Preventing the United States/China Hunger Game

Since the late 1980’s when China — the kingdom in the middle of the world — began to regain its erstwhile prowess and glory, the world has become more and more obsessed with the very concept of global hegemony.

To please and entertain the masses, the world power arbiter designed and put forth “the hunger game,” a widely publicized battle where the United States and China must compete to be the last country standing.

Since then, the two countries — though trying to avoid military confrontation — have engaged in spying, cyber attacks and shouting wars to gain more support from other countries while diminishing the leverage of their opponent. China bashing has become an almost indispensable part of the election scheme at all levels in the United States, where China is portrayed as the bogeyman of nearly all of America’s economic ailments.

In China, a generation of angry youth, or “fenqing”, who embody the most intense form of Chinese nationalism in their reaction to neoconservatism in the US, causes concern about a dangerous future in bilateral relations when these young people assume leadership roles in the decades to come. But is the collapse of either side what we really want at the end of the day?

Indeed, the bilateral strategic mistrust is an enduring issue and there is no easy solution. In a recent monograph titled “Addressing US-China Strategic Distrust,” co-authors Kenneth Lieberthal, a preeminent long-time China scholar and director of the China Center at the Brookings Institution, and Wang Jisi, dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University, delve into the strategic distrust between the G2 countries. Lieberthal and Wang jointly conclude that the level of bilateral strategic distrust has become so corrosive that the two countries risk being in an open Hunger Game-like scenario in fifteen or so years. Chinese suspicion of US intentions essentially comes from China’s deep disappointment with industrialized powers in general, which is the result of China’s “Century of Humiliation” at Western and Japanese imperialist hands. US distrust of China, by contrast, surrounds the uncertainty of China’s future intentions. Despite the difference in the source of distrust, both countries see deep dangers and threatening motivations in the policies of the other side.

Jisi’s writing carries significant weight, given his previous service in, and access to, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Chinese military. Put in a quite blunt way, Wang warns that the period of “keeping a low profile” will officially be over. Wang praises Chinese strength to weather the 1998 Asian Financial Crisis and the 2007-2009 Global Financial Crisis, as well as to execute the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and the 2010 Shanghai Expo.

Upon the release of this report, comments that China is determined to replace the United States as the world hegemon went viral online. Unfortunately, these authors and bloggers fail to grasp the underlying forces of Chinese foreign policy-making and to put the conclusions of the report in perspective. Even if the Chinese leadership does think the same way as Wang, China will not go crazy because China cannot possibly sustain a high-level economic growth without continued cooperation with China’s major trading partners — particularly the United States.

Maintaining a high economic growth rate is necessary for safeguarding the CCP political system, which has been and will always remain on the very top of the CCP’s agenda. Wang’s statements should be interpreted as China’s own affirmation of its achievements since its reintegration into the international community some forty decades ago; no further interpretation can be made regarding China’s future intentions until sufficient evidence surfaces.

The US-China Hunger Game has not begun, nor should it ever begin. The US-China relationship can be seen as a marriage; the two countries need each other as an indispensable part of their lives. The economic cooperation between the two parties speaks enough to this. As with normal couples, they naturally suspect whether the other side cheats and how much their relationship can be negatively impacted as a result.

However, reality dictates that divorce is not an option for the US-China marriage. The collapse of either of the two leviathans in some sense spells that of the other; worse still, given the almost irreplaceable roles they play on the international stage, world order and peace cannot be maintained if they divorce.

Keeping the US-China marriage in perspective, it is time that both sides do their best to understand each other better, become more aware of each others’ sensitivities, and resolve any conflicts while they still are in their nascent stage.

Shiran is a senior. You can reach her at sshen1@swarthmore.edu.

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