The Trump administration hasn’t broken China. What’s broken is the overwhelming ideological pretense that has governed bilateral relations.
An amalgam of hubris underwrites the varying assumptions of western Chinese specialists – all have been bought low by team Trump. The excessive, overweening belief that Asia possessed an intrinsic liberal order, that China would continue apace in economic growth, and that the Americans could achieve policy success in Mesopotamia even as it retrenched from commitments abroad has ended. These and many other deeply flawed assumptions have wrought US-Chinese relations beyond repair.
Way back in early 2016, an economist named Derek Scissors wrote, “If President Xi Jinping does not quickly move beyond talk to profound pro-market reform, China will not slow, or struggle – it will just stop.”
The domestic, structural components of China’s current economic malaise have been present for decades, but only a few Chinese specialists acknowledged the primacy of China’s socio-political domestic base as crucial in China’s orientation toward the West. Today’s slowdown can be reliably traced to demography, debt, and an inefficient, corrupt domestic financial system. It is these structural deficits in China’s indigenous political regime that has wrecked China. Television pundits have sourced their criticism of China to shrinking demand and the demise of its export-driven growth model. These concerns remain ancillary to what ails China domestically.
Lethargic growth and political decay will not benefit US interests in keeping Asia free of a hostile, openly contentious China
Simply put, a technocratic monetary approach of stimulation based on debt and monetary velocity cannot work without a functioning, vibrant civil society. These ignored antecedents precede growth. It’s not that China is at a tipping point, but a strategic reassessment of the regimes nature and its constitutive social relation to its people is exhausted. China’s slowdown doesn’t mean a new social contract. But it does mean that Chinese leadership will examine the regime’s internal stability more closely. US political leaders must prepare themselves for difficult relations with Beijing.
Historically, Chinese leaders have engaged in militant adventurism during troubled times. Lethargic growth and political decay will not benefit US interests in keeping Asia free of a hostile, openly contentious China. Earlier instances of Deng Xiaoping’s post-Cultural Revolution attack on Vietnam and Mao Zedong’s pre-Great Leap Forward bombardment of Taiwan’s offshore islands should fortify US combatant commanders about Beijing’s inclination for deviation.
For US war planners, China’s economic slowdown provides a great opportunity to better align US economic interests throughout the Asia-Pacific. It means opening and strengthening bilateral relations throughout Southeast Asia. But it also means that US political leadership must exercise prudence in its handling of China. Allies throughout the Asia-Pacific matter, but so does helping Beijing’s leadership align its domestic resources in the renewal of its regime.
To accommodate reciprocity, team Trump should begin initiatives with Beijing aimed at curbing regional nuclear proliferation. US Chinese policy throughout the subcontinent would benefit from comity; finally, getting US global strategy correct throughout the Asia-Pacific proper means eliminating bellicose rhetoric from the White House. Open solicitation toward domestic renewal and cooperation will benefit both China and the US going forward.
The prerequisite for solid relations and comity between China and the United States begins with prudence and credibility in the maintenance of China’s turn toward domestic renewal.