Opinion: The Strategic Significance of Preventing a China-U.S. Ideological Rivalry
Yan Xuetong is the distinguished professor and dean of the Institute of International Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing. This article was the first part of a commentary originally published by the Quarterly Journal of International Politics in October.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a speech on July 23, in which he claimed the Trump administration will create an anti-China coalition based on ideology.
The next day, Foreign Minister Wang Yi pointed out during a meeting with his German counterpart that “[s]ome anti-China forces in the U.S. lately have been deliberately creating ideological confrontation ... China still hopes to achieve no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation with the U.S. … China will neither dance to the U.S.’ tune nor let the U.S. have its way.”
Hence, the strategic significance of preventing the China-U.S. ideological rivalry from intensifying, and specifically how this can be prevented, is worth discussing.
The rise of China has challenged the United States’ aim of maintaining its hegemony, resulting in inevitable strategic competition between the countries.
However, where the countries should compete and where they shouldn’t is an important strategic decision. Competition in some fields — such as science and technology, economy, military, diplomacy, and education — will decide the success of China’s national rejuvenation and is therefore necessary.
On the contrary, engaging in ideological rivalry will have a negative impact on China’s rejuvenation. Therefore, avoiding ideological rivalry has become a strategic principle of the Chinese government since the early 1980s when reform and opening up were gaining momentum, and is significant in multiple ways.
First, avoiding this kind of competition maintains an international environment favorable to national rejuvenation in the long term. The Communist Party Central Committee issued the Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party Since the Founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1981, summarizing the historical experience and lessons since the founding of the People’s Republic. The most important diplomatic lesson is to avoid ideological rivalry with other countries.
“Restricting China-U.S. strategic competition outside of the ideological realm will help to prevent China-U.S. proxy wars caused by ideological rivalry.”
The resolution states: “The road of revolution and construction suited to the characteristics of a country has to be explored, decided on and blazed by its own people. No one has the right to impose his views on others. Only under these conditions can there be genuine internationalism. Otherwise, there can only be hegemonism. We will always adhere to this principled stand in our international relations.”
Following the principle of avoiding ideological rivalry, our country has won strategic opportunities over more than 30 years of peaceful construction. This principle was further embodied in 2017, when the government asserted it “will not ‘import’ a foreign model, nor ‘export’ China’s model, and will not require other countries to ‘copy’ China’s practices.”
Second, it reduces political obstacles to international cooperation. The principle of avoiding ideological rivalry has secured long-term strategic opportunities for the rise of China, because the principle helps our country avoid political obstacles caused by ideological rivalry to international cooperation.
For example, in 1989, Western countries headed by the United States imposed sanctions on China for ideological reasons. In response, Deng Xiaoping met with former U.S. President Richard Nixon and told him: “When considering relations between states, we should mainly proceed from our national strategic interests, focusing on long-term own strategic interests and respecting that of the other. We should not raise a great fuss about historical grievances, or about differences in social systems and ideology.” Since China insisted on avoiding ideological rivalry, the relationship between China and Western countries was restored in 1993.
Third, it strengthens international strategic credibility and maintains the stability of strategic relations. Avoiding ideological rivalry means that China’s basic stance on cooperation with any country will not change because of the changes in the other side’s political system or ideology.
Maintaining the continuity of policies can enhance China’s international strategic credibility, thereby maintaining the continuation of cooperation. For example, in the late 1980s, Gorbachev, then general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, proposed liberal “new thinking” and carried out shock therapy reforms, which is different from China’s socialist reform approach.
Responding to that, Deng Xiaoping proposed: “No matter what happens in the Soviet Union, we should calmly develop our relations with it on the basis of the five principles of peaceful coexistence. That should include our political relationship and we should not hold any debate on ideology.”
In 1991, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin reformed Russia’s political system. In this regard, China consistently stuck to the principle of avoiding ideological rivalry, which contributed to Yeltsin’s four visits to China during his tenure as president. This did not only maintain the bilateral strategic cooperation but also put forward the establishment of the “Shanghai Five” forum mechanism in 1996, which developed into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in 2001.
Fourth, it prevents a new cold war and proxy wars. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was mainly carried out through proxy wars, with the nations supporting forces with the same ideology as their own in third countries. The Chinese government clearly understands the danger of a new cold war also caused by ideological rivalry, and points out: “The U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo delivered a speech a few days ago, trying to trigger ideological rivalry and lead the world to a new Cold War.”
If a new cold war happens, a large number of proxy wars will be carried out. This will not only bring great difficulties to China’s rejuvenation but may even risk ending the rejuvenation. Restricting China-U.S. strategic competition outside of the ideological realm will help to prevent China-U.S. proxy wars caused by ideological rivalry.
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