Editor’s Note: Ken Moak taught economic theory, public policy and globalization at university level for 33 years. He co-authored a book titled “China’s Economic Rise and Its Global Impact” in 2015. The article reflects the author’s opinions, and not necessarily the views of CGTN.
Almost everything in life has an economic dimension in that cooperation and confrontation between major powers are largely driven by the pursuit of wealth and power. One case in point can be the latest interaction between China and the U.S. On June 17, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi and the two discussed the need for fully reciprocal dealings in commercial, security and diplomatic areas, particularly in dealing with COVID-19.
Looking back, the Spartan-Athenian War was popularly known as “Thucydides Traps,” named after a Greek historian from 5th century B.C. who observed the “confrontation.” There were 12 out of 16 such wars in which a rising power challenged an existent one (or vice versa) in the last 500 years.
Fast forward to the 21st century, Harvard University scholar Graham Allison observed a similarity between the U.S. and China, prompting him to conclude that the two modern powers would fall into the “Thucydides Trap” in his book “Destined for War.” The U.S. was wary of China’s rise perhaps because the rising Asian power was perceived to be in a position to challenge American supremacy.
With its economy nearing or surpassing, depending on how one measures it, that of the U.S., China was perceived by America as an even bigger national security threat than the former Soviet Union which the U.S. waged a Cold War on. China’s “economic miracle” afforded it to establish a strong manufacturing base, make significant technological advances and build a formidable military.
To make the “China threat” credible and gain public support for a potential war against China, a host of “conspiracy theories” emerged, one of which was Michael Pillsbury’s claim, in his book “Hundred-Year Marathon,” that China is resorting to “devious means” in toppling American supremacy by 2049. His claim was based on the Chinese playing the game Go in which players used “devious” means to defeat an opponent.
However, defeating China might not be possible without incurring unthinkable economic and human losses because the two economies are deeply intertwined and are nuclear powers. It is for these reasons that the China-U.S. relations zigzagged between confrontation and cooperation.
The potential Chinese market of an over one billion consumers was the main reason why the U.S. cooperated and helped China’s early economic reforms, largely because of the Asian country’s potential lucrative market for U.S. businesses. That turned out to be a “wise” decision. China’s economy rose from less than 150 billion U.S. dollars in 1978 to over 14 trillion 2019, affording to buy large quantities of American goods and services.
However, the speed at which the Chinese economy grew and the size it reached “scared” the American political and security elites. No U.S. administration and Congress devoted as much resources and energy in stifling China as the current ones. President Donald Trump accused China of “eating America’s lunch,” imposing tariffs on Chinese goods, restricting investment and banning technology.
The U.S. Congress introduced a series of legislation pointing to a “two-China” policy. For example, the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative Act or the TAIPEI Act was meant to support the self-governing island in gaining membership to international organizations and penalizing nations that shift diplomatic relations to China.
However, the confrontational postures proved counterproductive for the US, probably hurting it more than China. Tariffs did little to harm the Chinese economy, but they raised the U.S.’s production costs and consumer prices, resulting in reducing GDP growth from 3.1 percent in 2018 to around 2.5 percent in 2019, according to World Bank statistics. China’s economy was only down from 6.8 percent to 6.6 percent in the same period.
On the technology front, banning Chinese products from entering the U.S. market and pressuring allies to do the same or barring U.S. companies from selling goods to China did not “kill” the country’s technological advancement. On the contrary, Huawei and other Chinese companies are still enjoying growing sales. And Huawei maintains dominance in 5G rollout, artificial intelligence, etc.
U.S. technology companies, on the other hand, are suffering financially because China is their major if not the biggest market, forcing the U.S. Department of Commerce to make a “U-turn” on its ban on U.S. companies from doing business with Huawei.
With regard to geopolitics, the Indo-Pacific strategy remained in the “drawing book” in that the other three partners showed “lukewarm” interest because China is the “hand that feeds them.” And instead of being “scared” of the U.S. and its allies, China increased the quality and quantity of weapons on the territories it claimed in the South China Sea. The Chinese military was also more “assertive” in dealing with the U.S.’s and its allies’ “freedom of navigation operations” in the waters.
It could therefore be argued that the Trump administration’s and Congress’ confrontation approach “Made America Worse” instead of “Make America Great Again,” requiring America to be more cooperative with China if the U.S. wants to reverse its downward economic trajectory.
There is no greater economic opportunity for the world’s two largest economy to work together in the world of COVID-19. The pandemic has infected over seven million and killed at least 400,000 worldwide. In the U.S., the numbers were over two million and nearly 120,000, respectively. The economic damages that the virus caused ran into trillions of U.S. dollars. The statistics are bound to climb if the quarrel between China and the U.S. persists.
Since the virus affected almost all countries in the world, it is the “common enemy,” requiring international cooperation, particularly between China and the U.S. In doing so, the world will reap tremendous economic and other benefits. Close cooperation between the two powers might hasten the development of a vaccine that could stop COVID-19, paving the way to economic recovery sooner rather later.
No relationship has greater economic and geopolitical implications than the China-U.S. relationship. Since confrontation will only lead to despair or worse, the U.S. politicians should dismount from their anti-China stand and cooperate with the Asian power on addressing the world’s urgent issues.