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Yu Wen Vision: Has the worst moment in beauty passed?

U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping hold face-to-face talks during the G20 summit in Indonesia. (14 November 2022)
U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping hold face-to-face talks during the G20 summit in Indonesia. (14 November 2022)

Observers generally agree that the meeting was better than expected, but there are different assessments of the interests behind the smiling and handshake between the two men and whether the U.S.-China relationship has come out of its worst moment.

In this author’s view, the visit will temporarily stop the decline and stabilize the US-China relationship, which is too bad to be worse. The reason why the current relationship between the two countries is described as “too bad to be worse” is because if it is worse, it may be a direct military conflict. Looking at Washington’s chip supply cut-off and technology decoupling behavior against China, this is actually treating China as an enemy country. And Biden’s eagerness to see Xi Jinping is also a concrete sense of the real danger that the two countries will clash next. Beijing often beats Washington with Biden’s “four noes and one unintentional” commitment – including this time – that is, not seeking to change China’s system, not seeking a “new cold war”, not seeking to oppose China by strengthening alliances, not supporting “Taiwan independence”, and having no intention of conflict with China, but if Biden really has this commitment to Xi, at least at this stage does not want to enter into a military conflict with China.

Data photo U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping meet during the APEC summit in Peru. (20 November 2016)
Data photo U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping meet during the APEC summit in Peru. (20 November 2016)

In the four years of Trump, the United States has completely shifted from the past engagement policy to help China integrate into the global system to containment and containment, especially in the last two years, the confrontation between the two sides intensified, and the relationship between the two countries deteriorated across the board. Biden’s rise to power has not changed this trend, and so far the intensity and scope of the confrontation between the United States and China have exceeded that of the Trump era. The Biden administration has clearly defined China as America’s only systemic competitor in the next 10 years and is ready to defeat China in a decade. At this meeting, Biden also declared that the United States will not give up its fierce competition with China. In other words, competition, or confrontation as some American strategists call it, is still the main axis of US-China policy, which not only has the full support of the Democratic Party and Republicans but also has a high degree of consistency in American society and public opinion. Once established, this historical stereotype will last for a long time, just as the engagement policy that preceded it was three or four decades, and the U.S. containment strategy has changed at least two or three decades since the Trump era. No politician in Washington can reverse this historical set, nor will they want to.

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U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping hold face-to-face talks during the G20 summit in Indonesia. (14 November 2022)
U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping hold face-to-face talks during the G20 summit in Indonesia. (14 November 2022)

Although Biden added “two Chinas” and “one China, one Taiwan” to the original “four noes and one unintentional” in his talks with Xi, had no intention of clashing with China, had no intention of seeking “decoupling” from China, had no intention of obstructing China’s economic development, and had no intention of containing China, most strategists agreed that the two countries had entered the so-called “Thucydides trap” and that the “new Cold War” actually occurred earlier. The former is academically manifested as the confrontation between the eldest and the second; The latter is a reference to the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union of that year, but it is not simply repeating history but has new characteristics and manifestations of the present, so it is called the “new cold war”.

In other words, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was a confrontation between two camps, a geopolitical and ideological confrontation, although the two blocs basically did not have economic and cultural exchanges at that time, in this regard, the Cold War period was a semi-globalized era, but the United States was still making every effort to curb the expansion of the Soviet Union’s power in geopolitical, economic, military and ideological aspects, such as establishing an alliance system, implementing export controls, and strengthening control over high-tech transfers. As well as waging propaganda and psychological warfare, etc. Today’s U.S.-China rivalry is more complex than the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, but Washington is also mobilizing a variety of diplomatic, economic, and strategic tools to contain China, including alliance systems, human rights and democracy, Taiwan and Indo-Pacific affairs, and more. Even if the two sides fail to achieve complete economic decoupling, a stark distinction between the old and new Cold Wars, the United States is trying to cut ties with China altogether by adopting what Beijing calls “small courtyards and walls” in technology and key supply chains.

This confrontation between the United States and China looks set to intensify over the next five to ten years because Washington has made it clear that the next decade is the window of time for the United States to defeat China, and if it does not work to prevent China’s rise during this time, it may not have a chance later. For this, Washington’s sense of urgency is very strong.

But the driving force behind the U.S.-China rivalry, if it is to be traced, may come down to the aspirations of two civilizations – something that many people are reluctant to admit when it comes to civilization. This may also be the most essential difference between today’s New Cold War and the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The latter can be seen as a contest between two different civilizations within the framework of Western civilization – in the broad sense of Western civilization, after all, Marxism grew on Western soil, its ideological source is Western, and even its variants Lenin and Stalinism have some elements of Western thought. Although the CCP believes in Marxism-Leninism, in terms of autocracy, it inherits more traditional authoritarian elements from China, and its cultural foundation is China’s background, but it has been transformed by Marxism-Leninism.

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Then, from the perspective of civilization, because of the respective histories of the United States and China, both countries consider themselves to be “exceptional” countries with a particularly important mission to human civilization. Needless to say, the United States has a very strong Christian salvation plot, and China also believes that human civilization cannot do without itself. In fact, Marxism also has a strong sense of savior. In particular, in order to strengthen the legitimacy of his third term, on the basis of the original Chinese dream of national rejuvenation, Xi Jinping publicly declared at the 20th National Congress that he would promote Chinese-style modernization and open up the second path of modernization for human civilization. This is actually to compete with the United States in terms of system and civilization. In his talks with Biden, Xi also implicitly expressed this meaning.

Once the competition between the two countries falls to the basic point of system and civilization, it cannot retreat, and it is inevitable to use full power, mobilize resources from all sides, and conduct a comprehensive long-term high-intensity competition, which is the structural meaning of the US-China competition. Of course, it also includes military competition, and it will inevitably develop into the military competition. Military competition tends to be fierce, which is likely to lead to military conflicts. This is what worries Biden most at the moment. Given that the United States and China are both military powers, especially the rapid modernization of China’s military, and both countries are nuclear-armed countries and have sensitive Taiwan issues, at present, the mutual trust between the two sides is extremely lacking, and a slight surprise is likely to lead to a military conflict. That’s why Biden emphasizes the construction of guardrails every time he calls Xi, and this time adds the establishment of foundations. Building U.S.-China guardrails and foundations, clarifying red lines between the two sides, managing conflicts, and preventing runaway competition from triggering military conflict are things that both Washington and Beijing should do.

Yet it is precisely this that is worrying. Relatively speaking, China’s political system determines that leaders’ decision-making and government policies are less interfered with and influenced by different interests, especially Xi Jinping’s words, he has the final say in big and small things, as long as his emotions are stable, his strategic determination is large enough, and he can hold his breath, it is unlikely that there will be a crisis caused by reckless decision-making, or there will be excess in handling the crisis. Of course, this also means that if he is emotionally unstable, lacking concentration, and unable to hold his breath, he will make wrong decisions and make things out of control. The political system of the United States is contrary to China, its president does not have as much power as the Chinese leader, its decision-making and policies are easily influenced and contained by various interest groups, and the interests of all parties must be taken care of and weighed up, and the benefits of this decision-making model are not easy to make big mistakes, but when the interests of several large interest groups are highly opposed, they cannot be compromised, just like now, the domestic politics of the United States are polarized, and the Democratic and Republican parties do not give in to each other for party interests, and it is very difficult to find a balance. China policy is a special case, neither party is opposed to being tough on China, but because of this, it has also made the two parties increase their anti-China.

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The next big test for Biden is whether the introduction of the Taiwan Policy Act and the possible visit to Taiwan by House Speaker McCarthy will become two tipping points in US-China relations after the new Congress takes office next year. The Taiwan Policy Act is bound to be passed without suspense, and if the expression of Taiwan’s status is not softened, the introduction and enforcement of this law will make the US-China relationship more backward than it is currently on. McCarthy said earlier that if the elected speaker of the House of Representatives, he would lead a public visit to Taiwan. If he fulfills his promise and the Biden administration cannot stop it, his visit to Taiwan will definitely lead to more serious consequences than Pelosi’s visit. Xi has warned Biden that the Taiwan issue is “the first insurmountable red line in Sino-US relations”, if the above two situations appear, think about how long the “friendly” atmosphere deliberately created by this visit will last? I am afraid that US-China relations will soon return to their original form, and a more serious situation will come at any time.

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