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How should relations between the United States and China be understood?

The Obama, Trump and Biden administrations have understood these relations in a rather similar way. They see China as a rising political, economic and military power with hegemonic global ambitions. China, according to this perspective, conducts many aggressive actions — including theft of American technology, unfair currency manipulations, illegal constraints on trade, offensive maritime actions, intimidation of neighboring countries and occasional flouting of international law. Hence United States foreign policy should constrain Chinese hegemonic ambitions by upholding the existing global economic and political order, countering Chinese naval assertiveness, vigorously defending longstanding allies such as Japan and Taiwan (by military means, if necessary), and unabashedly asserting America’s global leadership.

Chinese leaders see things very differently.

China is, to be sure, a rising political and economic power, but it does not wish and is not able to acquire anything like global dominance. On the contrary, China still struggles to overcome the hardships foisted on it by Western imperialism which subjected the Chinese people to a “century of humiliation” only ended by the Communist revolution of 1949.

China is still a developing country. Its median income is one-sixth that of the United States and the median income of its poorest province is merely one-thirteenth that of the U.S. What is construed as aggressive behavior is merely an effort to recover the territories that imperialism alienated from China. The existing global order and the legal structure sustaining that order are not really equitable. They are grossly biased in favor of imperialist powers. Thus, it is inevitable that a developing country, especially one that represents one-fifth of humanity and pursues global justice for non-white people, should come into conflict with imperialist promulgated international law.

How can these conflicting understandings of relations between the United States and China be reconciled?  Three principles may be useful to accomplish such reconciliation: (1) the principle of urgency, (2) the principle of introspection and (3) the principle of equity.

The principle of urgency mandates honest recognition of existential urgency: in this case, the urgency of cooperative relations between the United States and China.

  • Indeed, one can scarcely imagine anything more urgent. The rise of China cannot be permanently forestalled.  The power of the United States cannot be rapidly diminished. The absence of cooperative relations between the USA and China will mean prolific squandering of precious resources, ecological disaster, nuclear war, or all three.  The long-term survival of humanity is by no means assured, but antagonistic relations with China is obviously a shortcut to our collective graveyard.

The principle of introspection authorizes special attention to one’s own thinking and behavior.

  • As citizens of the United States, we should be especially cognizant of our country’s imperial history and ideology.  In the case of China this entails awareness of our (a) imperialist conception of the Pacific Ocean as an American lake; (b) venerable efforts to pry open the Chinese market; (c) seizure of Hawaii and the Philippines as bases of operation against China; (d) resurrection of Japan as an ally in the containment of an anti-capitalist China; and (e) efforts to partition China via Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet and Sinkiang. Recognition of this history and ideology should motivate a critical orientation towards the traditional policies of our own government.

The principle of equity ordains treatment of others based on substantive (as opposed to strictly formal) equality.

  • Substantive equality means acknowledgement of real and material sources of inequality, plus efforts to compensate for the latter in pursuit of genuine equity. For example, Washington often uses the “freedom of the sea” dictum to critique Chinese naval actions. But U.S. naval armaments are at least 10 times the magnitude of China’s. Moreover, the United States conducts formidable military exercises near China while China does not carry out any such activity around the USA. Thus, the freedom of the sea dictum, formally interpreted, could sanction U.S. naval dominance over China. The equity principle, on the other hand, suggests cessation of U.S. military activities in the vicinity of China.

If political elites in China and the United States both practice the principles of urgency, introspection and equity, relations between our two countries could indeed become cooperative.