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The U.S. and China: Are we in a Cold War?

By George J. Chanos, Jun 9th, 2020

Navigating Uncharted Waters with Low Visibility.

As the world struggles to manage the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, there have been calls for China to be held responsible for the economic damage caused to the U.S. economy, as a result of China’s mishandling of the outbreak.

Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina has said the U.S. should “make China pay big time.”

Republican attorneys general from 18 states are pressing Congress to investigate the Chinese government’s role in the coronavirus outbreak.

Experts say the relationship between the U.S. and China has grown more adversarial due to the trade war and national security issues. And the coronavirus pandemic is tipping the relationship further in that direction.

Both Beijing and Washington have ramped up military activities near Taiwan in recent months, moves that some observers say run the risk of miscommunication.

Trump has even gone so far as to suggest that the U.S. could cut off all trade with China. In an interview on Fox News, Trump said, “There are many things we could do. We could cut off the whole relationship,” Trump went on to say, “Now if you did, what would happen? You’d save $500 billion if you cut off the whole relationship.”

The Chinese market is the third-largest importer of U.S. goods, after Canada and Mexico. And while trade between the U.S. and China is very significant, it’s only part of the bilateral relationship between the two countries — a relationship that is much more complicated and nuanced than just trade.

Today, Asia is the world’s fastest-growing region. Within this decade, Asian economies will become larger than the rest of the world’s economies combined. And both the U.S. and China play a pivotal role in all Asian economies. China is now the region’s biggest economy and a major economic partner with most Asian countries. China’s influence in regional affairs is, in some cases, equal to or greater than that of the U.S. And these relationships have significant economic, political, and military implications.

On Jan. 31, 2020, the U.S. government barred most non-U.S. citizens, who had been in China within the previous 14 days, from entering the U.S. due to the coronavirus crisis. The U.S. did not impose any restrictions on Chinese flights at that time. Major U.S. carriers voluntarily decided to halt all passenger flights to China in February 2020.

The Trump administration has now said it will ban all commercial passenger flights by Chinese carriers. The change, announced by the Department of Transportation and beginning June 16, 2020, is in response to China’s refusal to allow U.S. carriers to resume service to China.

This shifting relationship raises a number of complex and high-stakes issues which, if handled improperly, could lead to escalating tensions and greater global instability.

The Outbreak

Many Americans are now claiming that China misled the rest of the world about the origin of the virus.

Some in the administration are now suggesting that the origin of the virus was not as China and the World Health Organization (“WHO”) originally reported, “an animal to a human transmission that originated in the Wuhan wet markets.” Instead, they believe that the level 4 biological research lab in Wuhan, China was the original source of the virus. It is now being claimed that the original transmission was human to human.

FOX News has reported that “multiple sources” are now claiming that the virus originated in or leaked from China’s level 4 biological testing lab in Wuhan, China. It wasn’t created there. It’s claimed to have come from bat feces that was being studied there.

It has been reported that “a male research assistant was infected from his work in the lab and then transmitted that infection to his girlfriend who then transmitted it to others in the Wuhan wet market.” We don’t know if this is true or rank speculation.

In the minds of many Americans, China has significant responsibility for the global carnage caused by the Covid-19 virus.

Under U.S. law, strict liability is imposed when somebody creates an abnormally dangerous condition or performs ultra-hazardous activities, and something goes wrong that causes an injury to another person. Certain activities are considered inherently dangerous. These are activities that involve serious potential harm, involve a high degree of risk that cannot be adequately protected against by using reasonable care, and are not commonly performed in the community or under the circumstances.

We know that the first reported outbreak occurred in Wuhan and all available information indicates that it either came from China’s wet markets or its level 4 lab. It could be argued that these are both abnormally dangerous activities.

There is no information to suggest that the release, leakage, or spread of this virus was in any way intentional. And there is no allegation being made that this was weapons research.

Under U.S. law, whether it came from China’s wet markets or their level 4 lab, China may ultimately be held legally responsible at some level, either on the basis of strict liability or negligence. And how China responded and communicated with the world, after learning of the outbreak, would potentially create a second layer of liability under U.S. law.

Even if China were only held responsible for its own active and passive negligence, this would seem to create substantial exposure for China, based on the information currently available and based on U.S. legal standards.

Then again, it’s hard to assess the credibility of any of the information we’re receiving. There are few, if any, disinterested sources with first-hand knowledge.

This will be a hotly contested issue. We know that China doesn’t share all of our values and couldn’t care less about our laws. They’re a sovereign nation, second only in might and global influence to the U.S. Therefore, we can expect there to be substantial disagreement between the U.S. and China concerning these issues.

Many, including several U.S. Senators, have been demanding that China provide more information about the work that was taking place at the lab in Wuhan. So far, China has been non-responsive.

It’s hard to tell whether the information we are receiving is accurate or inaccurate, because we don’t know the backgrounds and/or motivations of who’s saying what, and few if any of us are in a position to verify the data being presented.

A Chinese scientist reporting on the outbreak could be working for or against the Chinese government. They may or may not have first-hand knowledge. And the facts they cite may or may not be verified or accurate.

China has rejected U.S. claims that China is responsible for the outbreak, or the resulting global damage.

A Chinese official, in a tweet, accused the U.S. military of introducing the pathogen to China.

When we read, see or hear information concerning China, we should be asking: who is this information coming from and how do we know that it’s accurate? What first-hand knowledge do these sources actually have? We can’t rely on “multiple sources” that remain unidentified any more than we can rely on mere denials from China.

The reality is that we may never know all the facts. We should continue to try to gather accurate and credible information. And we should try to base our decisions on that information.

At the same time, we need to recognize that even in the absence of perfect or complete information, we will likely have to make certain decisions based on incomplete information.

The stakes alone (not to mention the cultural differences and the opportunities for miscommunication and media manipulation) could make further discussions surrounding these issues incredibly tense. And we should expect the rhetoric to escalate prior to America’s November 2020 presidential election.

Over 100,000 Americans have died from Covid-19. Over 38 million Americans have filed unemployment claims. Over $6 trillion has been committed to addressing the economic damage from the pandemic. Over $2.3 trillion has been spent just on stimulus. An additional $4 trillion has been committed by the Federal Reserve. Business closures have cost the U.S. economy trillions more.

Whether before or after the November 2020 U.S. presidential election, China’s responsibility for the damages caused by Covid-19 is likely to be a hotly contested issue. This issue is unlikely to simply go away or be forgotten. And how it is handled, by both sides, could have cascading effects globally.

Moreover, while these discussions are proceeding, we also know that other actors, who hope to further destabilize the U.S. and/or China, will likely try to leverage America’s current instability by testing or provoking both sides during this critical period. One way to weaken America would be to encourage further division among an already divided public — especially during a 100-year pandemic and a presidential election year. America needs to remain alert — particularly to this threat. This point cannot be overstated.

The May 25 killing of George Floyd and the riots that have erupted across the country as a consequence provide just such an opportunity for agitation and increased destabilization. This represents a significant vulnerability for the U.S.

In 1838, President Abraham Lincoln said, “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reaches us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

To paraphrase what Lincoln was saying — if we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves. At no time, since the Civil War, has this been more true.

It seems all but certain that Trump will ultimately attempt to negotiate economic concessions with China in an effort to cause China to accept some responsibility for this global disaster. He will be under mounting political pressure within the Republican Party to do so. We’re already hearing calls to hold China responsible coming from conservative voices in Congress and the media. There will be many more.

The Trump administration negotiated $200 billion in trade concessions with China before the pandemic. Some would argue, given the trillions in damages caused by Covid-19, that this should only be a down payment.

It can certainly be argued that China does have some significant responsibility for the outbreak, for their lack of candor, and for intentionally restricting scientists, researchers, and journalists from investigating and releasing information, resulting in lost opportunities for better preparedness and containment. At least that is how their action and inaction would be evaluated under U.S. law.

However, the U.S. has no right to impose its legal standards on another sovereign nation for activities occurring outside of U.S. territory. The legal standards here will need to be international legal standards and if these issues are even presented to an international tribunal (which is unlikely given the parties involved), we can expect China to argue that the U.S. should be held equally responsible for some of its prior failings, that have had an adverse economic or environmental impact globally. Issues like the HIV epidemic and the 2008 economic collapse have already been raised by China as examples of U.S. failures that have had an adverse global impact, without any discussion of U.S. responsibility.

China will also argue that the U.S was not only aware of the activities at the Wuhan lab; they helped fund them and should, therefore, be held equally accountable. This is an issue that we don’t hear the White House, U.S. Senators, or U.S. media talking about.

In 2014, the U.S. National Institute of Health (“NIH”) approved a grant to EcoHealth Alliance designated for research into “Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence.” The project involved collaborating with researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology to study coronaviruses in bats and the risk of potential transfer to humans.

The original five-year grant was approved by the Obama administration and re-approved by the Trump administration in July of 2019. In total, $3,378,896 in NIH funding was directed from the U.S. government to the project. Trump canceled U.S. funding for the project after the outbreak, along with funding for the WHO.

As noted above, this is a complex and high-stakes issue that will require deft handling — much of which we may never know or hear anything about.

Our Historical Relationship with China

To better understand the relationship between the U.S. and China, one needs to examine the modern historical roots of that relationship.

The People’s Republic of China (“PRC”) came into existence in 1949, after a costly full-scale civil war, which broke out immediately following World War II.

American-Chinese relations were essentially frozen in 1949 when Communist insurgents defeated the U.S.- backed Nationalist regime of Chiang Kai-shek.

From 1949 to the early 1970s, China was essentially isolated by the Western powers.

World War II divided Korea into a Communist northern half and an American-occupied southern half, divided at the 38th parallel. The Korean War (1950–1953) began when the North Korean Communist army crossed the 38th Parallel and invaded non-Communist South Korea.

After Kim Il-sung’s North Korean army, armed with Soviet tanks, quickly overran South Korea, the United States came to South Korea’s aid. General Douglas MacArthur commanded the U.S. forces which held off the North Koreans at Pusan, at the southernmost tip of Korea.

General MacArthur eventually crushed the North Korean army and recaptured Seoul, the capital of South Korea. He then crossed the 38th Parallel and pursued the North Korean army all the way to the northernmost provinces of North Korea, at which point, the People’s Republic of China sent an army across the Yalu River and attacked the US/UN/ROK forces.

In 1953, a peace treaty was signed at Panmunjom that ended the Korean War, returning Korea to a divided status — essentially the same as before the war. Neither the war nor its outcome did anything to lessen the Cold War tensions between the U.S. and Russia or China. As many as 4 million people died in the Korean War.

Kim Il-sung was the founder and first Supreme Leader of North Korea, which he ruled from the country’s establishment in 1948 until his death in 1994. Kim Jong-un, the current leader of North Korea, is the grandson of Kim ll-sung.

In October of 1964, China conducted its first test of an atomic bomb.

In 1969, China fought a brief, bloody border clash over Zhenbao Island with the Soviet Union, prompting international concerns of a new World War involving nuclear weapons. Beijing’s rising fears of Moscow led China’s leader Mao Zedong to change China’s global strategy and seek to mend ties with the United States, laying the foundation for China’s eventual return to the international community.

In 1967, even before his presidency, Richard Nixon wrote in Foreign Affairs that, “we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish hates, and threaten its neighbors. There is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation.”

This remains as true today as it was in 1967.

Nixon ultimately arrived in Beijing on Feb. 21, 1972 for what Nixon would later dub “the week that changed the world.” This historic trip, orchestrated by Nixon’s Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, opened the door for normalization of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China.

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter granted China full diplomatic recognition, while acknowledging mainland China’s One China policy and severing normal ties with Taiwan.

Later that year, Congress approved the Taiwan Relations Act, allowing continued commercial and cultural relations between the U.S. and Taiwan. The Act required the U.S. to provide Taiwan with defensive arms but did not officially violate the U.S. sanctioned One China policy.

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan signed the Third Joint Communique with China. It reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to the One China policy. Although, Reagan also voiced support for Taiwan at the time.

In 1984, Reagan visited China and the U.S. permitted China to purchase U.S. military equipment.

In 1989, thousands of students demonstrated in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, demanding democratic reforms. The Chinese response left hundreds of protesters dead.

The U.S. responded to China’s brutality against the student protesters by freezing relations and suspending military arms sales to China.

In 1996, Lee Teng-hui, of the Nationalist Party, won Taiwan’s first free presidential election.

After Lee’s election, President Bill Clinton authorized Lee to visit the U.S., reversing a fifteen-year U.S. policy of not granting visas to Taiwan’s leaders.

In 2000, President Clinton signed the U.S. China Relations Act, granting China permanent normal trade relations with the U.S. This paved the way for China to join the World Trade Organization in 2001.

Between 1980 and 2004, U.S. China trade increased from $5 billion to $231 billion.

In 2008, China became the largest holder of U.S. debt or treasuries — approximately $600 billion. Today, that number is 1.8 trillion.

In 2010 China surpassed Japan as the world’s second-largest economy. According to Goldman Sachs’ chief economist, China is now on track to overtake the U.S. economy by 2027. Seven years from now.

In 2011, President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. and eight other nations had reached an agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (“TPP”) — a multinational free trade agreement.

The U.S. trade deficit with China hit an all-time high of $295 billion in 2011. Today, the U.S. trade deficit with China is $500 billion.

In 2012, the 18th National Party Congress resulted in China’s most significant leadership turnover in decades. Approximately 70% of the members of China’s major leadership bodies — the Politburo Standing Committee, the Central Military Commission, and the State Council — were replaced. Xi Jinping became president, Communist Party general secretary, and chairman of the Central Military Commission.

In 2015, U.S. authorities indicated that there was evidence that Chinese hackers were behind the massive online breach of the Office of Personnel Management, resulting in the theft of highly sensitive data on 22 million current and former federal employees.

In 2017, President Trump assured President Xi that he would honor the One China policy. Later, President Trump spoke with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and publicly questioned the U.S. commitment to the One China policy.

In an interview with FOX News, President-elect Trump said, “I don’t know why we have to be bound by a One China policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.”

A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry told reporters at the time, “the sound and steady growth of China-U.S. relations would be out of the question” was Trump to turn away from the One China policy.

Orville Schell, the head of the Centre on US-China Relations at New York’s Asia Society, described Trump’s comments at the time as an “incredible provocation.”

Washington’s acceptance of the One China policy, under which Taiwan is officially regarded as part of the same single Chinese nation as the mainland, has been a crucial part of the foundation of U.S.-China relations since ties between the two countries were re-established by Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong in 1972.

In January of 2017, President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the TPP that President Obama had negotiated.

In April of 2017, President Trump met with China’s Xi Jinping for a two-day summit at the Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. Trump later said that he and Xi made “tremendous progress.”

In 2018, the Trump administration announced significant tariffs on Chinese imports. China then responded with retaliatory tariffs. The Trump administration then imposed additional tariffs. And China immediately responded with more of its own tariffs.

Beijing criticized the Trump administration’s moves as “trade bullying” and cautioned that the tariffs could create “global market unrest.”

In 2018, Vice President Pence said that the U.S. would “prioritize competition over cooperation”. He also condemned what he called “growing Chinese military aggression”, especially in the South China Sea.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs criticized Pence’s speech as “groundless accusations” that could harm U.S. — China ties.

In December of 2018, Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Chinese telecom giant Huawei, was arrested in Canada at the request of the U.S. The U.S. alleged that Huawei and Meng violated U.S. trade sanctions against Iran and committed fraud. The U.S. requested her extradition.

In March of 2019, the U.S. warned other countries not to use Huawei equipment to build 5G networks, claiming that the Chinese government could use the company to spy on those using the equipment.

The Trump administration then banned U.S. companies from using foreign-made telecommunications equipment that could threaten U.S. national security. And the U.S Department of Commerce added Huawei to its foreign entity blacklist.

In August of 2019, after China’s central bank let the yuan decline significantly, the Trump administration designated China a currency manipulator. Beijing warned that the designation would trigger financial market turmoil.

Fifty years after Nixon’s visit to China and “the week that changed the world”, an outbreak of Covid-19 in Wuhan, China (first reported on December 31, 2019), changed the world again.

In January of 2020, President Trump and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He signed a trade agreement that relaxed some of the tariffs on Chinese imports and committed China to buy an additional $200 billion worth of American goods. Days before the signing, the U.S. dropped its designation of China as a currency manipulator.

Our Current Relationship with China

China and Russia now give the appearance of being allies even though they are not yet formal allies. And while the relationship between Russia and China seems to be improving, the relationship between the U.S. and China appears to be going from bad to worse.

Moreover, at a time when the U.S. may want to move closer to Russia before China does, political opposition and opportunism from the “Resistance” have made that increasingly difficult.

Today, the U.S. and China are locked in a competition for global dominance. And this competition between the world’s two leading superpowers is fraught with peril.

“The Art of War”, written by Sun Tzu, a legendary Chinese general, military strategist, and philosopher, offers some insight into how that peril might play out.

President Trump refers to President Xi Jinping of China as his friend. Trump may believe that or even consider Xi his friend. What we don’t know is how Xi views Trump. Does he consider Trump his friend?

I’m not sure if anyone in Washington really knows if the Communist Party of China (“CPC”) or Xi is our friend, our competitor, our adversary, or all of the above, depending on circumstance. China is a very opaque society. And that makes China very hard to read.

And the opacity is very intentional.

Sun Tzu said,

“Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate.”

Trump’s trade policy with China, which has been more aggressive than any modern POTUS, certainly can’t have helped to strengthen our relationship.

For all we know, China may view Trump’s aggressive trade policy as an act of aggression. They may be thinking — that’s not how friends behave. Trade policy, like any negotiation, requires a balancing of competing interests. And one of the most critical interests, in any negotiation, is the relationship. The more important the relationship, the more accommodation, and compromise may be appropriate in a negotiation.

We need to be able to negotiate critical economic, political, and strategic issues with China. At the same time, we need to be asking how China might perceive those negotiations, and how those negotiations may be affecting our relationship.

Sun Tzu also said, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” So, I’m not sure that we’ll ever know exactly where we stand with China.

Sun Tzu advised his followers,

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”

Based on the teachings of Sun Tzu, it also appears that truth will be the first casualty in any conflict with China.

How do we know that the Chinese government and military still follow the teachings of Sun Tzu today? According to the Chinese Information Bureau in 2006, the People’s Liberation Army decided to use The Art of War as the educational textbook not only for officers but also for all enlisted soldiers and sailors.“Essentials of Sun Tzu and the Art of War and Submarine Operations”, written by the People’s Liberation Army Navy Submarine Academy, for instance, provides four examples of how “warfare is a way of deception” and how this might be applied to submarine operations.

This ancient text is not only used today in China; it is used by both militaries and business schools all around the world. General Douglas MacArthur once said that he always kept Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass on his desk.

America is at a low point. We are certainly much weaker today than we were before Covid-19. And that vulnerability creates risks. How that vulnerability might be exploited is anyone’s guess, but it is important to remember that what may be a strength in one context can easily become a liability in another.

No one with any credibility has yet accused China of intentionally releasing the Covid-19 virus. There is simply no evidence that this was intentional. Yet even if the original release was not intentional, that doesn’t mean that we have no reason to be vigilant or alert to China’s ongoing actions and/or intentions.

One quote from Sun Tzu is particularly instructive for Americans.

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

We need to better understand China — whether or not they are our enemy or our friend. We are clearly in competition with China for global dominance. That alone requires that we know our competition.

Perhaps even more importantly, we must know ourselves. Many of our greatest strengths, including some of our civil liberties, can become liabilities in a pandemic. We need to understand this and adapt to what is already a rapidly and radically changing social, political, economic, and strategic landscape.

Over the past ten to twenty years, we have witnessed a surge in China’s attempts to lay strong foundations for global competition.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), sometimes referred to as the New Silk Road, is one of the most ambitious global infrastructure projects ever conceived. Launched in 2013 by President Xi Jinping, this vast collection of investment initiatives will stretch from East Asia to Europe and Africa, significantly expanding China’s economic and political influence.

Some see the project as a disturbing extension of China’s economic and military power. Some see it as a Trojan horse for China’s global military expansion. Others see it merely as legitimate economic competition.

The 2,600-acre archipelago that China has built in the South China Sea, 500 miles from its mainland, in disputed international waters, in the middle of one of the world’s critical shipping lanes, complete with fighter aircraft and anti-aircraft missile launchers, is another example of China’s ambitious expansion.

The crackdowns on democracy and dissidents in Hong Kong and mainland China, the increases in surveillance and social monitoring and control, and the ability to restrict and manage their immense population (like the quarantine imposed on 60 million people in Wuhan and surrounding provinces, and the restrictions imposed on 100 million people in China’s northeast region) provide important examples of how China has positioned itself for increased control and competition.

Importantly, while this level of control might stifle investment and innovation in a pre-pandemic environment, it provides a clear strategic advantage in a post-pandemic environment. The ability to lock down a population of 60 million in Wuhan and surrounding provinces, or 100 million people in China’s northeast region being prime examples of that strategic advantage.

China’s ability to control the activities of its population represents a strategic advantage during a pandemic and stands in sharp contrast to the potential liability that America’s political division, sense of independence, and sense of entitlement represents.

One way to win a competition is to change the rules of engagement, change the playing field, or the choice of weapons. Many of the advantages that the U.S. enjoyed in a pre-pandemic environment are now liabilities in a post-pandemic environment. And whether or not China created this new scenario, China is clearly aware of how this new development changes the dynamics of our bilateral relations.

Over the last ten years, China has become a maritime powerhouse, securing key supply chains, enhancing its international trade capacities, and building up global economic leverage. China has been buying up the development and operational rights to a chain of ports that stretch from the southern ports of Asia, to the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and South America.

Since 2009 China has withdrawn 12,000 tons of gold from the rest of the world. Whether this is because of excessive debt levels around the world, incessant money printing by central banks, or in anticipation of other events that might affect global currencies, China has been preparing by buying gold.

China has been a net importer of gold since the 1990s, but imports grew in 2010 following the 2008 financial crisis and accelerated in 2013.

All of the above activity can be seen as acts in furtherance of, or in preparation for, increased competition toward global dominance.

China’s media offensive stresses that this is all nothing more than perfectly appropriate economic competition. And that may be all it is, but even that creates risks for the U.S.

Artificial intelligence (“AI”) is yet another battleground of intense competition. The first country to gain clear supremacy in AI could be in a position to control the world.

The U.S. and China are leading the world in AI development, but who leads who is less clear. Ray Kurzweil, the head of AI for Google says that the “Singularity” (the moment when machine intelligence will eclipse human intelligence), could come as early as 2029. That’s less than ten years away.

In 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin said,

“Artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia but for all humankind… Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.”

In a recent article published in the scientific journal “Nature”, Google has announced that it has achieved quantum supremacy.

Google says that its 54-qubit Sycamore processor was able to perform a calculation in 200 seconds that would have taken the world’s most powerful supercomputer 10,000 years. As Putin’s admonition makes clear, this quantum leap in computing could certainly make China nervous. The real question is — could it make them act preemptively? Or have they already?

As we manage this complicated relationship, we can again find insight in the teachings of Sun Tzu.

“The opportunity to secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.”

Our internal division, perhaps our greatest existential threat, would certainly be one such opportunity that any enemy should be expected to exploit.

Whether we are dealing with a hundred-year pandemic or a global struggle for technological supremacy, the one thing that America cannot afford is precisely what we are seeing today — increased internal division.

We need to work with China and all other nations to create a world that is just and sustainable for all of us. And to do that, we need to recognize our profound interdependence and value all of our relationships — especially our critical, strategic relationships. Not in some naive or overly optimistic way, but honestly and pragmatically.

Most importantly, we need to understand our strengths and our weaknesses, and how what constitutes a strength and a weakness can change dramatically, depending on circumstances.

We need to remember the words of Sun Tzu, “The opportunity of defeating an enemy is provided by the enemy himself.” We cannot afford to provide our competition, or our adversaries, the opportunity to defeat us.

We can’t assume that the United States and China will manage their bilateral relations based on rational calculations of humanity’s collective interests, or even that they share a desire for win-win outcomes. Instead, we should assume that each country will pursue its own national interests. The real question is; will they do this cooperatively, through intensified competition, or through escalating conflict?

Prioritizing competition over cooperation is clearly not the answer.

Exalting competition over cooperation secures neither country’s long-term interests. It makes conflict inevitable, and that ultimately makes the world less prosperous and less safe for all of us.

The U.S. and China must work to create a relationship that will be competitive in some areas without allowing their competition to undermine cooperation in others. The entire world will be better served if the U.S. and China work to improve their bilateral relations.

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