CICIR's Vice President on the US's new China Strategy
Wang Honggang on Washington's "new two-pronged approach" towards China, the difficulties it faces and his proposed response.
Today’s edition is a summary of a recent article by Wang Honggang (王鸿刚), vice president of China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) – an influential think tank linked to China's Ministry of State Security. This post was put together by dxh, a journalist who wishes to remain anonymous.
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In a nutshell
The US’s strategy towards China has shifted from a paradigm of “engagement + prevention” to one of “competition + managing competition”.
The distinguishing features of this new approach appear to be: using “mixed signals”, showing “self-restraint” and keeping a “window for dialogue” open in order both to prevent Beijing from overreacting to Washington’s containment of China and to preserve some degree of cooperation with the PRC.
This strategy is faced with four main difficulties:
1. The flip-flopping of policies between Republicans and Democrats
2. Creating alliances without creating foes
3. Strategic overreach in Washington’s all-out competition with China
4. The potential cost of decoupling
China should: (i) continue to focus on its domestic development, while balancing this with its international agenda; (ii) prepare for an increasingly volatile global environment fraught with crises and an unstable US.
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Name: Wang Honggang (王鸿刚)
Year of birth: 1976 (age: 46/47)
Position: Vice President of CICIR and director of its Institute of American Studies
Formerly: Deputy director of the Institute of American Studies (2009-2014) and director of the Institute of World Political Studies (2015-2018), CICIR
Research focus: United States, US-China relations, world politics
Education: BA/MA Jilin University; PhD CICIR (2010)
I. The "Two New Prongs" of the US’s Strategy towards China
Starting from the Trump administration and continuing into the Biden administration, the new US strategy towards China can be summarised as the dual approach of “competition + managing competition” [‘竞争+管控竞争’]. It updates the “old two-pronged approach” [老两手] taken by the United States towards China over the past few decades.
The old two-pronged approach was characterised by “engagement + prevention” [接触+防范], with the US actively seeking both to bring China into the international system and to expand Sino-American cooperation, while quietly pursuing measures to infiltrate and contain the PRC.
In Washington’s “new two-pronged approach” [新两手], “competition” is the main prong of its strategy. “This includes decoupling [脱钩断链] at the economic level, forming cliques at the political level, deterring and encircling [威慑围堵] at the security level, discrediting and demeaning at the public opinion level, as well as locking [China] up at the regulatory level etc.”
The new two-pronged approach may have several goals:
1. Using “mixed signals” to increase the difficulty for China to make sense of this strategy. This was a tactic often used during the Cold War.
2. Showing “self-restraint” [自我克制] to appease China and thus prevent it from overreacting.
3. Keeping a “window for dialogue” [对话窗口] open in order to continue to seek limited, but essential, cooperation with China. This is the essence of the “managing competition” prong.
“The current China-US strategic rivalry has only just begun. The future is long and there are many factors affecting it. China-US rivalry is also a two-way process. Decision-makers and the strategic community in the US must not underestimate China's ability to respond to their country’s two-pronged strategy.”
II. The Difficulties Facing Washington’s New China Strategy
The US’s "new dilemmas" [新两难] vis-à-vis China stand in contrast with its "old dilemma" [老两难]. Its "old dilemma" was characterised by its recognition that China would eventually become its main rival [头号对手], but it either did not consider this threat pressing enough (in the 1990s) or simply had more urgent issues to deal with, such as terrorism and Russia (2000-2020).
There are four aspects to the “new dilemmas” faced by the US:
The first is the conflict between continuity [延续] and transformation [转型]:
· “As a former hegemonic power, Britain's failure to transform itself during its own era of global changes, can provide us with a good reference for observing the US’s economy today.”
· Just as the UK ultimately fell behind the US due to domestic resistance to change and its failure to embrace electricity and internal combustion engines fast enough, the United States faces a similar plight as the Democratic Party seeks to promote clean energy and establish a new economic model, while the Republican Party opposes anti-oil policies. The 2024 election outcome will thus be critical for the future of America’s industrial policy.
· ‘The United States is forcefully trying to form a small exclusive circle, which is not based on expanded [mutual] interests—because the US can hardly offer any significant benefits to its allies and, in fact, requires them to contribute resources. Instead, [this small exclusive circle] is based on a groundless threat, which happens to be [represented by] a country that makes the most significant contributions to global economic prosperity.’
· Such a strategy will ultimately lead to the alienation of most countries in the world.
The third aspect is the opposition between expansion [进取/扩张] and contraction [收缩]:
· Over the past two-to-three decades, the United States has extended its global reach too far. This has strained its finances and led to discontent among its population. At the same time, however, Washington still needs to engage in an all-out competition with China, “which it has identified as the only country with both the capacity and intention to challenge US hegemony.”
· Such strategic overreach may well end up jeopardising the core of America’s global dominance: its financial hegemony.
The fourth aspect is the tension between coupling [挂钩] and decoupling [脱钩]:
· “History tells us that each wave of globalisation triggers a [new] round of multipolarisation and leads to the development and strengthening of latecomer countries as they integrate into the international economic system. Like other hegemonic powers throughout history, the United States has become unsettled as it has witnessed the rise of latecomer countries and has initiated the idea of decoupling to prevent them from continuing to ‘take advantage of’ [the system]. However, decoupling comes with significant costs. It may inadvertently spur latecomer countries to speed up their quest for self-reliance [自立自强], or result in the loss of their huge market, thereby further exacerbating the economic woes of the hegemon.”
III. How China Should Respond
“First, focus on our own affairs. Great power rivalry requires that we first become bigger and stronger [做大做强自己]. We need to make good ‘investments’ [投资] in ourselves, including, but not limited to, building a better economic structure, political system, social order, and civilisational model under the broad concept of Chinese-style modernisation.”
“Second, we should do a good job of what needs to be done … Define the scope of China's international responsibilities and the characteristics of its international behaviour so as to achieve synergy between: (i) our own interests in sovereignty, security and development and those of the majority of other countries; (ii) our goals of national rejuvenation and the building of a community with a shared future for mankind.”
“Third, we should be prepared to meet force with force [做好硬碰硬的准备]. The [global] changes [not seen] in a century have accelerated, and great power rivalry is destined to escalate.”
“Fourth, … With the increasing build-up of domestic contradictions [矛盾] in the United States and the growing instability of its international standing, Washington is bound to face more and more difficulties, paradoxes and shortcomings that will trigger crises and changes on a global scale. We must be psychologically and operationally prepared for such a scenario.”