Desktop version

Home arrow Political science

  • Increase font
  • Decrease font

<<   CONTENTS   >>

When elephants roar: the coming moral conflict between the United States and China

Gao Qing

An immediate consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a worsening of relations between the United States and China on several fronts, including diplomacy, trade, and military competition in East Asia. Are the two great powers on the same path to escalated conflict that generated two world wars in the twentieth century? This essay by a leading figure in the Confucius Institute describes the likely impact of a period of extended and uneven economic recovery on their relations, emphasizing steps that groups interested in conflict resolution can take to turn these possible scenarios in a more peaceful direction.

When Dr. Henry Kissinger recalled his first meeting with Premier Minister Chou En-lai during his secret trip to China on July 9, 1971, he wrote,

I had prepared a long and slightly pedantic opening statement, reciting the history of US-Chinese relations that had led up to the present meeting. At the end of its introductory part I said with an attempt at eloquence: “Many visitors have come to this beautiful, and to us, mysterious land. ” Chou [En-lai] held up his hand: “You will find it not mysterious. When you have become familiar with it, it will not be as mysterious as before. ” I was taken aback, but Chou was certainly right. Our concern was not the bilateral issues between us - at least at first. We had to build confidence; to remove the mystery. (Kissinger 1979)

Since then, a structure of complex multidimensional bilateral relations between the United States and China has served as an anchor of regional stability and global economic development, which as Kissinger anticipated, has become “one of the foundations of contemporary international relations,” particularly in the post-Cold War era. Nearly forty-nine years later, however, we find ourselves standing at a historical crossroad with confusion, frustration, and anxiety characterizing the uncertainty of US-China relations. In 1971, it was crucial for the United States and China to developing a working partnership. Today the problem is existential. When Kissinger and Chou came to know one another, China remained a sleepy giant at the frontier of modernity. Today, it is as much a rival principle to the West itself as it is an economic behemoth. If there is one relationship in the world that is essential for the future of human flourishing all around the world, it is that between the United States and China. The myopic and confrontation reaction of the two countries to it might impede a healthy conversation between them, which makes it all the more critical for the field to invest in conflict resolution theory and practice with respect to this most central of all bilateral relationships.

Between the United States and China: a new cold war?

Since the normalization of US-China diplomatic relations, a range of contentious issues raised by both sides has continued to unfold in geopolitics, trade and economy, ideology and social values, civil rights and state governance, and in technology. Those issues reflect both sharp and subtle differences which have emerged and evolved over a relatively long time span. Nevertheless, these various contentions and confrontations can be characterized as part of single complex of strained cooperation. This complex, in my view, can be viewed from four perspectives.

First, the developing relationship between the two countries across a multitude of fields has proven to be mutually productive and beneficial, overshadowing the contentions and hostilities that have divided the countries. China's engagement with the United States, as well as its integration into the international community with policy of openness, has greatly improved Chinese standards of living, infrastructure and industrial modernization, education, and technology, while the United States has benefited from access to the largest market in world history and the import of affordable products. China’s strong and stable economic performance during the 2008 financial recession in particular anchored the bumpy financial market in the United States and elsewhere. Although issues related to intellectual property and technology transfers have raised accusations and blame from both sides, joint ventures, collaborations, and investments have contributed to rapid technological development and innovation both in Silicon Valley, California and Zhongguancun. Beijing.

Second, the international community has been explicitly and overwhelmingly in favor of a stable US-China bilateral relationship, as opposed to the toxic versions that now threaten to emerge. The rapid growth of China, benefited by economic engagement and connections with the United States, has become the largest engine of global economic growth since 2008 for the world as a whole. In the recent decade, the ties and cooperation

When elephants roar 125 between the United States and China have shaped international joint forces to address pressing global problems, including nuclear weapon proliferation, regional armed conflict prevention, disaster relief, international crime, climate change, energy sustainability, global poverty, and, ironically, global diseases and pandemic (Swaine 2019). To thoughtful international observers, the coincidence of competition and cooperation was a dynamic that was good for the world itself, whatever its drawbacks.

Third, the issues and incidents throughout the twentieth century that halted or set back the progress of the bilateral relationship were almost all /nono-directional in the sense that all the action was in the vicinity of China itself. In the first thirty years of diplomatic relations, the United States has consistently been in the position of raising dissatisfactions and initiating pressures toward China in locales in or near China and far away from the United States, such as Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and Taiwan. This reflected the unbalanced power and influence between the two sides and the relatively weak position of China in those years. The good news is that as China has grown in strength, it has pressed for a gradual evolution of the balance of power despite its own revolutionary origins. This evolutionary attitude is now a stable feature of Chinese global policy.

Fourth, the core of policymakers and social elites on both sides have consistently engaged in pmdent and effective maneuvers to navigate through the various episodes of bilateral turbulence that could have disrupted global stability during the critical moments of the evolving relationship. From the establishment of Pakistan Channel for secretly connecting the top leaders between the two countries, to the Hainan Island incident of 2001 in which a US Navy EP-3 signals intelligence aircraft collided with China's People's Liberation Army J-8 interceptor fighter, decision-makers have carefully conducted restrained measures to prevent direct conflicts. This prudence has become a relatively stable feature of the complex of strained US-China cooperation.

As promising as this complex may be, current trends are clearly signaling a different direction as the relationship continues to move toward a more dangerous level of confrontation and animosity. These portents of a new and perhaps even more dangerous Cold War have left analysts of US-China relations trained in international relations desperate to use their limited diplomatic options and measures to repair the broken relationship. Many of these analysts, however, are stuck in a twentieth century mentality, upholding the immediate unilateral interests of their own nation and attempting to intimidate the other side into making concessions. To maintain global stability and prevent disastrous direct conflicts between the two essential nations, we need a new way of thinking. This is why it is so critical for the field of peace and conflict resolution to center its efforts on the future of the

US/China relationship, something which has yet to be done on an adequate scale.

Deconstructing the rising power myth

It is tme that much of the most intense conflict in the latter part of the twentieth century, from Korea and Vietnam to the South China Sea, can be thought of as a competitive struggle between the United States and China, and yet a deeper analysis reveals the existence of a complex of strained stability. What, then, led both sides to become poised toward a state of conflict? One perspective frequently noted is summarized in Graham Allison's term, the Thucydides Trap: a rising power rivals the existing supremacy of an established power in ways that can only be resolved through military confrontation. Unfortunately, this pattern fails to recognize the deep roots of this conflict in both parties’ domestic politics and projected histories. Despite hawkish and hostile narratives, the stability complex that has evolved to contain the hostilities of the two sides suggests that the true interests of the two nations are far from incompatible.

Part of the problem is that the recent history of global power has biased our attention toward the West. We have paid excess attention to the interests, ideas, and foibles of the United States, as if Chinese domestic concerns and historical memory were irrelevant. The social identity of the Chinese people and the likely effects of the crisis on them is much less well understood. China's long and vibrant ancient history and the dramatic social changes in the modern and contemporary periods are only now beginning to be investigated with proper theoretical frames to ground the research.

Among the most useful conflict resolution tools available to gain access to Chinese, social identity is the well-known concept of “chosen trauma” developed by the psychoanalyst Vamik Volkan (Vblkan 1991, 2001). Chinese modernity has been haunted by its experience of the nineteenth century. From the first Opium War in 1840 to the founding of the People’s Republic of China is a period commonly referred to in China as “one hundred years of humiliation,” a phrase demonstrating how the Chinese people see themselves as having been victimized by Western oppressors. The suspicion and resentment generated by this historical memory frames the view of the West, both past and present, and much anti-Western rhetoric derives from suspicion that criticism of China is little more than an attempt to curb the recent rise of the nation and is intended to bring back suffering and hardships to the Chinese people.

But not all views of how the West came east are negative or destructive of Chinese self-confidence. Two other sentiments related to the experience of historical trauma frame the typical Chinese self-concept as well. First is

When elephants roar 127 the admiration of modern science and technology whose superiority was clearly demonstrated by national humiliations. The public consensus in China ascribes China's defeat by Western forces during much of the modem era to a mismatch between the two sides in science and technological capacity, a product of the Industrial Revolution. Joseph Stalin's proclamation of "those who fall behind get beaten” has been very well received in China and is probably a more popular phrase there than in the original country. Views like these have motivated Chinese society to focus on the development of science, technology, and engineering to quickly catch up with the pace in the industrial countries. It has forged a mindset that China has the historical duty and right to acquire new technology regardless of the obstacles that others may put in the way and pride in recent progress on this account forms a key part of Chinese self-confidence today. For better relations in the future. Western leaders should recognize the importance to the Chinese self-concept of this drive to acquire Western techniques. It will not be readily conceded, no matter how strident the accusations of intellectual property theft may become. Therefore, intellectual property arguments should always be understood in this interpretive context.

The second point is related to the first. The depth and long endurance of the mismatch of science and technology between East and West has produced a tendency to lionize Western technological superiority even if the West is still seen as spiritually backward. This sentiment has motived great efforts across almost all disciplines of Chinese educational institutions to imitate and reproduce the Western model of higher education, promoting educational exchanges on a vast scale that may well be one of the signal features of intellectual development of the twenty-first century. The pandemic has disrupted this historic flow of students and ideas, but it will change its form rather than putting an end to it. Success in higher education and technological development has bolstered Chinese social identity just as American superiority has been perceived to decline. As the American domestic economy faltered after the Great Recession in 2008, and as issues of social injustice have come to the fore, China has returned to a much older story to explain itself: that of the old “middle kingdom” that now sits at the middle of the whole world, a state with an obligation to serve the world as well as a claim to preeminence. Most recently, the comparison of the efficiency of government measures against the pandemic by China and the United States has reinforced that confidence and led to a perception that “China's systematic advantage” will continually outperform the West.

This volatile mix of views of history and destiny leaves China in a complex relationship with the new world order created under Western leadership after World War II. In some sense, China should be thought of not as joining the existing system as much as providing an opportunity to reimagine it, a condition demanded by the inexorable fact of Chinese growth. China's successful growth has been largely due to the pragmatism and realistic mentality that Deng Xiaoping decisively introduced on his watch to mediate various contradictory opinions regarding the direction of the nation. The unquestioned success of that attitude continues to drive Chinese policymak-ers in their statecraft. Deng's famous metaphor, "whether a cat is black or white, a cat that can catch rats is a good cat” illustrated his view of prioritizing tangible and substantial development over ideological purity. This attitude provides an opportunity for a realistic engagement of China and the West as they emerge from the pandemic, but it has also led to rampant materialism in Chinese society and also to an overconfidence that could become an obstacle to effective dialogue in addressing issues and building trust to prevent conflict escalation.

East and West after the Pandemic

Although there is little in the first thirty years of bilateral diplomatic relations to suggest that tensions between China and the United States will soon abate, it is critical to remember that US-China interaction is not merely about these two countries. As the two largest economies from two sides of the Pacific Ocean, this relationship impacts everywhere in the globe. Unlike the Cold War, however, when two camps were divided by the ideological differences, it will be nearly impossible for most countries to choose sides in this relationship. Economic relations with both China and the United States are crucial, and for most of the countries, there is insufficient direct hostility toward either side sufficient to prompt conflict and a Cold War style division.

In addition, the challenges of establishing regional security and stability around the world will very likely lead to more pragmatic engagements between the United States and China in global governance. The European Union has been a powerful example of cooperation sufficient to balance the influence of both the United States and China. Each side needs to take to interests of a newly united Europe more seriously than it did before. Other multilateral structures such as the Arab League, the African Union, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are likely to grow in independence and strength, while countries in Latin America and even East Asia may be more motivated to consider closer patterns of regional integration. This change, if it occurs, will drastically change the landscape of global order by further diminishing unipolar supremacy, providing a more flexible mechanism for dealing with regional and international conflicts and mitigating the East-West divide.

The field of peace and conflict resolution provides us with many of the tools we need to confront the challenge of a new world order that will

When elephants roar 129 arise after the pandemic. The field and its concepts help us to recognize the role of culture in each conflict situation, the burdens of history, and the frameworks through which new experiences are interpreted. Those who recognize the gaps in culture, history, and interpretation between the United States and China will know how to better conduct future peacebuilding initiatives between the two leading powers of the coming century. Instead of the dire warnings of a Thucydides Trap that condemns the two to animosity and struggle, trends supporting mutual learning across cultural divides may create an opportunity to form an authentic and healthy relationship between people east and west based on empathy, respect, and appreciation of cross-cultural human experience. The sense of humanity and universal values of peace, justice and yes, even love, are the fundamental components of every culture, which can become a bridge of solidarity to bring people together.


Bell, Daniel A., and Pei Wang. Just Hierarchy: Why Social Hierarchies Matter in China, and the Rest of the World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020. Cheung, Chantai. “The New Yellow Peril? - Anti-Chinese Sentunent in the West.” Northeastern University Political Review, March 18,2020. www.nupoliticalreview. com/2020/03/18/the-new-yellow-peril-anti-chinese-sentinient-in-the-west/.

Ferguson, Niall. “We're All State Capitalists Now.” Foreign Policy, 2012. https://

Galtung, Johan. Solving Conflicts: A Peace Research Perspective. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1989.

Kissinger, A. Henry. White House Years. Boston: Little Brown, 1979.

Lederach, John P. Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Society. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1997.

Miall. Hugh, Oliver Ramsbotham, and Tom Woodhouse. Contemporary Conflict Resolution. Cambridge: Polity, 1999.

-------. Open Doors. Institution of International Education, 2019. https://iiebooks.

Rubenstein, E. Richard. Reasons to Kill: Why Americans Choose War. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010.

Swaine, D. Michael. “A Relationship Under Extreme Duress: U.S.-China Relations at a Crossroads.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 16,2019.

Vblkan, Vamid D. “On Chosen Trauma.” Mind and Human Interaction 4 (1991): 3-19.

------. "Transgenerational Transmissions and Chosen Traumas: An Aspect of Large-Group Identity.” Group Analysis 34, no. 1 (2001): 79-97.

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Related topics