Boeing Chief Executive Dave Calhoun keeps saying how the relationship between the United States and China, the company’s biggest market for the next few decades, needs to improve for a return to happier times.
It applies to more than airplanes. China is Washington state’s largest export customer, accounting for more than $9 billion in merchandise exports this past year and supporting thousands of jobs here.
But the relationship between the two countries seems to grow frostier by the week.
From new questions about whether the pandemic escaped from a lab in Wuhan to human rights abuses in Hong Kong and among predominantly Muslim peoples in Xinjiang province, China is drawing bipartisan condemnation in the United States. America, meanwhile, is cast by Beijing as a bully seeking to contain China’s rise by a ginned-up new Cold War.
This week a bipartisan Senate majority — which can agree on little else — passed a bill to fund science and innovation, aimed at competition with China. It’s especially aimed at bolstering U.S. technology companies and lessening American dependence on Chinese components and products.
Beijing shot back with a prepared statement: “This bill seeks to exaggerate and spread the so-called ‘China threat’ to maintain global American hegemony, using human rights and religion as excuses to interfere in China’s domestic politics, and deprive China of its legitimate development rights.”
(It’s curious that the same Senate Republicans refuse to support President Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill, and this would only begin to repair decades of neglect and lack of public investment. China has built 23,500 miles of high-speed rail, while the United States has none).
The growing enmity seemed unlikely in 2012 when Xi Jinping assumed the top leadership post in China. Having spent two weeks with an Iowa family in 1985 as part of a delegation to study U.S. agriculture, Xi was seen as friendly to America.
The good feelings continued in 2015, when Xi began his first state visit to America with a stop in Seattle, including giving a speech at the downtown Marriott.
“I am no stranger to the state of Washington and the city of Seattle,” said Xi (he’d visited earlier as a provincial official). “The film ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ has made the city almost a household name in China.”
That year, before Donald Trump’s election and the subsequent trade war, Washington exports to China totaled $19.5 billion.
Xi has pursued an ambitious agenda. Foremost is the “Chinese Dream,” a national renewal plan to reduce inequality, clean up the environment and turn China into a fully developed nation by the 2049 centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic. He’s worked to root out corruption; initiated the One Belt, One Road project of Chinese-led global infrastructure projects, and begun establishing military bases outside China.
Meanwhile Xi has amassed more power than any Chinese leader since Mao. Western shorthand has Xi as “president.” He’s technically state chairman, general secretary of the Communist Party, chairman of the Central Military Commission, among a long list of titles — the “chairman of everything.”
In 2018, the Chinese Communist Party eliminated the two-term limit on the office, essentially installing Xi as leader for life. This is very different from the “collective leadership” model enshrined by Deng Xiaoping after Mao’s abuses.
As Trump pulled back from the world and allies with his “America First” agenda, Xi stepped forward. He regularly attended the influential World Economic Forum summits in Davos, saying many comforting things but making it clear China was ready to lead the world.
As the party-run People’s Daily editorialized in 2018, “The world has never focused on China so much and needed China so much as it does now.”
Trump, who aspired to authoritarianism here, admires Xi.
But more than China’s real and perceived unfair trade practices, human rights violations, piracy of American intellectual property and lack of transparency on COVID-19 soured the relationship.
Beijing wants to enforce the so-called nine dash line claiming the South China Sea, in violation of international law. This has caused repeated “freedom of navigation” voyages there by the U.S. Navy. Also, Xi has become more vocal about forcibly reuniting democratic Taiwan, which China sees as a renegade province.
Reunification is especially unappealing to Taipei since China reneged on its “one country, two systems” promise to Hong Kong, cracking down on democracy there.
A Chinese invasion of Taiwan would almost certainly bring war with the United States, a sobering prospect between two nuclear-armed antagonists. Puget Sound, with the Bangor ballistic missile submarine base as well as other naval facilities and Boeing, would be a first-strike target.
Even if conflict stayed below the nuclear threshold, China threatens U.S. battle groups with so-called carrier killer missiles. Beijing has two carriers of its own — less capable than the American Nimitz and Ford classes, but it’s building more advanced ones. Russia and Iran might become involved, as well as India in an American coalition: a true world war.
Also, this would be a war between the two most powerful economic actors. It would plunge the world into a depression.
Short of war, Beijing would love to displace the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. That would take away our gold card with the unlimited spending limit. Its holdings of $1.1 trillion in U.S. Treasuries cuts both ways. Destabilizing American debt holdings would badly undermine Chinese finances, too.
Beyond that, China faces multiple challenges. The country faces an aging population and its most recent census showed the slowest growth since the 1950s. University of California, Berkeley, economic historian Brad DeLong argues that Xi’s centralization of power is self-defeating.
“It is safe to assume that relying on top-down decrees from an aging, mentally declining paramount leader who is vulnerable to careerist flattery will not produce good results,” he wrote recently on the policy site Project Syndicate. “The more that China centralizes, the more it will suffer.”
In recent years, experts have talked of the “Thucydides Trap,” where a rising power challenges an established one, leading to war as happened with ancient Athens and Sparta.
But that’s not inevitable. Time to start stepping back from the brink. The trouble is it takes two to do this tango.