How China Should Engage with the US and the World as Viewed by Tsinghua Prof. Da Wei
"We should consider rising above US-China rivalry and focus on safeguarding and enhancing China's overall connectivity with the world."
At a time when tensions between the United States and China are once again on the rise and hawkish voices in both countries have been growing louder, today’s edition of Sinification draws attention to a more moderate voice.
The excerpts below are from a recent article by one of China’s most respected US specialists, Da Wei (达巍). Da is, amongst other things, a professor of international relations at Tsinghua University and the director of its prestigious Centre for International Security and Strategy (CISS). His article was first published a couple of weeks ago (i.e. before the balloon incident) and has since been crossposted several times by Chinese think tanks and university research centres alike. Even the notoriously US-averse Global Times published his piece both in Chinese and an abridged version of it in English.
For those of you who might not be so used to reading this type of article, Da’s arguments are framed using concepts and rhetoric promoted by the Chinese Communist Party. Indeed, it is Da’s way of providing substance to these and, in so doing, of shaping the debate in China. More important than his references to Mao and Xi are his underlying arguments, which are:
US policymakers are now determined to exclude China from today’s interconnected world and are prepared to pay a price for doing so.
In the face of US attempts to decouple from China in certain areas, Beijing must respond in a way that does not end up exacerbating this trend.
China must both preserve and strengthen its connections with the outside world. This applies in particular to its ties with developed countries and thus also with the US. Only by doing so will China be able to prosper.
Except for matters that touch upon China’s core interests, Beijing should avoid responding to American provocations in a tit for tat way and should focus its efforts on “building bridges” with the US and the rest of the world.
Xi’s emphasis on developing China’s “fighting spirit” and on “being good at struggling” does not necessarily imply that China should become more aggressive. This, he says, should be understood as advocating compromise and cooperation with the outside world.
If productive engagement is not possible with Washington, Beijing should focus on strengthening its ties with groups and individuals at the local level in the US (state-level officials, academics, businesses etc.).
When the US is attacking China, it is all the more important for Beijing to enhance its ties with “Europe and countries in the Asia-Pacific” and be a little more “tolerant” with these countries than it would otherwise be with the US.
“In the cyclical pattern of US suppression and Chinese countermeasures, US-China relations have been in a downward spiral over the past few years. China's relations with some developed countries other than the US have also encountered certain difficulties. The 20th Party Congress emphasised the need to achieve 'Chinese modernisation' [‘中国式现代化’]. In accordance with the worldview and methodology of ‘apply[ing] systems thinking’ [I am using the official translation of 坚持系统观念] put forward during the 20th National Congress of the CPC, we should consider rising above US-China rivalry and focus on safeguarding and enhancing China's overall connectivity with the world [与世界的全面联通]. [This should of course be done] alongside our paying the upmost attention to the challenges posed by the US to China. Only by doing this shall we be able to win the long-term strategic game between China and the United States [赢得中美长期战略博弈] and create the conditions for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
2. Tension between the two big pictures: preventing “reactive decoupling”
“General Secretary Xi Jinping has repeatedly stressed that ‘we should keep two big pictures in mind: one is the overall strategic situation regarding the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation; and the other is the great global changes not seen in a century. This is the basic starting point for planning of our work.’ We must recognise that there is a certain kind of tension between these two big pictures and that integrating them is not easy. But that is precisely why it is so crucial to integrate them.”
“In a closed international environment, a large country like China could depend on self-reliance and hard struggle to resolve the issues of national survival and basic security, as evidenced by the ‘Two Bombs and One Satellite’ [project]. However, a high level of economic and social development in China cannot be achieved without the country being connected to the outside world, especially to the economies, technologies and societies of developed countries.”
“This [argument] is not merely empirically based. Theoretically, the crux of a country's long-term economic growth lies in the improvement of its labour productivity and there are only two ways of doing this: the first is to refine the division of labour; and the second is technological progress. Only in an interconnected international environment, especially one in which there are [strong] linkages with developed economies, can market size be maximised, the division of labour refined and specialised, and labour productivity then increase accordingly.”
“The US policy-making elite has a shrewd and ruthless eye. It is in an interconnected world that China has been able to develop quite so remarkably over the past 40 years. US policymakers are now determined to exclude China from this interconnected world and are ready to pay a certain price for doing so.”
“The overall strategy for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation requires us to maintain particularly close links with the outside world and especially with developed countries. Under the great changes not seen in a century, the United States is doing everything it can to block off China's links with the outside world. We have to deal with both of these situations properly, but the forces behind them are opposed. This is the [aforementioned] tension between the two big pictures.”
“What is particularly important to note is that when we encounter various acts of bullying and infringement of China's interests by the US, we will inevitably choose to raise our security levels and, when necessary, take countermeasures. This is required in order to safeguard China's national dignity, national interests and national security. At the same time, when we raise our security levels in response to US pressure, this may also create barriers to our connections with the outside world. When China fights back against the US's moves to 'decouple', [China’s] behaviour is in itself just and reasonable. However, it might also help accelerate this decoupling from the opposite direction. Thus, [determining] how and when to fight back is a test of our wisdom. In this sense, the dangers associated with the US's current strategy towards China lie not only in its various anti-China moves per se, but also in its attempt to detach China from the world's political and economic networks, while at the same time luring and provoking China into engaging in such ‘reactive decoupling’ [反向脱钩] by exerting external pressure [on us]. [This would] significantly increase the strategic costs of China's rise.”
3. Offsetting 'subtractions' with 'additions'
‘The relationship between the US and China should be dealt with in a way that minimises damage to the broader goal of connectivity.”
“After reading this, there are bound to be people who will ask, ‘Nowadays it is not China which does not want to remain connected to the world, but US policymakers who want to cut off China's linkages to the world’. Such a query is certainly justified.”
“The challenges brought to us by the US’s strategic adjustments are formidable. But China is fully capable and has [sufficient] room to do a good job of [implementing its approach of] 'adding and subtracting'. It is certainly not left with no other choices [绝非别无选择].”
“First, on issues that concern China's territorial sovereignty, political security, fundamental [political] system and other core interests, [if] the US makes ‘subtractions’, then China can only make ‘subtractions’ in a determined manner. China has no room for compromise on these issues and must deter US actions through firm and strong countermeasures. In this regard, it is important to assess the effects of [such] 'subtractions' accurately and to readjust [our stance] promptly when the situation changes. If there are several options, [we should] do our best to choose the 'subtraction' that has a relatively small 'reactive decoupling' effect.”
“Second, the US government has done a lot of ‘subtractions’ in such areas as science and technology, the economy and at the people-to-people and cultural [levels]. We need to make precise assessments of the extent and effects of [such] 'subtractions' by the US. For example, we often use the term ‘choking' [卡脖子, i.e. in the context of the US ‘choking’ China or, more literally, ‘having China in a stranglehold’]. In fact, in the US-China relationship, ‘choking’ is often not a complete severance of linkages [联通], but rather creates huge difficulties for these. It is not that there is absolutely no room for manoeuvre [做工作], it is just that we need to assess more precisely where we need to 'prop things up' [‘支架’] and where we need to 'build bridges' [‘搭桥’]. Another example is ‘decoupling’. Experience over the past few years has shown that even when the US side is pushing for decoupling, as long as [we] respond appropriately and work in a targeted manner, a complete decoupling from China is very unlikely to take place.”
“Third, when the US ‘subtracts’, it is all the more important for us to ‘add’ with Europe, Asia-Pacific countries and the wider developing world. Admittedly disagreements in certain specific areas do sometimes exist between China and these countries or regions. However, the ‘system concept’ [系统观念] requires us to distinguish between principal and secondary contradictions. In China's relations with the outside world, distinctions need to be made. [Our] tolerance of secondary contradictions can be a little greater. The ASEAN countries and the US’s allies in Europe and the Asia-Pacific in particular deserve China's attention. Distinctions [should be made] when compared with relations with the US. As China's relations with these countries have shown in recent years, countries other than China and the US do not wish to pick a side between Beijing and Washington. [Moreover,] some US allies are not entirely in tune with the US when it comes to their strategy towards China.”
“Fourth, the United States is not a single actor. We need to recognise fully the complexity and diversity within the United States:
When the US is ‘subtracting’ in one issue area, we can still ‘add’ in other areas. At present, conflicts between the US and China are more at the bilateral or regional levels. The United States still needs to cooperate with China on global issues such as macroeconomic stability, climate change and public health.
When the US Congress is ‘subtracting’, we can strive to ‘add’ with the US government’s executive authorities, headed by the White House. Even if the entire US government were to be ‘subtracting’, we could still ‘add’ with the US’s business circles, academic community and local [authorities]. By optimising China's domestic business environment, strengthening people-to-people and cultural exchanges between China and the US, and by encouraging local-level and province-state exchanges [推动地方省州交流], we can win over more China-friendly, China-knowing [知华] and cooperative forces.”
4. What Xi means by “fighting spirit” and “being good at struggling”
“The 20th Party Congress demanded that the whole of the Party “carry forward its fighting spirit" [‘坚持发扬斗争精神’. N.B. ‘争斗’ can be translated either as ‘struggle’ or, depending on the context, as ‘fight’.]. This is also embodied in the process of 'adding and subtracting' with the whole of the outside world, including the US. It is important to stress that the communist emphasis on 'struggle' is a Marxist philosophical concept and must be distinguished from the 'struggle' of everyday life.”
“In [his essay] ‘On Contradiction' [矛盾论], Comrade Mao Zedong pointed out that ‘the struggle of opposites is ceaseless, it goes on both when the opposites are coexisting and when they are transforming themselves into each other, and becomes especially conspicuous when they are transforming themselves into one another.’ [I am using the translation of Mao’s ‘On Contradiction' provided by the Marxists Internet Archive, a fantastic resource for those of you who might not yet be familiar with it].”
“In other words, contradictions are always present [无时不在] and present everywhere [无所不在]. Struggling is the process by which old contradictions are resolved and new ones arise.”
“Comrade Mao Zedong also pointed out that ‘in studying the universality of contradiction and the struggle of opposites in contradiction, we must pay attention to the distinction between the different forms of struggle’, and that ‘antagonism [or ‘confrontation’] is one form, but not the only form, of the struggle of opposites’.”
“In other words, ‘struggling’ could include both fierce confrontation and other forms such as circumvention [迂回], compromise and cooperation. This is the essence of the Party's repeated emphasis on ‘being good at struggling [善于斗争]’.”
“In January 2021, President Xi Jinping stated during the World Economic Forum's 'Davos Agenda’ dialogue session that, ‘We should promote fair competition and engage in a track-and-field competition in which both sides catch up and overtake each other in a friendly manner, rather than engage in a wrestling match in which both sides attack and try to kill one another’.”
“In the face of the US’s fundamental reorientation its strategy towards China, getting bogged down at the US-China bilateral level in ‘back-and-forth [你来我往], tooth-for-a-tooth [以牙还牙]’ [exchanges], would not be in keeping with what is required of ‘great powers’ [‘国之大者’ is an expression used by Xi. There has been some debate over its exact meaning. I am translating it here in accordance with what I think Da Wei means].”
Comment: In contrast, see for example Peking University professor Lu Feng (路风) stressing that, in the context of the US-China chip war, his advice is indeed to “take a tooth for a tooth and an eye for an eye”. “The more China backs down”, he says, “the more frequent and heavier the blows [by the US] will become. Thus, it is time for China to harden its fist and develop the ability to grab hold of the other side by the ‘throat’. Only then will the other party acknowledge that we both belong to a ‘community with a shared future for mankind’.”
“It is almost impossible for China to influence what US policymakers have [already] decided to do. But a great power like China can focus on itself [以我为主] and hold its own. It can rise above the US-China bilateral rivalry and firmly place its focus on strengthening China’s connectedness – particularly with developed countries, including the US, which is required by our overall strategy for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. By doing this, we will truly be able to win the track-and-field competition.”
N.B. I have just noticed that the excellent China-US Focus has just published its own translation of Da’s piece. I would nevertheless recommend reading Sinification’s version of it. But then again, I am biased.
The depth and breadth of geopolitical discourse amongst China’s intelligentsia is noticeably absent in the US and Anglosphere. The only website I know of that makes available some of this great pool of intellectual insight is www.guancha.cn and even so, one has to slog through painful convoluted auto translations.
Thank you for your invaluable service in translating these articles for us.
seems you may have included taiwan in this map of china