China and the United States under the Trump Administration have an opportunity to improve upon the competitive, often contentious, relationship between the two giants. Although elections in the US always offer a chance to improve bilateral relationships with the changing of the guard, Donald Trump campaigned on a highly confrontational, anti-China platform. China, of course, spent much of the Obama years aggressively pursing territorial claims, which angered its neighbors, led to a partial military buildup of the South China Sea, and opened Asia to greater US influence. The issues behind the South China Sea and East China Sea Crises persist, while trade issues and North Korea’s nuclear ambition must still be addressed, but the Trump Administration appears to be warming up to Beijing’s calculating pursuit of balanced. Beijing, however, struggles to deal with the many quirks of the US government.
While these quirks perplex other nations as well, they arise, in part, from the democratic nature of the United States and partisan politics. Since before the Cold War, Russia has most noticeably been troubled by Washington’s erratic nature to the point reversals in US policies and unfilled promises, e.g. the expansion of NATO, by US leaders are taken as evidence of American dishonesty. In reality, they are consequences of political shifts, political leadership making promises they cannot guarantee, and a failure to be honest about American interests. Beijing has demonstrated an ability to cope with the political quirks of the US, but it finds US interference in the domestic affairs of other nations particularly troublesome. The US can try to avoid sensitive topics when it comes to domestic affairs in order to foster a constructive relationship, but there are limits as the US must be true to its nature. In recognizing these limits, China, and others, can improve relations with the US.
Economic and military threats, as well as benefits, force nations to interact. To the extent domestic issues impact foreign policy issues, all nations have some degree of incentive to interfere in the domestic issues of other nations. The ability to influence these foreign-domestic issues is greatly constrained by the economic, military, diplomatic, and, now, technological prowess of a nation and government. Where the European empires, Ottoman Empire, Russian Empire, Chinese Empire, and Japanese Empire, among others, once enjoyed the greatest influence over their neighbors, the US now enjoys the greatest influence over all the nation-states of the globe as the world’s most powerful nation, thus US interference in the domestic affairs of others is most apparent. Absent the exercise of US influence, the interference of other nations becomes far more noticeable, such as Russian’s political interference in Ukraine and China’s efforts to enforce its claims to much of the South China Sea.
As a nation, China is a collection of highly diverse cultures and communities that the Communist government of the People’s Republic of China exerts its influence over. Domestically, China must interfere in the workings of the many communities and provinces of the nation-state in order to maintain its rule over the whole of the country, which is true of any national government. As a non-democratic government, however, China must also guard against civil discontent that could lead to the downfall of the Communist government. This often means suppressing dissent. In terms of foreign-domestic affairs, there is a need to guard against the same kinds of threats from foreign government and populations. In suppressing dissent at home, Beijing tells the world it plans to do the same to the other Peoples of the world. From the perspective of foreigners, especially US citizens, this drivers concerns of growing Chinese influence.
Unfortunately, US interference in the domestic affairs of other nations also elicits the same concerns from the governments and Peoples of the world. When the US betrays its democratic aspirations, which it has done numerous times, these concerns become threats. As the world’s most powerful nation, the US is going to assert its great influence over nations. As a liberal democracy, however, the US can spare the world from the tyranny of an abusive government, which pursues its own interests and existence at the expense of others. The United States is supposed to be a liberal democracy, which means the government is supposed to represent the American People and respect the rights of individuals over the rights of social institutions, including government. The downside for a non-democratic governments like Beijing is that this means the US needs to address the interests of the Peoples of the nation over the interests of the Chinese government.
When compelled to act in a ways that interferes in the domestic affairs of other nations, this creates an obvious problem for Beijing. In the Middle East, however, the failure of the United States to act in accordance with its nature and honestly pursue its ideological interests as a liberal democracy led the US to support oppressive dictatorships. In turn, the brutal suppression of the Middle Eastern Peoples resulted in massive civil unrest that exploded into the Arab Spring revolutions and widespread violence escalated by globalized terrorism. As such, Beijing cannot ask the US to act against its nature and expect to have a sustainable, honest relationship with the US. Where Beijing’s interests align with the interests of the Chinese Peoples, however, the US is compelled respect the interest of Beijing. In turn, Washington can deal with Beijing on honest terms. When it comes to areas where all interests align, there is an opportunity to build a stable, constructive relationship.
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