Following Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, many opinions were raised about what China could and should do in response. Last week we reviewed some of the actions that readers sent me as a conclusion to their own reflections. Many of these were confrontational and catastrophic in nature, assuming the need for a Chinese retaliation that would have led to war, even nuclear war. Such views did not seem to consider the impact such an event would have on the entire planet. Some reasoned recklessly – in my view – that if there was not a strong response (understood as a warlike one) it would show weakness on China’s part.
By Sergio Rodríguez Gelfenstein
Trying to counter this probable point of view, I wrote: “However, for those who assumed that China’s response would be to shoot down Pelosi’s plane, invade Taiwan with a naval force, or devastate the island with a barrage of hypersonic missiles, it must be said that they know nothing about China, its philosophy, its history, or its political and diplomatic practices”.
However, such a concern motivated my own, so I set out to investigate in order to find out what the Chinese themselves think in structural terms about their strategic confrontation with the United States.
For this reason, I will present the most important aspects of a long article recently written by Dr. Huang Renwei, vice-president of the Institute of International Relations of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, entitled “Why has China’s dispute against US hegemonic power entered a phase of strategic stagnation?”
In general, the text defines this phase of strategic stalemate between China and the United States as an intermediate between the phases of “intensification and damping down of the battle”. According to the author, this stage will last for about 30 years depending on the conditions China is able to create to achieve its goal of becoming a modern power, the changing balance of power between the US and China, and how much influence changes in the US administration and the adjustment they are able to make to their China policy.
In an effort to explain this interesting idea that points to the strategic nature of the confrontation between the two powers, Dr Huang explains that the concept of the “strategic containment phase” was coined by Mao Zedong in his work “On Protracted War”, published in Japan during the War of Resistance. At that time Mao defined three stages for such a war: Japan’s strategic offensive, China’s strategic confrontation (or strategic stalemate) with Japan, and China’s strategic counter-offensive.
On the basis of this conception, the author develops his hypothesis, but warns that compared to that conflict, there are three main differences with the strategic rivalry between China and the United States today: the first is that this new competition does not take place in a framework of warlike conflict. Second, it establishes that the third stage will not be marked by a strategic counteroffensive, because China does not have the goal of completely defeating the United States. The third difference is that after a long period of strategic stalemate, Sino-US relations will “enter a state of coexistence and co-governance”.
The Chinese researcher believes that the “strategic stalemate” stage has three characteristics: the relative balance of power between the two sides, the difficulty for either side to defeat the other, and the vagueness between what victory and defeat might mean. All this on the basis that both sides have strong confidence in their ability to resist and sustain the strategic stalemate: “the United States is confident that it will maintain global hegemony for more than 50 years, and China is confident that it will achieve the great rejuvenation of the nation by 2050…”.
This current phase of strategic stalemate is characterised by the duality of Chinese and US power structures. This is because the US has remained relatively strong during its long decline, while China has remained weak during its rise, which is changing. This characteristic has meant that the main rationale is one of unprecedented change that will transform over time.
For the United States, duality means a widening gap between its hegemonic power and its goals, since when the United States and the Soviet Union were superpowers in the bipolar world, their global hegemony was incomplete. After the end of the Cold War and the demise of the USSR, the United States became the world’s sole superpower, establishing a unipolar hegemony that it was unable to sustain, as evidenced by the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and the crisis in Ukraine.
Nevertheless, in this period of long American decline, Washington remains the most powerful country in the world based on its considerable financial control, greater scientific and technological innovation, superior military striking power and the ability to influence world public opinion. In this sense, one must consider that “declining hegemony” is not the same as “weakening global national power” of the United States. Moreover, the current international system inherited from the Second World War continues to be influenced in a decisive way by the United States, even though it is now trying to alter this situation by establishing what it calls a “rules-based international order”, which is nothing more than a new American imposition.
At this point, the director of the Pudong Institute for the US Economy says that other variables must be considered, if confrontation between emerging and defending powers is inevitable in the process of transferring power to the great powers. Also, whether the narrowing of the power gap between rising and defending powers will create limits and lead to strategic confrontation. In other words, it should be borne in mind that in 2001, China’s economy was 10 per cent of that of the United States, while this year it will reach 77 per cent. That figure will continue to rise without the United States being able to prevent China from catching up and overtaking it.
Another sobering variable is whether the structural contradictions between China and the United States can be transformed into confrontational relations under certain conditions, or cooperative relations under others. China and the United States have a high degree of interdependence and overlapping interests, and neither can completely abandon the complementary relationship with the other and implement so-called “decoupling”.
From my point of view, this last statement embodies a dialectical contradiction, since it does not seem possible that in the future there can be “cooperative relations” between the United States and China because this implies an antagonistic confrontation between socialism and capitalism, if it is true that, as has been stated a thousand times and will be reiterated at the forthcoming 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China, the country is moving towards socialism. This issue is ignored in Dr. Huang’s analysis.
In a new aspect of the issue, he also analyses how long this phase of strategic stagnation might last. The Chinese scholar considers that this will depend on the speed of change in the balance of power between the two sides. This power refers to a global competitiveness that encompasses all factors, including economic, military, diplomatic, political and public opinion factors in which scientific and technological competitiveness becomes a decisive element in establishing itself as a contemporary global national power, so the speed of China’s technological development will determine the duration of this phase. In four areas: science and technology, military, finance and soft power, the United States remains dominant and although the gap with China is narrowing, it remains significant even though it is expected that by 2035, China will approach the level of the United States in core technological areas on its way to meeting the strategic goals set for the centenary of its founding in 2049.
This is the framework for understanding the overall trend in US-China relations in order to maintain strategic stability, considering – as mentioned above – that every change of US president will mean policy swings between the two powers.
This context should lead China to exploit the success of these cyclical changes in order to gain the strategic initiative and take advantage of this buffer period, avoiding a full-scale confrontation with the United States. Dr. Huang concludes: “…if we want to avoid a strategic confrontation between the United States and China in 20 to 30 years, we have to take advantage […] to digest the aftermath of the previous period of escalation and prepare for the crises that may arise in the next period…”.
As can be seen, the issue is much more complex than the repercussions of Mrs. Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan, the diatribe over whether her plane should have been shot down, and even the possibility of occupying Taiwan by force, an operation that in military terms should not present much of an inconvenience for China, but which would lead to a conflagration that Beijing wants to avoid at all costs, because the success of its thinking and philosophy is based on winning through the superiority of its soft-power, as is drawn from the teachings of Confucius.