Sino-American Relations in the Evolving Global Context
Remarks to a Panel on US-China Relations
The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong
Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
Senior Fellow, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University
By video link from Washington, D.C., 3 September 2021
I’ve been asked to review Sino-American relations in light of decades of changes in the international order, and to do so in about five minutes. I wish I could call on the Reduced Shakespeare Company for help. But here goes!
World War II resulted in the division of the world into two international state systems – one centered on Moscow and one on Washington. In the so-called “bipolar” world order of the “Cold War,” competing overlords demanded and received the allegiance of both former great powers and lesser nations. Many were uncomfortable with such subordination. Some sought to avoid alignment with either system. But, in practice, none could avoid positioning itself strategically, economically, politically, and ideologically between the two superpowers. In time, the world came to see this quasi-feudal contention between mutually antagonistic blocs as normal, but in historical terms it was an anomaly. And it is now no more than a memory.
Of all the major participants in the Cold War, China was the most fickle. It initially attached itself to the Soviet system. A decade or so later, Beijing’s discomfort with subordination to Moscow led China to leave the Soviet bloc. For a while, it experimented with creating its own revolutionary international order. But this failed. Threatened with Soviet attack, China found it expedient to align strategically with the United States. Later, as 1978 passed into 1979, it repudiated the Soviet system and embraced market economics. It began eclectically to examine and adopt best international practices, many of them American. But China steadfastly resisted political reforms that might compromise one-party rule.
Between 1989 and 1991, the Soviet empire and the Soviet Union itself ceased to exist, leaving the United States as the world’s sole superpower, and suffering from enemy deprivation syndrome. By the turn of the century, Americans had fixated on China as a “near peer” adversary against which to plan, procure, and direct military capabilities previously dedicated to the Soviet enemy. Meanwhile, China’s adoption of Western economic ideas contrasted ever more sharply with its rejection of Western political norms. China became steadily wealthier and more powerful without becoming more democratic. This was very disturbing to those in the West who had imagined the imminent “end of history” in the form of a universal triumph of democracy.
When this century began, the disappearance of a common enemy had long since removed the rationale for continued Sino-American strategic collaboration. China’s increasing ability to defend itself by controlling its near seas had come to be seen as a threat to American military primacy in the Pacific. China’s refusal to defer to Euro-Atlantic standards of human rights and good governance had led American ideologues to pronounce anathema upon it.
For its part, China chafed as it became apparent that the Soviet collapse had removed the checks and balances that had made American global hegemony and regional dominance acceptable to it. It came to see the United States not as the sustainer of a peaceful environment in which it could rebuild its wealth, power, and international prestige, but as an ever more hostile challenger to its territorial claims and advocate of regime change. As Taiwanese aspirations for self-determination crested and the Sino-American accords that had finessed the issue eroded, the political consensus that had reduced military tensions over Taiwan evaporated. China and America once again became each other’s enemies of choice.
Meanwhile, the American “unipolar moment” passed and the “new world disorder” that followed it began to sort itself out.
Militarily, the United States remains primus inter pares. Economically, it is increasingly eclipsed by China, which is now the world’s largest industrial power and trader and which bids fair to surpass America in foreign direct investment. Politically, given the decadence of American democracy and the assertive selfishness with which the United States now engages internationally, there is no longer any nation that presents a political model to others. And no one, other than America, is making ideological arguments any more.
What is emerging is a world of multidimensional interactions between countries in which almost all are driven more by their desire for autonomy than for alignment with the United States or its appointed great power rivals. Asked to choose a superpower as patron, middle-ranking and smaller powers almost invariably hedge and persist in pursuing their own interests as they see them.
Welcome to the new world multipolarity!