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A display shows the national flags of China and the United States at the Group of 20 (G-20) Summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 29, 2019.
(LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images)

A series of foreign policy speeches by key officials in U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has sought to redefine the U.S.-China strategic competition as one based on conflicting core ideologies between those of the Chinese Communist Party and those of the free world. But to be effective, the United States needs to revive domestic unity and engender global cooperation, while China only needs to maintain domestic unity and exploit global divisions.

Shaping a China Policy

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered on July 23 the last of a quartet of speeches by White House officials laying out the U.S. case against China. Pompeo called on “the freedom-loving nations of the world” to draw common lines in the sand, and collaborate to “induce China to change.” The speeches, taken together, reframe Washington’s China policy in ideological terms, and seek to both unify U.S. actions toward China and serve as a nucleus for a coordinated global response.

Evoking Cold War imagery of an ideological battle between freedom and tyranny, Pompeo also stated that he has “faith we can defend freedom because of the sweet appeal of freedom itself.” But he also emphasized that the new U.S. approach to Beijing would not be one of Cold War containment. Unlike the Soviet Union, China is integrated into the world system. It cannot simply be isolated. In a further nod to today’s more complex world, Pompeo suggested a looser leadership role for the United States as well, noting that countries would each have to determine their own way of ensuring their national and economic sovereignty from Chinese encroachment.

At their core, the U.S. administration’s China speeches are more traditional and ideological, painting a picture of a United States fighting to preserve universal freedoms, while at the same time suggesting that China is seeking to strengthen its authoritarianism and exploit the world for its own gain. It is an attempt to shift from what has largely been seen as a transactional or rejectionist policy (securing individual U.S. trade goals or countering China for the sake of countering China) to one with a clearer goal — that is, changing the behavior of the Chinese Communist Party. That is not an easier goal, nor is it any less antagonistic. But it does shift from a negative to a positive agenda, which is a key step in building a national narrative that can provide the impetus behind a broader policy initiative.

The Challenge of Unity

To foster acceptance of and alignment with these goals, the United States must both shape a common domestic understanding and facilitate a more cooperative international response to the framework. Domestic social and political dynamics, coupled with the social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, make the first extremely difficult. With fewer than 100 days left until the U.S. presidential election, polarized politics will only grow more fractious. And the likely close election outcome will continue to propel partisan divisions and identity politics. If a global pandemic and the worst unemployment in U.S. history cannot encourage political unity in Congress and on American streets, it is hard to see what would, outside an even worse catastrophe or the exhaustion of time. Even if there is relatively strong bipartisan support for challenging China on human rights, intellectual property and unfair trade practices, it will be an uphill march to try and shape a common ideological narrative to rally the U.S. people and government. And there are many voices still arguing for continued cooperation and dialogue with China, rather than overt confrontation.

Internationally, there has been a move to revisit how China is perceived, particularly amid the COVID-19 crisis. The United Kingdom, India and Australia are all moving to positions more aligned to those espoused by Pompeo — with London making moves against Chinese tech giant Huawei, Canberra following Washington’s lead in officially rejecting Chinese claims in the South China Sea, and New Delhi rethinking its long-standing policy of non-alignment in the face of recent border clashes with Chinese troops and continued Chinese maritime activity in the Indian Ocean. Japan, too, could be added to that list, though in its more subtle way, using economic and defense cooperation to strengthen Southeast Asian nations’ against Chinese enticements and encroachments. An alignment of maritime powers serves as a strong backbone of coordination against China. But many countries, particularly those in Europe, remain reticent to fully take the United States’ “side” against China due to differences over several other policies, from trade to Iran.

The Benefits of Disunity

From the Chinese perspective, Beijing’s strategic fear is a coordinated global effort to “draw a line” and hold China to the existing standards and norms of the Western-oriented world system. Beijing is actively seeking to alter the global system to better fit its own concepts of the relationship between the state, the people and industry. It does not want to be locked into a rules-based order that is based on a North Atlantic consensus that favors the political, economic and social systems of the United States and Western Europe. China sees those rules as constraints and attempts to force political change, thus interfering with China’s national sovereignty.

Beijing needs to maintain internal unity, but externally it does not need to build a counter-coalition. All it needs to do is find ways to exploit differences that undermine global cohesion. Domestic cohesion in China, however, is not necessarily an easy thing. China is not a monolith but a complex empire and a state made of many nations, rife with ethnic, religious and socio-economic divisions. While China manages the first two with a combination of strong central control and acculturation, it manages the latter through economic policies and an appeal to nationalism. China’s ongoing economic restructuring has broken the old promise that everyone would get rich, even if some faster than others. The gap between the wealthy and the rest has widened in the past decade, and economic reform coupled with global recessions leaves little room for the Chinese interior to close it.

In some ways, China has an easier path to its objectives than those advocating for a harder line against Beijing in the United States, at least in the near term.

Earlier this year, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang warned that Beijing must address the grievances of the country’s 600 million low-paid citizens, many in the interior. The Belt and Road initiative is in part geared toward shifting the attention of China’s heartland from the wealthy coast to the frontier opportunities to the west and south. But to further strengthen domestic cohesion, China counts on a strong nationalist narrative that frames China as battered by the West and constrained from taking its rightful place among powerful nations. For now, that nationalism is proving a potent force, but it is always at the risk of Beijing losing control of the narrative.

On the international front, Beijing has long relied on exploiting divisions, both within countries and between countries, to gain a secure footing and counter any coordinated pressure. Chinese economic and political ties with Greece and Hungary, for example, paid off when they derailed an EU statement supporting the Philippines following the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling on the South China Sea in 2016. Chinese partners in the European Union have also blocked EU motions to censure China for human rights and civil liberty violations. In Southeast Asia, China has frequently used its close economic relations with Cambodia and Laos to undermine unity among members in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) when it comes to the South China Sea or Chinese maritime actions. China also exploits rifts inside countries, including by incentivizing or interfering with select companies to influence political decisions, providing moral or financial support to competing groups, and engaging in information warfare to enflame social or political divisions.

The Ideological Struggle in a Multipolar World

In some ways, then, China has an easier path to its objectives than those advocating for a harder line against Beijing in the United States, at least in the near term. The United States must overcome both domestic disunity and shape a more cohesive international coordination — China merely needs to find the cracks within and among key countries and ensure that those cracks are not easy to bridge. But this is a short-term strategy, and one that may be effective only for a few more years. China’s expanding political, economic and military power is no longer something many countries can ignore. Even Italy, the first major European country to join the Belt and Road initiative, has curtailed Huawei participation in its 5G rollout.

China’s ability to divide is a strategy to gain time, further strengthen China’s economic and military strength, and enhance and secure key trade routes for the future. But as ideological lines are drawn, the challenges for both the United States and China will militate against a repeat of the Cold War. There will also not be a bifurcation of the world into two competing blocs, but rather an emergence of several competing poles of power, as noted in Stratfor’s 2020-2030 decade forecast:

“Over the decade, the United States and China — buoyed by their economic, political, military and social power — will be the most significant poles, with Russia and Europe each playing important, albeit less powerful, roles. Numerous smaller alliances and alignments will emerge, regionally or topically focused, seeking to use their shared interests and pooled resources to better maneuver among the larger powers.”

Source: Stratfor Worldview, July 30, 2020 | Rodger Baker