A Risky Competition: Payne Distinguished Fellow Sees Challenging Prospects for U.S.-China Relations

Fall 2022 Payne Distinguished Fellow Jia Qingguo, a professor at the School of International Studies at Peking University, examines the drivers behind the frayed U.S.-China relationship and conditions for avoiding a disastrous conflict between the two world powers. Cold War-style confrontation will continue to define the bilateral relationship in the coming years, he predicts.
Jia Qingguo, Thomas Fingar, and Michael McFaul seated for a discussion in a conference room. (L to R) Jia Qingguo, Thomas Fingar, and Michael McFaul.

After U.S. President Joe Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping recently met face-to-face for the first time since Biden took office on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Indonesia, Biden said he absolutely believed “there need not be a new Cold War” between the two powers. International politics scholar and expert on U.S.-China relations Jia Qingguo, however, is not as certain about this assessment. “If a Cold War between the two countries has not arrived quite yet, it no longer appears far away,” said Jia, a professor at the School of International Studies at Peking University.

Jia, the Fall 2022 Payne Distinguished Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) and a visiting scholar at APARC, headlined this quarter’s Payne Lecture, speaking to a packed audience that gathered on December 6 for a timely discussion titled Avoiding Disaster in U.S.-China Relations, co-hosted by APARC and FSI.

The Payne Lectureship at FSI, named for Frank E. Payne and Arthur W. Payne, aims to raise public understanding of the complex policy issues facing the global community and advance international cooperation. The lectureship brings to Stanford internationally esteemed leaders from academia and the policy world who combine visionary thinking and a broad, practical grasp of their fields with the capacity to provide insights into pressing challenges of global concern. Throughout the 2022-23 academic year, the Payne Lectureship hosts experts from Asia who examine crucial questions in U.S.-China relations.

Professor Jia is uniquely qualified to assess the prospects of U.S.-China relations and offer perspectives from both inside and outside of China, said Jean Oi, director of APARC’s China Program and a senior fellow at FSI. Jia has published widely in both Chinese and English, taught at multiple international institutions, and earned a doctorate from Cornell University. He is engaged both with China’s academic and policymaking circles in his roles as vice president of the China American Studies Association, vice president of the Chinese Association for International Studies, and a member of the Standing Committee of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Consultative Conference.

Jia’s address was followed by a panel discussion with Shorenstein APARC Fellow Thomas Fingar, an expert on China and U.S. foreign policy, and FSI Director Michael McFaul, the Ken Olivier and Angela Nomellini Professor of International Studies at Stanford’s Department of Political Science.

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Under the influence of the Thucydides Trap argument, almost any action by the United States and China is perceived and interpreted as an effort to prepare for an eventual showdown.
Jia Qingguo

Intensifying Rivalry

The use of the Cold War analogy in the context of the U.S.-China competition has gained currency in recent years among politicians and policymakers. Until recently, however, explained Jia, the U.S.-China relationship did not manifest the three prominent features that characterized the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union: ideological competition, military confrontation, and economic separation. This reality is changing. “Now, between the two countries, ideological competition is taking shape, military confrontation is emerging, and although economic relations remain close, efforts to delink the two economies, especially in the hi-tech sectors, are increasing,” Jia said, noting the Biden administration’s ban on semiconductor exports to China, China’s increasing efforts to develop indigenous technologies, and the intensifying military tensions over Taiwan.

Why has the relationship frayed in this way? Jia enumerated several factors of particular relevance. The first is the influence of the Thucydides Trap argument, popularized by Harvard political scientist Graham T. Allison to describe a potential conflict between the United States and China. The idea draws from the Greek historian’s metaphor of the concomitant dangers when a rising power challenges a ruling power, as when Athens challenged Sparta. Under the influence of this line of argument, said Jia, almost any action by the United States and China is perceived and interpreted as an effort to prepare for an eventual showdown.

For example, Americans who subscribe to the Thucydides Trap argument interpret China's growing defense spending as military buildup aimed at challenging American military supremacy, and its Belt and Road Initiative and aid programs as schemes designed to facilitate its grand geopolitical ambitions. Similarly, for Chinese who subscribe to this line of argument, the central objective of U.S. diplomacy is to contain China, Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea are designed to undermine China's territorial sovereignty, and U.S. criticism of China's human rights practices is intended to create political instability in the country. “People who subscribe to the Thucydides Trap argument in both countries cite each other’s views to support their argument and push for more confrontational policies in both countries,” argued Jia. “Such efforts have a significant impact on the bilateral relationship.”

The second factor elevating tensions between the two world powers is their different political value systems, Jia explained. For a long time, China’s Communist system was no hindrance to the development of the U.S. China policy framework of engagement. Perhaps this was the case because China was weaker and many U.S. policymakers believed that political liberalization in the country would follow its integration into the international system, Jia theorized. In recent years, however, Americans have come to recognize that China did not change in the direction they had anticipated. Now, said Jia, former supporters of engagement as the foundation of U.S. China policy feel disappointed and see China as a threat to the U.S.-led liberal international order. Against this backdrop, the Chinese leadership also feels the need to elevate ideology at home. The emphasis on the contrasting ideologies between the two countries “is bad news for the bilateral relationship," Jia stated. “If the relationship is about interests, then we can always negotiate and compromise, but if it’s about values, then it becomes a conflict of good versus evil” which leaves no room for pragmatic solutions.

Jia sees the role of Donald Trump as a third significant factor in leading U.S.-China relations to a collision course. Unlike previous U.S. presidents, he noted, Trump was willing to get tough on China and push the limit of the bilateral relationship regardless of the cost to the United States. Jia enumerated Trump administration policies and actions such as setting tariffs and other trade barriers on China, restricting people-too-people exchanges between the two countries, launching what some perceive as technological warfare against China, blaming China for the eruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, and raising suspicions against Chinese nationals in the United States. With this approach, said Jia, the Trump administration “pushed the relationship between the two countries to the brink of total breakdown.”

To China, the issue of Taiwan is like a way of life, so no leader can compromise on it and stay in power.
Jia Qingguo

But the U.S.-China relationship is no better under President Joe Biden than it was under his predecessor, largely due to domestic politics, Jia said. Legislation aimed at countering China's growing influence is one of the rare topics that gets bipartisan support in the polarized U.S. Congress, he noted. On the Chinese side, many people are frustrated by what they perceive as negatively skewed China coverage in U.S. news media. Chinese officials have become increasingly confident to adopt a more strident, assertive approach, a turn in Chinese foreign policy that has been branded “wolf warrior diplomacy.”

Altogether, these elements have exacerbated negative interactions and heated exchanges between the two countries. To avoid a disastrous conflict, the two countries should focus on shared interests and remember that international stability is one such common interest, Jia believes. “We are all stakeholders of the existing international system,” he said, “so we need to take a more balanced view of the nature of our relationship.” Areas of potential cooperation, such as climate change or non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, offer a glimpse of hope for improved bilateral engagement.

Additionally, he noted, the two countries should build consultation mechanisms to manage conflicts of interest in areas such as trade disputes, the right to conduct military and reconnaissance activities along the coasts of other countries, human rights issues, and more.

Yet Jia admitted that the United States and China should build guardrails for the relationship to avoid military accidents and confrontations. Here, however, a potential conflict over Taiwan is a thorn in the side of both countries. “To China, the issue of Taiwan is like a way of life,” Jia noted, “so no leader can compromise on it and stay in power.” Guardrails in U.S.-China relations should therefore go beyond agreement on protocols to encompass U.S. assurance on Taiwan, he said.

By 2016, every constituency that had been thought of as a pillar of maintaining stability in the U.S.-China relationship had been alienated.
Thomas Fingar

Alienated Constituencies

In his comments, Thomas Fingar pointed out that Jia’s main argument ultimately means that blame for the difficulties in the U.S.-China relationship rests more or less entirely with the United States and that “everything that China does, and has done recently, is in response to American actions.” In reality, however, the relationship is affected by a complicated mix in which both countries respond to each other’s actions and changes in the global environment, he said.

Fingar also challenged the importance Jia assigned to the role of the Trump administration in deteriorating the bilateral relationship. “By the time the Trump administration took office,” Fingar said, “virtually every constituency that had been built over previous decades had been alienated by Chinese actions.” These actions, he stated, include, among others, imposing intellectual property pressures to transfer technology; refusing to open segments of the Chinese economy as had been committed in advance of its WTO membership; restrictions on American journalists and access to American news media; and passing the Overseas Non-Governmental Organization law, which aims primarily at reducing the influence of foreign actors on Chinese domestic affairs by requiring foreign organizations to register with the Ministry of Public Security and have an official Chinese sponsor.

As a result, by 2016, said Fingar, “every constituency that had been thought of as a pillar of maintaining stability in the relationship had been alienated.” Thus, although one can debate Trump's approach to China, the approach was not simply a matter of his personality and the underlying issues it set out to address were real. According to Fingar, this dynamic also explains why the Biden administration has kept a tough stance on China.

On one point Fingar agreed with Jia: the strains in the U.S.-China relationship are here to stay in the near term. There is currently not much pressure in the United States to improve the relationship, Fingar said, and it is probably easier for the United States to get along with the strained relationship than for China. “For domestic economic and stability reasons, China needs improvement in the relationship more than the United States does,” he concluded. “China should, therefore, have more incentive than Washington to try and improve the relationship.”

We can never allow a disagreement based on bad information and misperceptions. And I worry that there's too much of that going on in U.S.-China relations.
Michael McFaul

Misperceptions and Non-Events

Michael McFaul reminded the audience of the limits to framing the U.S.-China relationship through a Cold War lens. The most fundamental difference between the present situation and the Cold War era, he noted, is the U.S.-China economic interdependence and China's integration into the global economy. Most Americans now see China’s stake in the global economy as a threat, McFaul said, but the situation may also hold opportunities for relationship management that we did not have with the Soviet Union. Certainly, there are opportunities to learn from significant mistakes both the United States and the Soviets made during the Cold War era.

The three biggest mistakes of the United States during that period, according to McFaul, were overestimating the Soviet ideological threat globally, and therefore overreacting to it; at times, overestimating Soviet military power; and partnering with autocratic entities that, in retrospect, "we did not need to do to win the Cold War." These offer important lessons for the United States, said McFaul, as we think about competing with China in ways that protect U.S. interests, values, and well-being. “We don't have to do another round of McCarthyism. We don't have to fight another Vietnam war to be successful in managing the competition with China today.”

The Soviets, too, made several big mistakes, McFaul explained. First, they feared Communist reformers so much that they launched three invasions: of Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Poland in 1981. Moreover, in the late Cold War period, the Soviets gave up on reform at home to focus on investing resources in projecting power abroad. “I see this mistake happening right now,” McFaul said, “when I look at China’s 20th Party Congress.” Finally, Brezhnev’s overreach in Afghanistan was the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union. Overreach, McFaul noted, is an important lesson for China’s current leaders.

McFaul closed his remarks with reflections on perceptions and misperceptions. The Thucydides Trap in U.S.-China relations is real, he said, and so is the ideological competition between the two powers. To argue otherwise would be naïveté and misperception. The challenge for academics and policymakers is twofold, he stated. First, there is the daunting question of what can be done to stabilize the relationship and what evidence or signaling either side could use to determine whether the other’s actions pose a real threat or are merely being misperceived as an ideological threat. “We can never allow a disagreement based on bad information and misperceptions. And I worry that there's too much of that going on in U.S.-China relations,” he said.

Another compounding question is whether China is indeed a status quo power that has a shared interest in the international order. Either side should be worried about the revisionist actions the other is initiating in the international system, McFaul noted. “There is, however, one issue on which both sides must be status quo powers, namely, Taiwan — and I think this is the challenge to avoiding disaster.” The greatest achievement of American and Chinese diplomacy today, in McFaul’s view, is the absence of war over Taiwan. “We should think more about the conditions that lead to non-events,” he said. “You cannot be a status quo power and invade Taiwan. That's a contradiction. I want to believe that we both have an interest in avoiding war in Taiwan. I want to know how we can make, on both sides, a more credible commitment to that non-event,” he concluded.

It remains to be seen whether a sufficient sense of urgency and high stakes can avert the downward spiral in U.S.-China relations. Jia’s somber assessment is that tensions will continue to define the bilateral relationship in the coming years. A potential conflict over Taiwan in particular remains a stumbling block, and if the current trend continues, he said, then “there is a chance that the two countries may have to downgrade diplomatic relations.”

The Payne Lectureship will return in 2023, continuing with the theme of Asian perspectives on the U.S.-China relationship. In the winter quarter, we will host Shin Jung-Seung, former ambassador for the Republic of Korea to China and currently chair professor and managing director of the East Asia Institute at Dongseo University. And in the spring, we will be joined by Kokubun Ryosei, professor emeritus at Keio University and adjunct adviser at the Fujitsu Future Studies Center. We invite you to join us at the next installments of the Payne Lecture series featuring these two distinguished Payne fellows.

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