoat. History could not go wrong, China had to have cheated it. 

This is the reason for Washington's claims that China cheated the US; it used Washington's preferential policies to become stronger but failed to change according to Washington's wishes. In reality, the US policy of cooperation with China served American interests of the time. In the 1970s, Washington tried to use China against the Soviet Union. Later, US companies used China's cheap labor and got enormous profits. So both sides were interested in cooperation. The problem was that the US elites failed to understand certain major trends of history. They thought that China was going to change and become pro-US, but in fact the world was becoming more multipolar and the period of American domination was coming to an end. As American scholar Andrew Kuchins aptly put it, the (American style) end of history ended.  

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Difference in ideology and political system is a very important factor which China tends to underestimate. The political systems of the two countries are so different and even opposing that it is very difficult for the US to accept any of China's influence in the world. If we take the comparison with the US-UK post World War II situation, a change of allegiance of a third country from the UK to the US was insignificant at that time, because the two powers were allies. Now any country which becomes friendly to China is seen in the US as an enemy or a potential threat. Economic interdependence surely limits the tendency toward confrontation, but it is not the only or even the most important factor. Before World War II Britain and the USSR were very important economic partners of Germany, but it did not stop it from attacking them. 

So one should not underestimate Washington's resolve to contain China's growth. There is an acute feeling in the US elites that if China is not stopped now it would be able to overcome the US very soon and this should not be allowed under any circumstances. And the US is ready to sacrifice some of its economic interests to achieve this goal. Other questions such as human rights or the well-being of the people of other countries are subordinate to it. 

This can clearly be seen by the US policy toward Hong Kong. Ending Hong Kong's preferential status, which was announced by Trump on July 15, will surely strike the well-being of the people of Hong Kong. But Trump could not care less. He used the security law adopted by the central government as a pretext to deliver another blow to China's economy, and he is going to continue doing it. If China wants to revive cooperation with the US it should not blame Washington or try to reason it. The only way is to interest the US economically while being more reserved politically.   

I think that the main reason for the current high level of confrontation is that the US elites fail to accept the objective fact that their country is losing its dominant position in the world. From this point of view, changes in leadership are hardly going to improve the situation. If Joe Biden comes to power, it can be even worse since Democrats usually are more active in using human rights slogans. They may also be able to achieve more support from their European allies. Besides, even if Biden wants to be milder on China he may not be allowed to do so since Republicans would monitor and criticize his every step. They may be able to stop any progress in relations with China just like Democrats did not allow Trump to improve relations with Russia. 

But the situation will also depend on China's policy, which is not very clear at the moment. There are still people in China who believe that things will somehow come back to normal by themselves without much effort. This is wishful thinking. At the same time, an excessively tough reaction which is not based on real economic and military capability may be counterproductive and even alienate some of China's allies and friends whom China desperately needs in these serious times. Russia generally will support China since it has also become a scapegoat of the US' delusions of grandeur. Sino-Russian cooperation is growing in all fields, including security, foreign policy and economics. But this support will not be unlimited, and the two countries are unlikely to form a formal alliance with mutual defense obligations. The reason is that the two are just too big to share every specific interest. We should remember history: China and Russia (USSR) signed alliance agreements three times (in 1896, 1945, and 1950) and each time it did not work out very well. At the same time, they cooperated very closely in many spheres, including military during China's anti-Japanese war without forming an alliance, just on the basis of a non-aggression pact.

The author is head of the Department of International Relations at Higher School of Economics University, Moscow, Russia. - "Source" -

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