The US believes it is exceptional. This dates back to 1630 when English Puritan lawyer John Winthrop, one of the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, addressed his fellow colonists in a sermon titled “A Model of Christian Charity”. Quoting directly from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, he told them that their new community would be “as a city upon a hill”, watched by the world.
Such pride goes in tandem with the unrivalled strength of the United States. It makes the US a self-styled saviour looking down upon others. The latest example is American Vice-President Mike Pence’s speech, at the Washington-based Hudson Institute on October 4, on the Trump administration’s policy towards China.
Chinese jaws dropped when Pence – echoing US President Donald Trump – claimed that the US “rebuilt China over the last 25 years”, then accused China of initiating “an unprecedented effort to influence American public opinion and the 2018 elections”.
The first statement sounded like – to use Pence’s own words – a “wholesale theft” of the collective efforts of the Chinese people in the past four decades. Moreover, it should be pointed out that the US$375 billion trade deficit in China’s favour could be much reduced if the US had lifted its ban on hi-tech exports to China.
As for his accusation of election meddling, just two days before Pence’s speech, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielson had said there was no sign China was trying to hack the US midterm vote.
Pence is right on one point: America’s hope that “freedom in China would expand in all forms” has gone unfulfilled. The rise of new economies represented by the rise of the G20 and the decline of the G7, a grouping of the world’s most industrialised economies, tells us that countries can develop and prosper through ways other than by following the Western democracy model.
And a “democracy” like Haiti, created through military intervention by Washington’s “Operation Uphold Democracy” in 1994, remains the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Not too long ago, the world was stunned to hear Trump described it as a “s***hole” country.
It is interesting to note how China is being further integrated into the international system while the US is withdrawing from the very system it led in creating. While Beijing now calls for multilateralism and free trade, Washington proudly proclaims its unilateralism and protectionism.
If Brexit is costing Europe in no small way, then America’s withdrawal from the international system and its undisguised contempt for the United Nations are far more consequential. In terms of morale and credibility, the US has fallen off the hill.
On Trump’s decision to end the Iran nuclear deal and impose trade tariffs on Europe, president of the European Council Donald Tusk put it this way: “With friends like that, who needs enemies?”
As a responsible member of the global community, China is stepping up in more ways than one. Over the past decade, the Chinese military has drastically increased its efforts in peacekeeping, counter-piracy and disaster relief overseas to shoulder more international obligations. And in 2017 alone, more than 600,000 Chinese studied abroad.
In the years to come, China’s Belt and Road Initiative will tie it up even more closely with the rest of the world.
Thus, US suspicions are largely unfounded. Even if Pence’s speech was aimed at a domestic audience, rather than at China, it further aggravated the Chinese, who were already rankled by the US national defence strategy that named China and Russia as the country’s two strategic competitors. The question is: is Pence’s speech a manifesto of America’s stance in a new cold war?
Unlike the Soviet Union during the cold war, there is no evidence that China is trying to export its ideology or social system to other countries or aligning itself with others to form a bloc.
Non-alliance gives China the moral high ground. If China could maintain its stance of non-alignment decades ago when it was one of the least developed countries in the world, why should it give in now when it is the second-largest economy in the world?
And it is highly unlikely that the US could gather its allies and partners together for a showdown with China. All of its allies and partners have deep economic relations with China, to say the least.
At the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore this year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi avoided mentioning the “Quad”, the grouping of the US, India, Japan and Australia that is widely perceived to be a counterbalance against China’s presence in the Indo-Pacific. Instead, he described the Indo-Pacific as a “natural region” and lauded India’s “multi-layer relations with China”.
The future of China-US relations is most probably a kind of “corpetition”, a mix of cooperation and competition. The question is how to make sure cooperation prevails over competition, or, in the worst-case scenario, competition doesn’t spill over into conflict.
This won’t be easy for the US. China is widely expected to overtake it within the next two decades to become the world’s largest economy. For most Americans, this will be the first time that they will see an America that is no longer “first” in the world. This is a sea change.
If ignorance is the father of arrogance, then “a city upon a hill” looks more like pride inflated into prejudice. After all, the US is no more than a member of the international community, like the rest of us. When it admits that, it is the start of its walk down the hill towards the plain, where the weather is certainly less chilly there than on a hill.