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As Xi’s China goes global, how will U.S. respond?

REUTERS/Thomas Peter
Chinese President Xi Jinping has been clear that managing a peaceful transition with the U.S. is the key foreign policy challenge of this era, his goal clearly for China to reassume regional leadership of East Asia, while easing out the primary role of the U.S.

China’s foreign policy analysts have long argued that changes in the relative power of the United States (a presumed declining global power) and China (a presumed rising global power) vis-à-vis the rest of the world creates a dangerous situation, inevitably leading to war, ideas often taken from the writing of British historian Paul Kennedy and his 1980s best-sellers outlining the “tragedy of great powers.” Similarly, Harvard professor Graham Allison, coming May 21 to speak at the Humphrey School, promotes the idea of the "Thucydides Trap”; his famous thesis warns of the inevitability of war as fears of China’s rise grow in the U.S. But China doesn’t accept this inevitability, and neither should the U.S. 

Sherry Gray

Chinese President Xi Jinping has been clear that managing a peaceful transition with the U.S. is the key foreign policy challenge of this era, his goal clearly for China to reassume regional leadership of East Asia, while easing out the primary role of the U.S., which since World War II has dominated as naval and air power, key regional political broker, and economic agenda-setter. 

In no area is this clearer than in China’s New Silk Road policy, or Belt and Road Initiative, which strives to bridge the economies of nearly 60 countries with China’s, recreating the globalization of ancient times — think connecting the Roman and Tang empires — in an ambitious network of trade and cooperative enterprises, promising global connections and dynamism for China, and China promising the same for its neighbors and partners. Understandably, these plans are both exciting and terrifying for China’s neighbors, both those with powerful economies and those with small economies, the latter vulnerable to losing autonomy when any large power eyes opportunities within their borders.

Vision of a multipolar world

The vision China promotes is a multipolar world led by key regional powers, with China the central power of the regions surrounding its vast borders — the U.S. perhaps involved, but definitely not dominant. How the U.S. responds will govern bilateral U.S.-China relations in the near future and, in the longer term, influence the U.S. role for a wide swath of the world, across Eurasia, from the Mediterranean to the Pacific. 

How will the U.S. respond? With anger and force, à la Allison’s thesis, or with an opportunistic vision of how the U.S. can participate and even shape events? While the U.S. slogs through never-won, small-but-expensive wars in the Middle East and Central Asia and President Donald Trump promotes “America First” mercantilism with tariffs and threats of tariffs, China is actively signing agreements, building roads and ports, and expanding its influence and economic clout into new regions, connecting China with the Mediterranean, East Africa, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia, potentially linking more than half the world’s population into a dynamic new economic network.

With the formation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, having nearly 80 member states signed on (not the U.S.), China hopes to replace the dominance of the World Bank in funding global infrastructure projects, and replace the “Washington Consensus” model of international development with the “Beijing Consensus,” described by Chinese analysts as a more pragmatic and relevant, and less patronizing, alternative for the Global South.

China is now the world’s second largest economy, which the World Bank says “has been the largest contributor to world growth since the global financial crisis of 2008,” so these initiatives demonstrate China positioning its development model as the viable alternative to the U.S. global economic leadership in a bold new way, enhancing China-backed development projects and trading networks in every part of the earth, small and large, built around the world. Fifty million overseas Chinese and growing business networks, many modest family-run shops, are popping up in Sub-Saharan Africa, around the Middle East, and even remote islands of the South Pacific. Anywhere a commercial culture lags, Chinese businesses are filling in the commercial gaps in the global economy and providing direct connections between shopkeepers around the world and producers in China, the famous Fujian global trading networks, for example.

China envisions this dynamic new global economy as diversifying its markets, which could ease the pain to China’s producers of losing access to North American markets should the U.S. withdraw as both customer and supplier, as Trump threatens.

Responding to or challenging U.S. dominance in region

In the realm of power politics, China is increasingly responding to or challenging the U.S. dominance in its region, taking advantage of a real or perceived decline in U.S. power capabilities. The united leadership under Xi Jinping has positioned itself to guide China’s regional military and political resurgence for the coming decade, with the development of its “blue water” navy (its first home-built aircraft carrier testing the waters now), the strategic placement of missiles aimed at Taiwan and for defending its claims to much of the East and South China Seas, the forward development of off shore islands fortified as military bases, and a higher visibility in global institutions, as Xi Jinping steps away from decades of Chinese foreign policy practice embodied in Deng Xiaoping’s famous 韬光养晦 (tāoguāng yǎnghuì) or, essentially, keep a low profile while getting things done.

The U.S. remains powerful enough to partly control its own fate, certainly beyond most other countries. How creatively and nimbly the U.S. responds to the inevitable rise of China, as well as the rise of other regional powers, could usher in an era of innovation and expansion (global dynamism), or an era of stagnation and fear (global conflict).

What does this mean for the U.S. in the Asia Pacific region? It could mean increased conflict, trade wars and military threats. Or it could mean increased connections as the U.S. reaffirms its historic commitments to the region while enhancing old partnerships and creating flexible and more cooperative regional relationships. As China moves to assert itself more in global politics and to replace the U.S. leading role in East and Southeast Asia, the U.S. political establishment needs to move beyond simplistic, zero sum analysis of the “China threat” and create an equally opportunistic vision for itself in the region, and in the developing world; a vision uniting national values with national strengths, the comparative advantage of U.S. power, expertise, and resources. Will the U.S. threaten and complain, sanction and penalize?  Or will it create and innovate, coordinate and lead?

Sherry Gray, Ph.D., directs international projects at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.  She has worked for many years on projects with China, living first in Shenyang in the early 1980s as a student and teacher and continuing on through international relations education and policy projects developed through various U.S. foundations and international education organizations. She serves on the U of M's China Center Advisory Council.

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Comments (3)

The advantage that China has

The advantage that China has is the persistence of intent--whereas the US is limited more and more by a 2 year election cycle. The divergence of goals of the parties in the US, coupled with the Trumpian "overturn Obama" program means that the US has, for now, lost the ability to move in a clear direction. That is definitely leaving a clearer field for China to build on.

The second issue is the absolute naivete and ignorance of Trump with respect to trade and security issues. He doesn't know what he doesn't know, and he is not afraid to make ignorant pronouncements and countermand those statements a few weeks later. Again a win for countries like China.

The third issue that we perhaps will never know the full extent and effect of are the back-room ties between Trump and the government of China and the quasi-governmental corporations of China. Trump has loans from Chinese banks and leases space to them. Trump family products are made in China (no tariffs for those products !!). Trump and his families' trademarks were granted a difficult-to-get, but important-to-have protected trademark status. There was the investment-for-citizenship push of the Kushner group, and the desperate pitching of the real estate of the Trump and Kushner families. There is the 500 million dollar loan for the Indonesian project with Trump. Followed a few days later with the Trump/ZTE tweet "Too many jobs in China lost."

China is well experienced in dealing with autocratic strong-man governments (with weak regulatory oversight) where hidden agreements with the leaders are the best way to make the deal as opposed to a transparent agreement with a nation. Private enrichment for national concessions. This is the model that Trump appears to promote, and one that China is prepared to move in.

All in all, the Trump presidency enhances the power and dominance of China.

Perhaps there is a reason why the MAGA hats are red...

Shoddy Diplomacy

China's efforts are always betrayed by its shoddy core, as exemplified in the shoddy goods they export. They have engaged in sabotage of our industrial secrets and flooded the country with shoddy goods. I believe that may even include some of our military weapons. I imagine if we did have to attack China, that those weapons would suddenly fall apart. China has historically always had inner weaknesses that ultimately cause it to fail, and they are still there. The Communism, the wanton destruction of their environment, their emphasis on appearances and superficial values. No wonder their neighbors turn to us for support. They are transgressing bullies.
The problem is, what can you do wannabe empire builders like Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, without war? What can diplomacy accomplish? What can a corrupted UN do? This is a major reason we need to have the CIA. Export of our trashiest pop culture products do not help. We need to increase our attractiveness, our cultural leadership, not decrease it. Meanwhile, China is sabotaging our arts by filling our schools with their students, so that they can learn just enough to go back home and build up their own institutions, after which, they will not need us anymore, and will flood the world with their alien-bred artists, co-opting our culture, and making it ultimate Chinese culture. Believe me, this is all planned, and just as Mao had his five-year-plans, they have fifty-year plans. This is one advantage of theirs, as I think we lack such planning, given our constant changes in government.

False Dilemma

The Western response to Chinese revisionist expansion doesn't and shouldn't boil down to the false dilemma presented here. U.S. foreign policy starting with President Nixon is primarily responsible for building China's economy and bolstering the Communist party even as the Soviet Union fell. Our insatiable appetite for cheap goods made by children and other oppressed workers in China kept that country from failing as the Soviet Union did. China is a country of our own making.

Now on the eve of China sending nuclear capable manned strategic bombers to the South China Sea only weeks after Xi Jinping consolidated power similarly to that of Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdogan you're saying our policy should be appeasement? The sooner China is free, the sooner China is free. China will always be a security threat to the United States so long as the communists remain in power. The United States should have long ago severed our trade ties with China until they reformed their government. They are not good neighbors. They are not good trading partners. They are stealing our technology. They, along with Russia, have armed our enemies, and they are arming for war against us. Stop buying Chinese goods.

Our policy must be to encourage trade with those countries in the region who value liberty and justice and discourage trade with those who don't value these basic human rights.