America needs to realize its real fight with China lies beyond economics

(Originally published in South China Morning Post on July 22, 2019.)

America sees reciprocity differently from China, an official from Beijing told a group of former diplomats and foreign policy experts in New York last week.

“When it comes to specific issues, you want reciprocity, but in general you want to stay on top of the pyramid. You’re not going to share your power,” said Ruan Zongze, executive vice-president of the China Institute of International Studies, the Chinese foreign ministry’s think tank.

Amid a lively discussion at the Chinese consulate, which included China’s standard arguments about the trade war with the United States and pushback against accusations that the Xinjiang government is running concentration camps, Ruan’s point resonated more than those made by others from the delegation headed by Luo Linquan, vice-president of the China Public Diplomacy Association.

Although this argument sidesteps the reality of Chinese regulations that reserve a large and important swathe of the country’s economy for domestic players, it is still a valid point.

Power-sharing with Beijing will become Washington’s most complex foreign policy dilemma as the reality that the Chinese government will never be a strategic ally of the US sinks in. Many Americans are wondering how a country built on values and ideologies diametrically opposed  to those that have guided the US is achieving diplomatic parity on the world stage.

As the navel-gazing continues, pundits and policymakers often bring up the lack of reciprocity in media and information technology, among other areas, as examples of how China has skilfully maintained the upper hand throughout the 40-year diplomatic relationship.

China leveraged its relationship with the US to help pull off a socio-economic transformation of unprecedented proportions. Meanwhile, the US got cheaper T-shirts and toaster ovens, the shareholders of US companies making money in China enriched themselves, and the US got an accelerated hollowing out of its manufacturing base.

China won this game, but the award ceremony will not be televised.

As long as Donald Trump continues to treat the US intelligence community’s suspicion of Chinese companies like Huawei and ZTE as bargaining chips in the ongoing trade war, Ruan’s accusation will stand.

Regardless of the outcome of the trade war and the sanctions on Huawei, China will become the world’s largest economy in the not-too-distant future and the country will continue to integrate itself economically with the rest of the world. This might seem apocalyptic to many Americans, and stoke the instinct to block China’s rise by any means necessary.

But sober Americans know the truth: there are many metrics by which to rank countries, and the US lags in many areas. The country is far from the head of the pack when it comes to relative child poverty rates, health care outcomes and basic services like clean drinking water.

Americans should eventually tire of the rhetorical grenades Trump hurls to keep his ratings up, especially when it becomes clear these tactics are not resolving the issues their country still faces.

China’s eventual overtaking of the US as the world’s No 1 economy would dominate the news cycle for a week or a month.

But in that noise, the point would be made that China is still far behind the US in terms of other metrics like per capita income, access to information and its tendency not to usher huge numbers of its own citizens into camps – whatever you might call them – that the inmates are not allowed to leave.

And hopefully Washington would get back to supporting the post-war order it created – and the newly emerging multilateral order Trump is so determined to tear apart – as more Americans understand that this path will keep the US ahead in the metrics that matter more effectively than attempts to undercut China’s development.

When that time comes, Beijing’s argument that the source of US-China tension is exclusively Washington’s determination to rule the world will ring hollow.

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