Decoupling From China

President Trump’s hardline against China is no longer an outlier policy and he’s not the only world leader thinking about it
December 12, 2019 Updated: December 12, 2019


I recently wrote about an emerging Cold War between the United States and China. The truth is that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been competing with the United States on an adversarial basis for at least the past two decades.

That isn’t breaking news, even if political opponents of the president like to pretend that it is.

Strategic Partner or Strategic Competitor?

Back in 2000, even before he became president, George W. Bush characterized China as a “strategic competitor.” This was a definite shift from the Clinton administration, which referred to China as a “strategic partner.” But with the 9/11 attacks, any policy changes that might have occurred were shelved as the Bush administration focused its efforts on the War on Terror.

After Bush, the fundamental nature of Washington’s relationship with Beijing continued on the path of “normalization” under the Obama administration. It more or less agreed with basic liberal international order assumptions that were the foundation of U.S. economic policies toward China. Essentially, it was presumed that the deeper the United States engaged with China, the more the world’s largest communist nation would come to resemble the United States as an open and liberal society.

As the world knows, China flourished under those assumptions, seeing rapid and tremendous economic and technological development. At the same time, two decades of an unbalanced U.S.-China trading relationship has methodically undermined the American manufacturing sector.

And, our relaxed attitude also resulted in China successfully penetrating the high-tech sector in Silicon Valley, and other research-focused areas in the United States. China has gained hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of technology and intellectual property each and every year through forced transfers or theft.

A Cold War Against Most of the World

Obviously, the United States was grossly mistaken in its liberal internationalist approach. It overplayed its hand by overestimating its ability to influence China’s internal political direction and market development through highly favorable trade agreements. In short, as China grew wealthy, it was expected to adapt to the established order led by the United States, not work diligently to overthrow it.

Thus, in every sense of the term that matters, China has been waging a Cold War against the United States since 2000. But the waging of this Cold War goes well beyond the United States; China is in a Cold War with most of the rest of the world.

It’s only since Donald Trump took office that the United States—as well as the rest of the world—has awoken to that reality. Of course, pundits and politicians who disagree with the president’s approach to curbing China’s ambitions condemn the current policies. They call for a return to “normal” relations with China, which include ending the current trade war and resuming the enablement of China’s rise at the expense of the United States.

But that ship has sailed.

 Conscious Decoupling

There are several dynamics in play that are working against a U.S.-China rapprochement. One is how global attitudes have shifted so dramatically against China. That only came about because of the trade war and Trump’s policy announcements to the rest of the world. Businesses of all sizes are now fleeing China—and Hong Kong—for other, less adversarial locales. Europe is a top destination.

A critical part of that business flight is a new and profound suspicion the United States and to a large extent, the Europeans now harbor regarding China. The trade war has had its impact, certainly, and continues to do so. Tariffs do make operating in China much more expensive. But when it comes to building trust between them and their trading partners, what the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) lacks in tactful evenhandedness, it makes up for in hubris and treachery.

For example, China’s deliberate embedding of spyware into Huawei network infrastructure equipment that has been deployed throughout the world reveals much darker intentions than just making money or even capturing greater market share. It has given Trump’s argument and accusations of nefarious intentions on the part of China, long legs indeed.

China’s disregard for the West has tremendous strategic implications for much of the world, but particularly the United States and Europe. The United States is, in fact, consciously decoupling from China.

China Wants Decoupling?

What’s quite interesting about the trade war and its pressures is that it may actually be having the opposite effect on China’s policymakers. They actually may not want to make any deal with the United States, preferring decoupling from the United States no matter who sits in the Oval Office.

This surprising development comes from Wang Huning, a key policy advisor in the inner circle of the CCP. Huning writes on the website Qiushi, the official source of policy and ideological thinking of the CCP. He is thought to be a major influence on Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s outlook and strategic planning.

In a June essay, Huning argues:

  1. The U.S.-China trade war is only about trade imbalances.
  2. The United States is an economic and technological hegemon that seeks to keep China subservient.
  3. Intellectual property is essentially non-existent and every country has a moral right to access it.

There are other insights into the thinking of the CCP decision makers, but the upshot is that China has no intentions of changing its behavior or caving to the pressures of the trade war. In fact, their thinking is just the opposite. The CCP considers it their moral ideological obligation to counter the United States in its hegemony, and will continue to do so any and every which way it can.

Furthermore, according to Steve Dickinson of The China Law Blog, “it is a mistake to assume President Xi is unwilling to see China endure a second decoupling.” The first decoupling for China was from the Soviet Union in 1966, triggering Mao’s enormously destructive Cultural Revolution.

Can China Afford to Decouple from the US?

There are big differences, of course, between Mao’s China and the one of today. On the one hand, China is now a much more formidable economic, military and technological power, with axes to grind in the U.S. presence in the China Sea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the western provinces and elsewhere. If Beijing moved against Taiwan or Hong Kong, it would mean potential pushback from the United States. That would expand the conversation considerably.

On the other hand, China’s 1.4 billion citizens have little regard for ideological or moral obligations to endure yet another season of deprivation. With around 400 million people in the middle-class who have grown accustomed to prosperity, it seems unlikely that they would let it go without a fight.

What’s more, many hundreds of millions more who live in poverty won’t have much to lose in rebelling against the government-imposed hardship. Angry, struggling citizens may pose a much bigger threat to the CCP than Trump’s tariffs.

Perhaps the Party will find the wisdom to proceed with caution. They’re already decoupling from their own citizens, which may well lead to the country fracturing along economic and ethnic lines. A second “Cultural Revolution” could be the end of the CCP. Decoupling from the United States certainly won’t be easy on the country, either.

James Gorrie is a writer and speaker based in Southern California. He is the author of “The China Crisis.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.