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Soft power key for Sino-US relations

By Joseph S. Nye | China Daily Global | Updated: 2023-05-25 09:09
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Since 2016, the United States and China have entered a new and difficult phase in their relationship, but it is a mistake to call it a new Cold War. During the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union had virtually no trade or cultural ties. By contrast, annual China-US trade totals more than half a trillion dollars, and more than 300,000 Chinese students and 3 million tourists are in the US each year. A better description of today's bilateral relationship is "cooperative rivalry" or "managed competition".

Since the end of World War II, US-China relations have gone through three phases that lasted roughly two decades each. Hostility marked the 20 years after the Korean War, followed by limited cooperation against the Soviet Union during the phase that followed president Richard Nixon's famous 1972 visit and talks with Chairman Mao Zedong. The Cold War's end ushered in a third phase of economic engagement, with the US helping China's global economic integration, including its entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001. Now, since 2017, the US National Security Strategy focuses on great power rivalry, with China as the pacing challenge.

While many Chinese analysts blame this fourth phase on US president Donald Trump, the view of China in Washington had already begun to sour before the 2016 presidential election. Trump's rhetoric and tariffs were merely gasoline poured on a smoldering fire.

The liberal international order helped China sustain rapid economic growth and reduce poverty dramatically.

But the US believes that China also tilted the trade field to its advantage by subsidizing State-owned enterprises, engaging in commercial espionage, and requiring foreign companies to transfer their intellectual property to domestic "partners". While many Democrats argued that Trump was mistaken to focus on the bilateral trade deficit, many supported his complaints about China's efforts to challenge the US' technological advantage. Moreover, China's growing military strength added a security dimension to the bilateral relationship.

While this fourth phase of the relationship is not a Cold War, it is much more than a typical trade dispute. Both countries are trying to "de-risk" their interdependence by subsidizing indigenous industries and altering supply chains.

Some analysts believe this fourth phase marks the beginning of a conflict in which an established hegemon goes to war with a rising challenger. In his explanation of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides famously argued that it was caused by Sparta's fear of a rising Athens. These analysts believe that China's rise will create a similar fear in the US, and use the analogy of World War I, when a rising Germany set hegemonic Britain on edge.

Germany had already surpassed Britain in industrial production by 1900, while China's GDP (measured in dollars) is currently only three-quarters the size of the US economy. The US and China have more time and assets to manage their relationship than Britain had with Germany. China is also constrained by a natural balance of power in Asia, in which Japan and India have no desire to be dominated by it. Succumbing to the fear that Thucydides described would be an unnecessary self-fulfilling prophecy for both countries. Neither China nor the US poses an existential threat to the other unless they blunder into a war. China and the US are too big to invade or change each other.

There is another dimension, however, that makes this fourth phase a "cooperative rivalry" rather than a Cold War. China and the US face transnational challenges that are impossible to resolve without the other. Climate change and rising sea levels obey the laws of physics, not politics.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, borders have become more porous to everything from illicit drugs to infectious diseases to terrorism. The two largest economies will have to cooperate to cope with these threats. Some aspects of the relationship will therefore involve a positive-sum game in which US national security will require partnering with China, and vice versa.

The key question is whether the two countries are capable of thinking in terms of a "cooperative rivalry". In an age of populist nationalism in both countries, it is much easier for leaders to create fear about a new Cold War. This is why soft power is so important to the relationship.

Soft power is the ability to get what one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment. Both China and the US use their soft power to compete for influence in third countries, but it can also play an important positive-sum role in the bilateral relationship.

If China and the US are able to attract each other, they improve the prospects for the cooperation that benefits both countries. And soft power makes it more difficult for nationalistic leaders to demonize the other country and blunder into a disastrous war. Unfortunately, current political rhetoric is undercutting mutual soft power. Both governments should try to increase their soft power.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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