Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on telegram
Share on whatsapp
Share on linkedin
Share on print
Share on email

In the New China-US Cold War, Will Xi or Trump Blink First?

◎ Pence’s message to Beijing was firm and clear: “The United States … will not change course until China changes its ways.”

By Joseph Bosco

When Vice President Mike Pence addressed the recent Asia-Pacific Economic Summit, he criticized China for its myriad violations of international norms. America and the world have lost patience, he warned: “Things must change.”

He spoke these words 51 years after Richard Nixon issued the first urgent “China must change” message. In a Foreign Affairs article previewing the course he would follow in his historic opening to China, Nixon portrayed in stark terms the alternative course of history with an unchanged China:

“Taking the long view, we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates and threaten its neighbors.”

Integrating China into the international community, Nixon argued, would bring about reform in its economic and political systems. More importantly for the cause of regional and global peace, engagement was the only way to assure that a future China would moderate its innate hostility toward the West and let go of its historical grievances — real, imagined and contrived.

Every subsequent administration took measures to integrate China more fully in the international system, always with the same rationale: it will help China change for the better. Unfortunately, neither the Nixon administration nor any of its successors — until the Trump administration — bothered to assign any kind of normative metrics to judge how, or whether, China’s communist ideology was moderating its attitude toward either its own people or the outside world.

Instead, most China-watchers, in and out of government, focused on the dramatic openings in its economy and comfortably presumed that political reform and a more benign worldview inevitably would follow. Some who prospered as China rose did not fret about whether China was becoming a normal member of the family of nations, as long as business was good.

But Deng Xiaoping, author of the economic changes, brought the reality of the Chinese communist system crashing home long before Xi Jinping arrived on the scene. On June 4, 1989, the Great Reformer said no to the call for political change and turned the Chinese People’s Army against the Chinese people, slaughtering hundreds, if not thousands, who had shared optimistic assumptions about change.

In his message to the Communist Party in 1990, Deng provided an important clue to China’s future relationship with the West. Responding to the post-Tiananmen backlash and the collapse of Eastern Europe communist regimes, he advised his colleagues to “hide our capabilities and bide our time.” The line was much quoted in the West, but little attention was paid to its ominous meaning and important questions were rarely asked.

Why did China have to hide anything from the world, and was it hiding not only its capacities but also its intentions? Was this part of the Chinese tradition of political and diplomatic deception, perfected to a crude high art under its communist regime? And, most significantly, for what was Beijing biding its time? What would come next, when the time was right?

Since grasping power, Xi has provided answers to these questions — and they boil down to a truth that was there all along, since the creation of the People’s Republic of China: its perception that the West, led by the United States, is the mortal enemy. Despite the ups and downs with passing individual personalities, the waxing and waning of schools of communist thought and the vying among them, it all has been done within the framework of Mao Zedong’s interpretation of Marxism-Leninism: “Power comes from the barrel of a gun.”

The underlying, irreducible tenet of that ideology is that the economic and political systems of the West — rule of law, democracy, free expression — and the international institutions that have flowed from them are fundamentally incompatible, over the long run, with the party’s conception of how societies, and ultimately the world, are to be organized and governed.

The Trump administration has said goodbye to all that. Its intention to challenge Beijing’s hegemonic and expansionist initiatives were made clear in the National Security Strategy, the National Defense Strategy, and presidential statements and actions on trade, Taiwan, the South China Sea and North Korea. In his groundbreaking talk last month, the vice president captured the essence of the administration’s fresh thinking when he said China has been waging “a new Cold War” against the United States.

With his follow-on speeches in Asia last week, Pence signaled that America’s new China policy will not be transactional, transitory, or temporary — as he, the president, and other administration officials have stated, the U.S. commitment to challenge China’s hostility and deception will be sustained over the long term.

On fair trade, freedom of navigation, Taiwan’s democratic security, North Korean denuclearization, human rights and freedom, Pence said in Papua New Guinea, “China knows where we stand. … We will not change course.”

And he emphasized the issue is far larger than the fate of a man-made island in the South China Sea or the level of bilateral trade. It is about America’s core national interests. While China likes to remind us of its red lines, it needs to be reminded that America has what might be called our red, white and blue lines — and crossing them is no longer advisable in China’s own interest.

Pence’s message to Beijing was firm and clear: “The United States … will not change course until China changes its ways.” That resolve is about to be tested when Trump meets Xi for trade talks at the G20 conference in Argentina. Will personal chemistry, real or feigned, and the allure of a “successful” short-term deal once again allow Beijing to slip loose from accountability for its lawless actions? The future of U.S.-China relations is in the hands of President Trump.

He has yet to play his ultimate card: the need for either change in China’s policies, or a change of the regime. As Pence said, “[The] story of progress in the Indo-Pacific [is that] dictatorships have fallen and democracies have risen in their place.”

First published in The Hill. 

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the Secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies, and has held nonresident appointments in the Asia-Pacific program at the Atlantic Council and the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of SinoInsider. 

Search past entries by date
“The breadth of SinoInsider’s insights—from economics through the military to governance, all underpinned by unparalleled reporting on the people in charge—is stunning. In my over fifty years of in-depth reading on the PRC, unclassified and classified, SinoInsider is in a class all by itself.”
James Newman, Former U.S. Navy cryptologist
“Unique insights are available frequently from the reports of Sinoinsider.”
Michael Pillsbury, Senior Fellow for China Strategy, The Heritage Foundation
“Thank you for your information and analysis. Very useful.”
Prof. Ravni Thakur, University of Delhi, India
“SinoInsider’s research has helped me with investing in or getting out of Chinese companies.”
Charles Nelson, Managing Director, Murdock Capital Partners
“I value SinoInsider because of its always brilliant articles touching on, to name just a few, CCP history, current trends, and factional politics. Its concise and incisive analysis — absent the cliches that dominate China policy discussions in DC and U.S. corporate boardrooms — also represents a major contribution to the history of our era by clearly defining the threat the CCP poses to American peace and prosperity and global stability. I am grateful to SinoInsider — long may it thrive!”
Lee Smith, Author and journalist
“Your publication insights tremendously help us complete our regular analysis on in-depth issues of major importance. ”
Ms. Nicoleta Buracinschi, Embassy of Romania to the People’s Republic of China
"I’m a very happy, satisfied subscriber to your service and all the deep information it provides to increase our understanding. SinoInsider is profoundly helping to alter the public landscape when it comes to the PRC."
James Newman, Former U.S. Navy cryptologist
“Prof. Ming’s information about the Sino-U.S. trade war is invaluable for us in Taiwan’s technology industry. Our company basically acted on Prof. Ming’s predictions and enlarged our scale and enriched our product lines. That allowed us to deal capably with larger orders from China in 2019. ”
Mr. Chiu, Realtek R&D Center
“I am following China’s growing involvement in the Middle East, seeking to gain a better understanding of China itself and the impact of domestic constraints on its foreign policy. I have found SinoInsider quite helpful in expanding my knowledge and enriching my understanding of the issues at stake.”
Ehud Yaari, Lafer International Fellow, The Washington Institute
“SinoInsider’s research on the CCP examines every detail in great depth and is a very valuable reference. Foreign researchers will find SinoInsider’s research helpful in understanding what is really going on with the CCP and China. ”
Baterdene, Researcher, The National Institute for Security Studies (Mongolian)
“The forecasts of Prof. Chu-cheng Ming and the SinoInsider team are an invaluable resource in guiding our news reporting direction and anticipating the next moves of the Chinese and Hong Kong governments.”
Chan Miu-ling, Radio Television Hong Kong China Team Deputy Leader
“SinoInsider always publishes interesting and provocative work on Chinese elite politics. It is very worthwhile to follow the work of SinoInsider to get their take on factional struggles in particular.”
Lee Jones, Reader in International Politics, Queen Mary University of London
“[SinoInsider has] been very useful in my class on American foreign policy because it contradicts the widely accepted argument that the U.S. should work cooperatively with China. And the whole point of the course is to expose students to conflicting approaches to contemporary major problems.”
Roy Licklider, Adjunct Professor of Political Science, Columbia University
“As a China-based journalist, SinoInsider is to me a very reliable source of information to understand deeply how the CCP works and learn more about the factional struggle and challenges that Xi Jinping may face. ”
Sebastien Ricci, AFP correspondent for China & Mongolia
“SinoInsider offers an interesting perspective on the Sino-U.S. trade war and North Korea. Their predictions are often accurate, which is definitely very helpful.”
Sebastien Ricci, AFP correspondent for China & Mongolia
“I have found SinoInsider to provide much greater depth and breadth of coverage with regard to developments in China. The subtlety of the descriptions of China's policy/political processes is absent from traditional media channels.”
John Lipsky, Peter G. Peterson Distinguished Scholar, Kissinger Center for Global Affairs
“My teaching at Cambridge and policy analysis for the UK audience have been informed by insights from your analyzes. ”
Dr Kun-Chin Lin, University Lecturer in Politics,
Deputy Director of the Centre for Geopolitics, Cambridge University
" SinoInsider's in-depth and nuanced analysis of Party dynamics is an excellent template to train future Sinologists with a clear understanding that what happens in the Party matters."
Stephen Nagy, Senior Associate Professor, International Christian University
“ I find Sinoinsider particularly helpful in instructing students about the complexities of Chinese politics and what elite competition means for the future of the US-China relationship.”
Howard Sanborn, Professor, Virginia Military Institute
“SinoInsider has been one of my most useful (and enjoyable) resources”
James Newman, Former U.S. Navy cryptologist
“Professor Ming and his team’s analyses of current affairs are very far-sighted and directionally accurate. In the present media environment where it is harder to distinguish between real and fake information, SinoInsider’s professional perspectives are much needed to make sense of a perilous and unpredictable world. ”
Liu Cheng-chuan, Professor Emeritus, National Chiayi University