Home OPINIONS The perils of U.S. miscalculation in its approach to China

The perils of U.S. miscalculation in its approach to China

In his remarks during a fireside chat with Founding Dean of Harvard Kennedy School Professor Graham Allison on Friday, the Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. Xie Feng said the current competition between China and the U.S. is unfair and the U.S. is not competing with China, but “bullying” China by slapping sanctions, pressuring other countries to curb exports to China and accusing China’s clean energy products of “overcapacity.”

He re-emphasized that bilateral relationships should not be defined by competition, which could cause strategic risks, and there are many areas for the two countries to cooperate. He said that the U.S. should not merely aim at avoiding conflict with China, as if the U.S. only aims at that, “then we would not be far away from going into one.”

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In the realm of international relations, the delicate dance between global superpowers often hinges on a nuanced understanding of each other’s motives, capabilities, and aspirations. Among these dynamics, the relationship between the United States and China stands out as one of the most consequential of our time. Yet, as tensions escalate and rhetoric sharpens, the specter of U.S. miscalculation looms large, presenting a formidable obstacle to constructive engagement and peaceful coexistence.

At the heart of U.S. miscalculation lies a fundamental misunderstanding of China’s strategic objectives and the complexities of its political system. Too often, American policymakers view China through a narrow lens, interpreting its actions solely through the prism of Western liberal democracy. This myopic perspective fails to appreciate the historical, cultural, and ideological factors that shape China’s worldview and its approach to governance.

One of the key areas where U.S. miscalculation manifests is in the realm of economic competition. For decades, the prevailing wisdom in Washington held that China’s integration into the global economy would inevitably lead to political liberalization and a convergence of values with the West. However, China’s rapid economic rise has defied these expectations, fueling fears of a zero-sum competition for economic dominance.

The U.S. response to this perceived threat has been characterized by a mix of containment efforts, trade tariffs, and technological decoupling. While these measures may serve short-term political objectives, they risk exacerbating tensions and triggering a downward spiral of retaliatory actions. Moreover, they overlook the interconnectedness of the global economy, where disruptions in one part of the world reverberate across the entire system.

Another area where U.S. miscalculation is evident is in its approach to China’s military modernization efforts. The Pentagon’s tendency to view China’s military expansion solely through the lens of traditional military capabilities overlooks the broader strategic context in which China operates. As China seeks to assert its influence in the Asia-Pacific region, it has invested heavily in asymmetric capabilities such as cyber warfare, space technology, and maritime surveillance.

By fixating on conventional military metrics, the U.S. risks underestimating the effectiveness of China’s non-traditional capabilities and its ability to exploit vulnerabilities in America’s defense posture. Moreover, the militarization of U.S.-China relations risks fueling an arms race mentality, where each side perceives the other as an existential threat, further entrenching distrust and hostility.

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of U.S. miscalculation is its impact on the prospects for peaceful coexistence and diplomatic engagement. The increasingly adversarial rhetoric emanating from Washington has created a self-reinforcing cycle of distrust and hostility, making meaningful dialogue and cooperation all the more elusive. In the absence of effective communication channels, the risk of miscalculation and unintended escalation looms large, with potentially catastrophic consequences for regional stability and global security.

To avoid the perils of miscalculation, the United States must adopt a more nuanced and strategic approach to its relationship with China. This requires acknowledging China’s legitimate aspirations for economic development and regional influence while also safeguarding American interests and values. Rather than resorting to zero-sum competition and containment, the U.S. should seek areas of common ground where cooperation is possible, such as climate change, pandemic response, and non-proliferation.

Moreover, the U.S. must invest in building robust diplomatic and communication channels with China, including Track II dialogues, military-to-military exchanges, and high-level summits. These channels can help mitigate misunderstandings, manage crises, and foster trust and confidence between the two countries.

Ultimately, the specter of U.S. miscalculation in its approach to China poses a grave threat to global stability and prosperity. By transcending narrow ideological biases and embracing a more nuanced understanding of China’s motives and capabilities, the United States can chart a more constructive path forward, one that prioritizes cooperation over confrontation and dialogue over discord. Failure to do so risks condemning future generations to a world defined by conflict and division rather than cooperation and mutual understanding.

Stephen Ndegwa
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