As a new cold war dawns and the US pursues strategic competition with China, Beijing must reassess its own policies
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By Tian Shicheng


As China’s national legislature deliberates a draft decision on establishing and improving the legal system and enforcement mechanisms for Hong Kong to safeguard national security, huge criticism has poured in from the West.


 
Leading the charge was US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who urged China to “reconsider its disastrous proposal” and “abide by its international obligations”. Chris Patten, the last governor of the former British colony, also aired his views, having never failed to seize any opportunity to criticise China on Hong Kong.
 
The average Chinese citizen would find it very difficult to understand the logic behind these criticisms. The US Congress has, on a number of occasions, passed legislation on the issue of TaiwanHong Kong, and the Xinjiang, which are all Chinese territories.
 
If a foreign country can pass laws which apply extra-territorially and which interfere in China’s domestic affairs, why should China not pass laws which apply to its own territory? If, in doing so, China is accused of violating its international obligations, how should the legitimacy of the legislative actions of the United States be assessed?
 
There are clues in a Trump administration report, “United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China”, released on May 20, which acknowledges the failure of an engagement policy that had been pursued for 40 years and declares a reappraisal of the US’ strategic advantages and shortcomings. The document makes clear that “through a whole-of-government approach and guided by a return to principled realism”, the US will attempt to contain China on all fronts – economic, political, and military.

This new US policy towards China is both significant and symbolic. It marks the beginning of a strategic showdown with China at the level of US national policy, essentially announcing the onset of the new cold war with China.

The new strategy also reflects the trend of the US opposing whatever China does regardless of its merits. Even before the start of the trade war, the US had adopted this anti-China approach and criticised China’s economic, political, and military actions. The criticism of China over the national security law in Hong Kong is just one example of this trend.
 
The criticism is not because China has no authority to enact such laws, as any sovereign state does, but because the state taking such legislative action is China. It is not because the implementation of the national security law will destroy the freedom, prosperity, and autonomy of Hong Kong guaranteed by the “one country, two systems” framework, but because it is China that will enforce the law.
 It is irrelevant to China’s critics that the implementation of a similar law in mainland China has guaranteed people’s freedom and prosperity, and provides the bedrock for the growth of modern cities, such as Shanghai and Shenzhen.

Another example of US criticism is the accusation that China is bullying Vietnam with regard to the Chinese coastguard vessel’s collision with and the sinking of a Vietnam fishing vessel, although the Vietnamese vessel entered the territorial waters of China’s Xisha (Paracel) Islands to carry out illegal fishing activities.

The US’ identity-based anti-China approach will be even more disastrous if applied to military activities. It would be hard to prevent a “whole-of-government” anti-China approach from influencing the military. Once opposing China becomes the political norm, there will an inevitable impact on frontline military operations, where military professionalism is called for in making decisions.

Although theoretically this “whole-of-government” approach and all-front strategy to contain China will remain within the scope of a cold war, its application in the military domain increases the potential for a miscalculation of each other’s strategic intentions and more than doubles the risk of a military incident, confrontation or even real conflict.

The Covid-19 pandemic has aggravated this “oppose-China-whatever-it-does” trend. The Trump administration has taken calibrated measures to deflect blame for its own failure to contain the disease, despite its previous affirmation of China’s efforts.

In sum, the US’ evaluation of China’s conduct is no longer based on any standards stipulated in international law or the values shared by the international community, but simply on opposing China.

Given that the US has changed its strategic policy towards China, China must reassess its own policy. One of China’s strategic assessments is that it is still in an “important period of strategic opportunity”. The core of this assessment is that peace and development remain the themes of the times.

To maintain a strategic environment for peaceful development, China has always pursued a cautious, tolerant, and conservative strategy in its diplomatic relations. In its relations with specific countries, whether big or small, China is also willing to stomach small losses, either economic or in security terms, to positively maintain this period of strategic opportunity.

However, it is now time for China to rethink its policy. Although peace and development remain the theme of the times, the strategic environment has changed. To accommodate the US stance of opposing whatever China does, China must adopt what I term “negatively maintaining” the important period of strategic opportunity.

Several elements could be pivots of this approach. First, since the US opposes China whatever it does, China should adopt a more active posture in its strategic competition with the US and resolutely exercise its right to safeguard national sovereignty and its development interests within the limits of international law.

Second, China should adhere to multilateralism and maintain a multilateral framework based on international rules. This is the starting point for developing relations with all countries.

Third, China should further expand the reform and opening-up process. The domestic market should be more open to foreign investors, with their legitimate rights and interests guaranteed in accordance with the domestic law of international standards.

The US imposed strategic competition on China. While China hopes the two countries will maintain the benign coexistence of cooperation and competition, exploring complementary interests to achieve win-win outcomes, since the US insists on making major changes, China must do the same.