US-China Trade War: A Decline of American Soft Power?
The attraction of American values is shrinking, for people around the world and for states including US allies. (Photo: TV Tropes)
By Yu Fu

US-China Trade War: A Decline of American Soft Power?

Jun. 14, 2019  |     |  0 comments


Since July 6, 2018, China and the United States have been engaged in a trade war involving the mutual placement of tariffs. Recently, the disputes between the two superpowers reached a climax where Huawei was placed on a trade blacklist and became a potential bargaining chip in a US-China trade deal. However, no matter who wins the trade battle at the end, the US is in danger of becoming a big power with a damaged prestige sustaining a shaky liberal world order.


Ever since the concept of soft power was proposed by political scientist Joseph Nye Jr. in the late 1980s, it has been regarded as an inalienable part of the power of the US, just as Nye asserts in his book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, “Seduction is always more effective than coercion, and many values like democracy, human rights, and individual opportunities are deeply seductive.”


Historically, the United States achieved a series of political aims through its culture, political values, strategic communications, foreign assistance and civic actions, including defeating the Soviet Union by bolstering its image as the leader of the free world and a superior alternative to Soviet authoritarianism. The post-World War II world order, which was backed up by the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization (WTO), were built and guaranteed by the US and its allies.


The US began to exude soft power even since it was born as a republic democratic state and kept its attraction for a long time. America was a shining beacon because of its moral authority and its post-war commitment as the chief promoter of human rights and democracy. The state used to be a strong supporter of free trade. As early as in the 1940s, in order to integrate and rebuild the post-war economy, the US led the creation of the multilateral General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade which concluded a series of negotiating “rounds” to lower trade barriers. Later in the 1990s, the WTO was created with the aim of “ensuring that trade flows as smoothly, predictably and freely as possible”. For decades, the US made “free market economics” the only legitimate economic pattern and enticed other countries to follow its path.


More recently, we can see the irresistible attraction to democracy displayed by the “color revolutions”, the symbolically-named peaceful uprisings in parts of the former Soviet Union. Some American values and its commitment to be the “world policeman” reflected in its soft power are in fact appreciated by a large number of people around the world. In the book Details of Democracy: Observation of Contemporary American Politics, written by China-born, America-educated political scientist Liu Yu, we can see a normal housewife defeating a pharmaceutical giant, a “department level” officer losing his job for using government vehicles for private purposes, normal people impacting the wage growth of politicians through protests, and etc. The author attributes the success of people’s struggles in the US to the democratic system characterized with freedom and equality and guaranteed by the balance of power. This best-selling book was the “Book of the Year” in 2009 in China.


The US is an example of how “soft power” helps to prevent decline and form a strong alliance through consensus. However, presently, the attraction of American values is shrinking, both for people around the world and for states including US allies. It seems the US is leading us into a world of realism where every state strives to pursue self-interest and attain as many resources as possible.


In the current rivalry about high technology, “security concerns” and “fair trade” sound more like excuses to some extent, while “protectionism” continues to rear its ugly head. The former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon had made it clear that driving the telecommunications giant, Huawei, out of Western markets is “10 times more important” than a trade deal. The US administration blocking of Huawei was not based on evidence. It was also reported that the US government was thinking about widening its trade ban to include companies such as surveillance camera giant Hikvision and facial recognition giant Sensetime. And it was not surprising to see US President Donald Trump repeatedly called on China to abandon its Made in China 2025 industrialization plan which focuses on high-tech fields including automotive, semiconductors, IT and robotics etc. Huawei is not the only case.



As Joseph S. Nye tells us, to “get others to do your will”, states must remain attractive based on shared values and purposes, rather than constraints and threats.



The book American Trap showed us the American takeover of a French national champion Alstom based on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). To some degree, American Trap functions as a cautionary tale for multinational companies increasingly facing the threat of litigation when they expand business in the US. The story of the Frenchman Frederic Pierucci reminded readers of the arrest of Huawei’s finance chief Meng Wanzhou.


The Huawei case reflects the decline of US attraction, but such a trend has started much earlier. During the 2016 United States presidential election, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton make the election a farce full of personal abuse, startling scandals and black box operations, allowing the dark side of American democracy to be exposed to the international community. It is pertinent for public servants to allow government business to continue regardless of which party is in power and to maintain political neutrality during elections. In Trump’s victory speech however, he felt proud to say, “We have over 200 generals and admirals that have endorsed our campaign”. Considering Trump’s presidency to be a disaster, the Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program even appealed for the public to vote for Hillary Clinton and abandoned the principle of neutrality which he followed for decades. Nearly all major news outlets which were known their tradition of being objective and influential were involved in the election battle through bias news coverage and declared their political preferences clearly to influence the election process.


Other than the US’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement and Trans-Pacific Partnership, Trump’s “America First” foreign policy had gone so far to the extent that he had even tried to withdraw the US from the Arms Trade Treaty, Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and even the World Trade Organization (WTO) by censuring WTO for “sabotaging US trade”. In other aspects, Trump made it clear to US allies that “there is no such thing as a free lunch”, making a decision to cut some USD 700 million in aid to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador and designating Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization regardless of opposition.


A 25-nation Pew Research Center survey released in October 2018 showed Trump’s international ratings remained low, especially among key allies. Although Trump still got some positive marks, a median of only 27 percent said they have confidence in President Trump to do the right thing in world affairs; 70 percent lack confidence in him. Currently, the United States continues to risk its cooperation with allies such as India and South Korea on critical security issues by expanding its ban on Iranian oil exports worldwide. 


As Joseph S. Nye tells us, to “get others to do your will”, states must remain attractive based on shared values and purposes, rather than constraints and threats. The real fear is that Huawei is neither the first bomb between the two superpowers, nor the last. The new “tech cold war” somehow terrifies countries and corporations which have strong trade ties with the US. The “America first” policy repeatedly puts US allies in an awkward dilemma: one side is the aggressive US which dominates nearly the whole world, the other side are irreplaceable cooperative partners like China and Iran. Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan has appealed publicly that the US should take into account China’s increasing influence on the global stage and its “legitimate” interests in wanting to shape evolving norms, accepting the rise of China. After all, as what the ancient Chinese story of King Yu tamed the flood indicates, communication and dialogues are advisable solutions for disputes.



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