By Martin Jacques, a senior fellow of CCG, and a British journalist, editor, academic, political commentator and author of When China Rules the World.
The speech of the US Vice-President Mike Pence at the Hudson Institute in Washington on Oct 4 was reminiscent of the darkest days of the Cold War. He sought to discredit China on almost every conceivable front. He claimed that China is trying to undermine the US not only by means of its trade and investment policies, but also by an alleged military build-up, its attempts to interfere in US politics, the use of its media to promote China’s cause in the US. He even accused it of working to prevent Trump being re-elected in 2020.
This is a dangerous speech that can only serve to worsen US-China relations at a time when they are already under serious strain because of the US trade war against China. It seeks to poison American attitudes toward China, broadening the anti-Chinese rhetoric from trade and investment to more or less everything. If Pence’s speech is a weather vane of where the Trump administration is headed, then US relations with China are set to get a lot worse.
How did it come to this? How did 46 years of relative stability and harmony in US-China relations suddenly nose-dive in this manner? The US establishment believed for many decades that China would never pose a serious economic challenge to the US, that it would accept US global leadership, and that ultimately China would become a Western-style country in America’s own image. These assumptions have been proved wrong. This lies at the heart of the Trump phenomenon, and a broader negative shift in the US establishment. China’s success has rattled the US establishment. Many believe that the US has a God-given right to be the top dog and, after a period of denial regarding China’s rise, they are now lashing out against it. Pence’s assault on China bears precious little resemblance to reality; the object is to caricature and demonize China and turn American public opinion against it.
We should not underestimate the meaning of this shift. Judging by Trump’s direction of travel, which is accelerating, and the tone of Pence’s speech, it is almost certain that we are bearing witness to a fundamental shift in the American attitude towards China that is unlikely to be reversed anytime soon and could well last a long time, at least a decade and probably much longer. Of course, there are important sections of US opinion that do not share Trump’s views, but at the moment they are on the defensive. As China constantly emphasizes, it does not seek to usurp the position of the US but rather to build a partnership with it. Enlightened Americans share this view, but they find themselves in a minority.
In response to Trump’s increasingly demagogic and aggressive anti-Chinese rhetoric, China has behaved with great dignity, patience and sobriety. This is most important. If it responded in kind, relations could go into something resembling free-fall, with dangerous consequences for the entire world. Most worryingly, Trump could easily shift his rhetoric from the economic to the military, as Pence more than hints at in his speech. With this kind of mentality now in charge of the White House, China must not only seek to preserve the multilateral system, it must also defend world peace that can no longer be taken for granted.