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[Research Reports] Handling "Value" in the US-China Conflict

Naoko Funatsu (Research Fellow, The Japan Institute of International Affairs)
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Research Group on China #9

"Research Reports" are compiled by participants in research groups set up at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, and are designed to disseminate, in a timely fashion, the content of presentations made at research group meetings or analyses of current affairs. The "Research Reports" represent their authors' views. In addition to these "Research Reports", individual research groups will publish "Research Bulletins" covering the full range of the group's research themes.

The escalating confrontation between the United States and China has been one of the most important issues in American foreign policy in recent years. The weight of US foreign policy toward China has increased as China's presence in the international community has grown. This is due to China's remarkable economic growth, and many countries around the world sought to incorporate the booming Chinese economy into the international economy to promote their own economic growth; the United States had been no exception. As globalization and China's economy continued to grow, however, the trade imbalance between the US and China expanded, and the trade deficit with China became an issue in the US. In the US presidential election of November 2016, Republican candidate Donald J. Trump made correcting the trade deficit with China a policy priority and was elected. When the administration took office in January 2017, it was marked by a discourse based on economic nationalism, one of the characteristics of a Trump administration committed to putting "America first".

However, throughout the four years of the Trump administration from 2017 to 2021, the US-China conflict became more multifaceted. As the Trump administration worked to rectify trade frictions, it took issue with China's economic structural problems, as exemplified by its National Industrial Policy, and began to direct more criticism at China's economic model of introducing a capitalist economy under the CCP regime, including its treatment of intellectual property and trade-distorting measures such as industrial subsidies. In particular, as China's competitiveness has increased significantly and had a significant impact on national security in advanced technological fields such as space-related industries, artificial intelligence, and communications and information technology, the United States has become increasingly wary of China's policy of civil-military integration under its economic model. Together with the US' alertness in the traditional security area regarding China's coercive actions in the South and East China Seas and the military buildup by the People's Liberation Army, the composition of the US-China confrontation has become more multifaceted.

The COVID-19 pandemic that raged globally in 2020 also had a major impact on the US-China rivalry. The US was plunged into social and political turmoil with the world's largest number of infections and deaths, and President Trump criticized China in his speech at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2020i, stating that China's mismanagement of the initial response led to the global spread of COVID-19. In discussing the pandemic, President Trump criticized China's closed stance toward the international community, connecting it to China's control over information disclosure. Furthermore, the US has been critical of China's "mask diplomacy" and "vaccine diplomacy". Behind this is the US' strong concern that China is expanding its influence in the international community, especially in developing countries, through "mask diplomacy" and "vaccine diplomacy" in addition to its Belt & Road Initiative. In response to China's growing influence on the international stage, the US began expounding the superiority of its democratic governance model. Accordingly, it can be said that during the Trump administration the confrontation between the US and China has become multifaceted, with the focus of the confrontation shifting from trade, economic models and security (including advanced technologies) to governance models, making the confrontation one between a democratic system and a communist system.

In particular, 2020, the final full year of the Trump administration, was marked by criticism of the Chinese Communist Party and communism itself. Most notable is a series of speeches by four Trump administration officials criticizing Chinese communism in June and July. On June 24, National Security Advisor Robert C. O'Brien gave a speech titled "The Chinese Communist Party's Ideology and Global Ambitions"ii. O'Brien rejected the engagement policy by which the US had supported China's economic development in the expectation that, if China achieved economic development, it would also achieve democratization politically. What constitutes "the end of the engagement policy" requires a more detailed examination, but it is worth noting that a high-ranking US government representative in an official speech employed the rhetoric of rejecting the engagement policy in place since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the US and China to criticize the CCP. On July 7, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Christopher Wray gave a speech titled "The threat posed by the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party to the economic and national security of the United States"iii. Although Wray criticized China's economic espionage, it is important to note that he criticized the Chinese communist regime itself by equating the Chinese government with the Chinese Communist Party. On July 16, Attorney General William P. Barr delivered remarks on the CCPiv, accusing the regime of taking advantage of America's transparent and open democratic system through all of its policies, including "Made in China 2025". On July 23, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, who led the initiative of these speeches, gave an address titled "Communist China and the free world's future"v in which he said that the United States and the rest of the free world must be protected from communism. As can be seen in these speeches by senior administration officials, the Trump administration in its last year began to focus less on denouncing China's individual actions and more on criticizing the CCP's governance model itself. The confrontation over governance models was a major feature of the US-China conflict in the late Trump administration.

This conflict over governance models is directly related to the conflict over values, and it should be added that the Trump administration repeatedly criticized China on issues related to the values of human rights and democracy during its latter half. For example, the Trump administration condemned the "Law of the People's Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region" enacted in June 2020, stating that it threatens democratic values in Hong Kong. Legislatively, Republican lawmakers sponsored and President Trump signed into law in November 2019 the "Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019", which requires the United States to annually verify whether China is adhering to the one-country, two-systems policy that guarantees Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy. Likewise, the "Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020" was passed in June 2020 to allow American sanctions against Chinese officials for the forced detention of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, in response to concerns about infringements of the basic human rights of ethnic minorities in China.

More importantly, these acts were passed with bipartisan support from Democrats and Republicans. Following the victory of Democratic candidate Joseph Biden in the November 2020 presidential election, the new administration, which took office in January 2021, also emphasizes the protection of democratic values, including human rights. Hence it is clear that the issue is one shared on a bipartisan basis in the United States. In fact, the Interim National Security Strategy Guidancevi issued by the Biden White House on March 3, 2021 listed the protection of human rights at home and abroad as one of the administration's policy priorities, and this was reaffirmed in President Biden's first press conference on March 25vii.

However, unlike the Trump administration, which favored unilateralism, the Biden administration has clearly adopted a diplomatic stance that stresses cooperation with allies, international organizations and other multilateral frameworks. Nevertheless, the Biden administration's emphasis on strategic competition with China was made clear in his first press conference. It is thus expected that the Biden administration will adopt a different approach from the Trump administration, but it is not yet clear what exactly that approach will be. If, like its predecessor, the Biden administration adopts a discourse that denies the very model of governance of China's communist system and rejects the very existence of the Chinese Communist Party, a full-scale confrontation between the US and China, essentially a new Cold War, will be inevitable. The characteristics of the confrontation between the United States and China during the Biden administration will be revealed by the kind of narrative with which the Biden administration addresses the conflict with China over values. In fact, President Biden at his press conference did not use the word "communism" but instead used "autocracy" to criticize China in what is thought to have been an attempt to avoid a definitive confrontation with China by snubbing the Chinese Communist Party. On the other hand, he also said with reference to Xi Jinping that "[he] doesn't have a democratic bone in his body", which implies that the tone of the US-China conflict under the Biden administration remains unclear.