The “strategic impasse” between the United States and China

Following Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, many opinions were expressed about what China could and should do in response. Last week, we reviewed some of the actions that readers sent to me as a conclusion to their own thoughts. Many of them were confrontational and catastrophic in nature, assuming the need for a Chinese response that would have led to war, even nuclear war. These views did not seem to take into account the impact such an event would have on the entire planet. Some thought recklessly – in my opinion – that if there was no strong response (understood as warlike), it would show weakness on China’s part.

By Sergio Rodriguez Gelfenstein

Trying to counter this likely view, I wrote, “However, for those who assumed China’s response would be to shoot down Pelosi’s plane, invade Taiwan with naval force, or devastate the island with a barrage of hypersonic missiles, it had to be said that they know nothing about China, its philosophy, its history, its political and diplomatic practices”.
However, such concern motivated mine, so I set out to investigate in order to find out what the Chinese themselves think in structural terms of their strategic confrontation with the United States.

This is why 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 the dispute of China against the American hegemon entered a phase of strategic stagnation?

In general, the text defines this phase of strategic stalemate between China and the United States as an intermediary between the phases “of intensification and damping of the battle”. According to the author, this stage will last about 30 years depending on the conditions that China is able to create to achieve its goal of becoming a modern power, the evolution of the balance of power between the United States and China and the extent of influence shifts in the US administration and the adjustment it is able to make to its China policy.

In an effort to explain this interesting idea which underscores the strategic nature of the confrontation between the two powers, Dr. Huang explains that the concept of “Strategic Containment Phase” was coined by Mao Zedong in his book “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 counteroffensive.

Based on this conception, the author develops his hypothesis, but warns that in relation to this 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, since China does not aim to completely defeat the United States. The third difference is that after a long period of strategic stalemate, China-US relations will “enter a state of coexistence and co-governance.”

The Chinese researcher believes that the stage of “strategic impasse” has three characteristics: the relative balance of power between the two camps, the difficulty for each to defeat the other and the vagueness between what victory could mean and defeat. All of this on the basis that both sides have strong confidence in their ability to resist and maintain the strategic stalemate: “The United States is confident that it will maintain its 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 characterized by the duality of Chinese and American power structures. Indeed, the United States remained relatively strong during its long decline, while China remained weak during its rise, and that is changing. This characteristic means that the main rationale is that of unprecedented change that will transform over time.

For the United States, duality means a growing gap between its hegemonic power and its goals, because 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 only superpower, establishing a unipolar hegemony that it could not maintain, 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 due to its considerable financial control, its greater scientific and technological innovation, its superior military striking power and its ability to influence the world. world public opinion. In this sense, it must be considered that “declining hegemony” is not the same thing as the “weakening of global national power” of the United States. Moreover, the current international system inherited from the Second World War continues to be decisively influenced by the United States, even if it is now trying to change this situation by establishing what it calls an “international order”. based on rules”, which is nothing more than a new American imposition.

At this point, the director of the Pudong Institute for the American economy says that other variables must be taken into account, if the confrontation between emerging powers and defending powers is inevitable in the process of transferring power to great powers. . Also, if the narrowing of the power gap between rising and defensive powers will create boundaries and lead to strategic confrontation. In other words, we must keep in mind that in 2001, the Chinese economy represented 10% of that of the United States, while it will reach 77% this year. This 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 turn into adversarial 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 relationship of complementarity with the other and implement the 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 it implies an antagonistic confrontation. between socialism and capitalism, if it is true that, as has been said a thousand times and will be reiterated at the forthcoming 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China, the country is heading towards socialism. This question is ignored in Dr. Huang’s analysis.

In a new aspect of the dossier, he also analyzes how long this phase of strategic stagnation could last. The Chinese scholar considers that this will depend on the speed of change in the balance of power between the two parties. 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 global national power. contemporary, 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 approaches the level of the United States in key technological areas in order to achieve the strategic objectives set for the centenary of its founding in 2049.

This is the framework for understanding the general trend of US-China relations in order to maintain strategic stability, considering – as mentioned above – that each change of US president will mean political oscillations between the two powers.
This context should lead China to exploit the success of these conjunctural changes to take 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 must take advantage […] to digest the aftermath of the previous period of escalation and prepare for the crises that could arise in the following period…”.

As can be seen, the issue is much more complex than the repercussions of Ms. Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan, the rant about whether her plane should have been shot down, and even the possibility of occupying Taiwan by force, an operation which, on the military level, should not present many disadvantages for China, but which would lead to a conflagration which Beijing wants to avoid at all costs, because the success of its thought and its philosophy rests on victory by the superiority of his soft-power, as one draws from the teachings of Confucius.

Valerie J. Wallis