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Why Antagonizing China is a Mistake
Eric Wang '21 Staff Writer
April 11, 2020
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“Among the biggest victims of the coronavirus pandemic is the fiction of amicable U.S.- China relations,” wrote Michael Auslin, a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. Auslin’s statement represents the growing pessimism surrounding the future of harmonious Sino-American co-existence. While some argue that China is a threat, mindless propagation of such sentiments in a time of crisis and economic uncertainty creates a recipe for mass ignorance and misdirected animosity. Antagonizing China so far has been a mistake, but continuing to do so could lead to war.

Mark Chung ’21

As you likely know, the U.S. has experienced personal protective equipment (PPE) shortage for the past two months. This shortage initially happened because the Chinese government shut down its economy to prevent the spread of COVID-19, causing supply chains to collapse. China supplies 48% of the U.S.’s imported PPE, according to the Japan Times. 

Chinese factories reopened in mid-to-late February and immediately began supplying medical equipment to Europe and the United States again. But news reports describing masks with no straps and test kits with brownish chemicals created concern about substandard supplies. Some of these reports were fair and holistic, but many misrepresent the situation to play into growing anti-China suspicion. 

The two most cited examples of defective Chinese medical equipment are Spain’s recall of 340,000 test kits and Holland’s demand for a refund on 600,000 KN95 masks. Most reports on these stories don’t address the fact that both the Spanish and Dutch governments purchased the masks and test kits from private companies, unauthorized to provide these supplies even in China. 

Beijing responded to these reports by implementing harsh export regulations. These restrictions prohibited companies that were not authorized to produce medical equipment in China from exporting medical supplies elsewhere. They have been completely inflexible, with no exceptions given to American companies that have approval from the FDA, but not the CCP. This policy became the real cause of our PPE shortage in mid-April, rather than an actual scarcity of supplies. Business Insider reported on April 18 that 1.4 million test kits and 2.4 million face masks are stuck in Chinese warehouses, unable to reach the U.S. because of this policy.

Unfortunately, we are bound to play Beijing’s game when it comes to PPE supply right now, as altering our reliance on Chinese manufacturing is unlikely in the short term. 

Perhaps Chinese officials would have implemented these restrictions anyways, but acts of antagonism from the U.S. did little to convince them to help us. The U.S. government should have negotiated a temporary agreement to lift the regulations, but instead, we escalated our accusatory attacks on China. 

On April 21, the State of Missouri filed a lawsuit against the People’s Republic of China. Time Magazine called this act a symbolic measure rather than a legitimate legislative move, given that “lawsuits against other countries typically don’t go anywhere because U.S. law generally prohibits them.” 

Actions like this beg the questions: what kind of message do we hope to send through this symbol, what good does it create, and is it really necessary?

Blaming China has become a political strategy. The Washington Post reports that a 57-page Republican strategy memo, sent by party leaders, advises “Senate candidates to blame China for the coronavirus outbreak [and] link Democrats to the Chinese government.” Although no such document has emerged from the Democratic Party, they have likewise attempted to monger public agitation against China. For example, the Biden Campaign released an advertisement accusing President Trump of sending China seventeen tons of PPE in January.

“The focus for some very powerful political figures is not how to return this country to a way of life that people in countries like China and South Korea are now living,” said Anna Fu ’20, President of Deerfield’s Asian Student Alliance. “Rather, they are focused on promoting their own political agendas and finding someone to place blame on for everything that is happening.”

History Teacher Mary Ellen Friends, who will teach “U.S. China Relations” next year, echoed Fu’s sentiment. “I think we would do well to look forward to a unified solution rather than backwards to the question of culpability. Let’s put our energy solving the problem at hand,” she said.

Not only is the blame game counter-productive, but it is also dangerous for global peace. Many people who typically pay little attention to U.S.-China relations don’t realize that there is a substantial probability for a Sino-American war in the 21st century. Such was the argument of Graham Allison, Founding Dean of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School, in his 2017 book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap. 

The ‘Thucydides Trap’ is a concept in International Relations theory, which suggests that when a growing power threatens to surpass an established world power, the most likely outcome is war. In the past 500 years, global powers have been caught in the ‘Thucydides Trap’ sixteen times. Twelve of these resulted in war. Furthermore, “The four cases that avoided this outcome did so only because of huge, painful adjustments in attitudes and actions on the part of the challenger and challenged alike,” wrote Allison.

As the ‘established power’ in the U.S.- China rendition of an age-old international drama, we have displayed the symptoms of ‘ruling power syndrome,’ a term coined by Allison to characterize the mindset of ruling/established powers when the Thucydides Trap is sprung. “The established power exhibit[s] an enlarged sense of fear and insecurity as it faces intimidations of decline,” it states. “The established power views the upstart’s assertiveness as disrespectful, ungrateful, and even provocative or dangerous.”

The past century, which historians have called the ‘American Century,’ has created an expectation of American primacy both in the global economy and the domain of international politics. Our shared history has ingrained these ideals into the salt of American identity, yet the rise of China threatens both.

Current expert consensus expects China to surpass the U.S. in GDP by 2030. China’s economic power has expanded its sphere of influence in the Asia-Pacific region. China’s Belt and Road Initiative will continue to bolster its power there and subsequently in Africa, Eastern Europe, and eventually Western Europe by making the transportation of goods from Europe to Asia more efficient. China’s greater control of commerce will afford it more diplomatic leverage over the beneficiaries of their Belt and Road, which will be most of Eurasia.

Of course, Washington has not sat idly by– we began a Trade War. Washington raised tariffs on billions of dollars worth of Chinese goods, which prompted Beijing to retaliate with similar measures. Experts agree that the Trade War provided little improvement for working-class Americans. However, it soured our relationship with China, created distrust between our governments, and diminished Beijing’s likeliness to seek future collaboration. 

“Trade wars have no winners,” wrote the World Economic Forum, but we are content with losing as long as China does as well. In the past, our competitive spirit drove us to build the greatest country in the history of the world. Today, it threatens to rip apart the world order. We have more tendencies for kamikaze-like behavior than we would like to believe. 

There are, however, measures both the U.S. and China can take to reduce the risk of war. Recognition of the risk itself is one of them. “Ongoing scholarly, professional, and public conversations catalyzed by Graham Allison and other top scholars in the field have, in a not insignificant way, shifted the likely trajectory of current events further away from rather than towards the likelihood of a U.S.-China war,” explained Dr. Friends.

We must continue to increase the level of vigilance with which we address the risk of war. “Some U.S. government departments related to U.S.-China diplomacy are understaffed and/or do not have the depth of expertise in China-specific policy or sinology to ensure continuity of a strong and cohesive foreign relations policy,” said Dr. Friends. “This is not at all to say that those who have dedicated their careers to U.S.-China policy are not competent. It is, rather, that the U.S.-China relationship is so multifaceted as to make it important to have a robust, diversified, well-funded staff that can respond nimbly and with professionalism to both expected and unexpected events.”

The threat of war can also be reduced through cultural understanding. Britain and the U.S. were formerly engaged in the Thucydides Trap from the late 19th to the turn of the 20th. Although disgruntled by their waning supremacy, Britain was able to reassure itself that American dominance would at least not threaten their values and way of life. The U.S. and China will become less inclined towards conflict if they can accept their cultural differences and not be intimidated by them.

To understand China fairly, we must divorce the oversimplified capitalist-versus-communist dichotomy that suggests one is good while the other is inherently evil. As a Chinese-American who understands certain aspects of China’s vast culture and appreciates American democracy, here are my two cents. 

First, China is a 5,000-year-old civilization with a rich cultural history that has flourished in numerous Golden Ages, never once attempting the experiment of democracy. Second, China has a population five times the population of the U.S., which poses a serious challenge to the viability of democratic republicanism. 

While I believe we ought to urge greater respect for free speech and individual liberties, we simultaneously must shake the assumption that their unwillingness to engage our set of liberal ideals is tyrannical; rather, it is a result of foundational differences. Whereas the U.S. has an individualist society that idealizes self-reliance and independence, China leans towards a culture of collectivism, in which devotion to the state is not fascist but morally admirable. While this is certainly a generalization, numerous experts in the field of comparative cultural studies have documented and qualified it. 

The modern manifestations of these differences derive from millennia of dissimilarity between the East’s and the West’s philosophies and experienced histories. Projecting Western expectations on Eastern behavior without recognizing certain incompatibilities will position us for diplomatic failure. More futile attempts to force square pegs into round holes will create further frustration and fracture an already fragile pegboard. 
Some experts, like Michael Auslin, argue that the U.S. and China are already in a Cold War, which seems far-fetched – but so did social-distancing two months ago. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is also to be cautious about disasters you don’t expect. Our relationship with China will become increasingly difficult and complex in the post-COVID world. Such a challenge will require our government to spend an enormous effort balancing the carrot and stick of U.S.-China policy. As citizens, we must question surface-level narratives, whether they originate from the CCP or our own media, and strive to develop detailed and nuanced understandings of the situation at hand.