[Hwang’s China and the World] US and China Neck to Neck in a New Cold War Long Race
Discourse with renowned Chinese expert in American Studies
Published : Jan 10, 2022 - 17:47
Updated : Jan 10, 2022 - 17:49
Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations, chairman of academic committee of the school of international studies, and director of the center on American studies at Renmin University of China in Beijing. (Shi Yinhong)
US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping had their first summit on Nov. 16. Although the summit was an online-only meeting, the whole international society paid serious attention, since it was the first bilateral talk since the Biden administration was inaugurated 10 months ago. During the main discussion, Biden pinpointed everything he had to from the US’ point of view for its own national interests. This includes human rights issues in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong, unfair trade, a free and open Indo-Pacific, Taiwan defense, and others.

In response, President Xi has criticized the US’s politicization of trade and human rights issues. On the Taiwan issue, he issued a warning: “Those who play with fire will get burned.”

On the other hand, it seems both leaders shared an implicit consensus about US-China conflict and competition staying within controllable limits. President Biden has said, “Our responsibility as leaders of China and the United States is to ensure that competition between our countries does not veer into conflict.”

He added that the US needs to establish a “commonsense guardrail.”

Xi has also said that China must “stabilize the rudder” so both the US and China can “move forward against the wind and waves without yawing, stalling or colliding.”

What is the true face of US-China relations? Is the New Cold War no more than rhetoric, or is it an actual feature? To discuss these things further, The Korea Herald invited professor Shi Yinhong, a renowned Chinese expert in American Studies. He is currently a professor of International Relations, chairman of Academic Committee of the School of International Studies, and director of the Center on American Studies at Renmin University of China in Beijing. He has served as a counselor for the State Council of China since February 2011.

Professor Hwang: First of all, I would like to hear how you would evaluate the US-China Summit.

Professor Shi: In despite of few instances of concrete cooperation, all of which were quite limited, indecisive and likely temporary, the summit online on Nov. 16 Beijing Time has in fact demonstrated how wide the disagreements between China and the United States are. Also, it showed how difficult it is for both countries to achieve a remarkable and lasting rapprochement on any major area of their rivalry. It showed how easily several of them (areas) could deteriorate even further from an already high level of tension.

The issue of Taiwan of course is the most prominent and significant hot spot. The White House made a statement four days before their first bilateral summit. President Biden said that he would not seek concrete results on the issue. Rather, he said he was primarily concerned with setting up the conditions for effective competition. So the two heads of state would discuss how to responsibly deal with competition between the two countries. This was in line with the general principle repeatedly declared by the Biden Administration. As National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on Nov.11, “stiff competition” is the US’ fundamental tune while doing its best to prevent a US-China military conflict through both deterrence and diplomacy. This means that on the issue of Taiwan in particular, and the US-China strategic-military rivalry in general, the Biden Administration strongly pursues a situation where the US can safely broaden and deepen the almost comprehensive support given to Taiwan, including military support. This goes with broadening and deepening the rivalry against China in the Indo-Pacific region and even beyond without risk of military conflict.

Hwang: Continuing our discussion on the summit, do you think the two countries have at least got onto the right track? Or would we expect greater competition between the two in 2022?

Shi: Such a guideline (of “stiff competition”) has been so prominent in President Biden’s statements during the summit and even more so afterward by his administration’s words and actions. The administration’s words and actions feature both an unprecedented increase in frequency and some remarkable escalation on some issues. The permitted time for this interview restricts me from going into any detail, which is well-known to every expert. Moreover, during a short time span of about 1 1/2 months, the Biden Administration displayed a very hardline approach. It was more hardline than almost ever before, on the issues of Xinjiang, realignment of supply chains mainly against China, high tech “containment” toward China, and the Indo-Pacific regional rivalry.

Hwang: Do you consider US-China relations as a New Cold War?

Shi: I have repeated again and again in the past few months that I personally believe a New Cold War has been emerging between the United States and China, if it has not yet definitely emerged. It is a New Cold War, of which one’s perception depends on whether one puts emphasis on the word “New” or on the phrase “Cold War.” If one emphasizes “New,” of course one could find numerous differences between US-Chinese relations and the former US-USSR Cold War, though so many people today incline to overstate those. On the other hand, if one emphasizes “Cold War,” one can easily see that the current rivalry and confrontation between Washington and Beijing already have some major essential features of the old Cold War between Washington and Moscow. We can see it even more so in world history between two antagonistic great powers. We have already seen increasing severity between Washington and Beijing in many respects. There have been more hostile geopolitical and geo-strategic actions, an intensifying arms race, intensifying ideological rivalry, and increasingly severe struggle in the areas of high tech. These have aggravated hostile and more nationalistic public opinion in both countries against each other, while restraining political leadership on both sides.

Hwang: In that case, what definition would you suggest to describe relations?

Shi: From this perspective respecting both the current situation and historical experiences, what is “New” is mainly the critical “decoupling” from critical economic interdependent relationships. This leads more and more critical areas into fragmented and group-oriented separations, just like the strategic stalemate in Europe before the 1980s. This has been replaced by the ominous strategic dynamics and fluidity now in East Asia and the Pacific and beyond. This is a situation which sharply challenges intellectual and other capabilities of the present political and strategic leaderships for every major power. Not only that, the pandemic and other imaginable climate-change related disasters complicated things much further and often stunted leaders’ capacities in a broad sense. Also the “New” is a much more high-tech approach to great power warfare or parawarfare which dramatically increases the dynamics of the rivalry, making it very difficult to control. The “remnants” of economic interdependence and liberal globalization are likely not stronger than all the forces against stabilization.

Hwang: Some are saying that national competition between the US and China comes from technological competition. What do you think the fundamental reason is?

Shi: People are more often than not inclined to easy and simplistic explanations. Among a few of the most prevailing ones throughout history is so-called One Cause Theory. Although the technological competition has been a very important causal factor in the national competition between the US and China, it is extremely difficult to suppose that the historic rivalry between two huge powers like them comes only from a single factor, no matter how significant it is. The so-called fundamental and continuing “power transition” matters matter a lot. Domestic political and social systems, or essential ways of organization at home, with domestic political requirements in terms of both power and ideas, also matter a lot. Closely related to this is ideological competition, differences of adamant political and even cultural traditions, major domestic vested interests of various powerful groups, etc. And finally, ominous interactions between rival major nations, especially in an environment characterized primarily by “jungle politics” and a shortage of critical resources, broadly defined, as is increasingly the case now. The above five or six, together with technological competition, are fundamental reasons. It is difficult or even impossible to make a strict order of importance among them, I believe. This is one of the major reasons why the present rivalry between Washington and Beijing is far from easy to deal with, let alone to solve.

Hwang: A number of countries are concerned with China’s assertive diplomacy. Does this come from the leader’s tendencies, or people’s nationalism due to generational change?

Shi: China’s “assertive diplomacy” is certainly something positive and, more importantly, something it is entitled to, as seen by the majority of the Chinese public. And it is less significant and harmful than China’s assertive strategic-military actions, as seen by strategic and political elites in the US, its allies and close partners. These two things are closely interconnected, together with China’s much increased economic clout. People, especially in China, might doubt that any major nation which experienced such a drastic rise of strength like China did would behave much differently. Besides, I would guess that the Chinese political elites at large rather strongly prefer it. And more so, perhaps, the overwhelming majority of the Chinese public who are influenced by them. By the way, the prominent malfunction of the US and most of the other advanced Western industrial countries in the face of all the major challenges at home was what greatly encouraged an over-triumphalism in China in the first place. Generational change is of course an important reason for all the above, like that in other countries for their current political, social, and international behavior.

Hwang: The United States’ aggression toward China is obvious. What is China’s core interest?

Shi: Some of China’s core interests are most prominently and repeatedly declared by the Chinese political leadership. They teach and guide perception of the most critical interests to the Chinese public. The most paramount one is the leadership of China by the Chinese Communist Party. Or in leaders’ repeated words, “political security,” the No. 1 for national security. Secondly, the absolute prohibition of the independence of Taiwan, especially the de jure one. And the realization of unification across the Taiwan Strait as soon as possible, which was recently declared by China’s top leader as indispensable to the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” For both of these core interests on Taiwan, the Chinese leadership has declared repeatedly that China refuses to make any commitment to no use of force while it will continue to do its best by peaceful means. Thirdly, among the core interests of China according to the country’s leadership are economic, social—and I believe international--development. They have a formally declared time schedule in terms of decades, and general standards for a few stages of “high quality development.” Then there are other core national interests such as the South China and East China Seas. China has claimed territorial sovereignty of islands and 12 nautical miles of adjacent waters. Along with territorial sovereignty of these areas, they have claimed any Chinese-claimed territory’s administrative integrity and fundamental security as among its national core interests. As such, I believe the objective of their military buildup is aimed at making the Chinese armed forces one of the two or at most three strongest national armed forces in the world within a few decades.

Hwang: Does the Korean Peninsula also fit into China’s core interests?

Shi: I have to point out that in my firm belief a few implicit facts are held by the Chinese leadership as the core national interests, including at anytime no tolerance toward any major military threat, at least an imminent one, that comes from the Korean Peninsula.

Hwang: How do you anticipate the security environment of Northeast Asia in 2022?

Shi: Since the Biden Administration’s stampede from Afghanistan, its posture toward China has revised to some degree. Its drastic political predicaments, domestic priority, and strategic difficulties have forced it to freeze as it were the level of high tension between itself and China. This means (1) there would be temporarily no longer at large escalation of tension comparing with its first eight months; (2) At present and in the predictable future there also would be no remarkable and lasting mitigation of tension with China in all major issue areas of rivalry and confrontation. The numerous ominous developments pointed out in my answer to question 1 has begun to make me seriously doubt whether the bilateral relationship would continue to freeze the level of high tension and not reverse to its escalation.

Also, primarily important in predicating the security environment of Northeast Asia in 2022 is the Japanese strategic/military posture toward China throughout 2021: The Japanese government whether under Yoshihide Suga or then Fumio Kishida has definitely destroyed the bottom line on Taiwan, which for many years after the government of Yasuo Fukuda constituted the political basis of the bilateral political relationship -- i.e., in practice the Japanese Prime Minister and his major subordinates never publicly in words and deeds touch the issue of security of Taiwan. Moreover, it is becoming a Japanese fundamental national policy that in the event of major military conflict broke out between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait Japan would launch with the US a joint massive military intervention to prevent the fall of Taiwan.

There is no indication that the above developments in 2021 will probably or even possibly be reversed in 2022. A deterioration of the already tense East China Sea dispute between China and the Japan-US military alliance cannot be excluded, and so too a major drastic development of the DPRK nuclear and missile program.

Hwang: The following year is the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Korea and China. What is the most significant agenda in this relations? Is sticking to “Three noes and one limitation” our crossing point?

Shi: For the relationship between ROK and China, besides the unsolved and unsolvable dispute over THAAD, which has dented the bilateral relations so much with a lasting effect, there are several other developments that happened in 2021that I believe will have a negative impact on China’s perception of the ROK under President Moon Jae-In, though he and his administration have taken a quite friendly attitude toward China in despite Washington’s pressure and disadvantageous domestic opinion about China.

Under the implicit but strong American leverage over provision of COVID-19 vaccines and over continued permission to use American technology to produce semiconductor chips, together with the very seductive American offer to abolish the severe restrictions imposed upon ROK missile development, President Moon decided and then declared during his visit to Washington for the summit with President Biden that ROK would partially participate in Quad, the four power Indo-Pacific strategic alignment with non-strategic and para-strategic aspects. And that ROK (indirectly as he did through for major Korean cooperation’s huge investments in the US) would also partially join the realignment of critical supply chains primarily targeting China. More seriously, he stated in the joint statement issued by his summit with Biden that he would cooperate with the US on peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait.

Hwang: Do you have any other comments to share regarding the relationship between Korea and China?

Shi: A problem even bigger than the above is the lasting prevailing negative public opinion about China since 2017 when the THAAD dispute spoiled whole of the bilateral relations. China’s de facto comprehensive sanctions lasting several months, combined with other elements, leave President Moon no domestic public basis for a friendly posture toward China, and there are powerful forces both in the US and ROK to maintain and aggravate that. I have to frankly state that in the face of the 30th anniversary of the diplomatic ties between ROK and China, the political environment is regrettably not so advantageous for further remarkable warming up of bilateral relations, and economic ones less so, because of, in the first place, high tech decoupling under American pressure. For we Chinese and President Moon, there is a regrettable gap between what should be and what can be, though both have to do something for better. 

If there is any criterion in deciding the national interest in between the US and China, it must be having the nation’s “own principles.” The very foundation of this “own principle” is the capacity in reading the flow of the international order. So far, there are a number of voices that accepts today’s US-China competition as the New Cold War. However, standing at the “entrance” of the New Cold War, as the former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has mentioned, might be a more accurate description. Today’s US-China competition is not the same as the US-Soviet Union Cold War, which was mostly about competition. The current one can be said to have competition in 7 out of 10 areas with cooperation in the other 3. If we believe that we are standing in the middle of the New Cold War, we must define the New Cold War.

In other words, is Biden’s next four years going to follow a Trump-ish foreign policy? Is China going to become more opaque and assertive? Is the international society going to lose the multilateral mechanism and its function? Will the powers flock to either one of these two superpowers and be hostile to each other? Will ideology and cultural conflicts float up to the surface? Are we entering into an era of anti-globalization or non-globalization? We are only able to define the international order after the COVID-19 pandemic and in the further future, when we clearly and comprehensively can answer to the questions above. The US’s China bashing seems set to continue due to the mid-term elections. However, because of the two sides’ economic closeness, they will still have gray areas of cooperation.

Hwang Jae-ho is a professor of the division of international studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. He is also the director of the Institute for Global Strategy and Cooperation and now a member of the Presidential Committee on Policy and Planning. This discussion was assisted by researcher Ko Sung-hwah and Shin Eui-chan.

By Choi He-suk (