China’s rise is leading it to direct conflict with the United States. A lot of historical precedent and recent events foreshadow a prolonged confrontation. Yet, the nature of this showdown is neither predestined nor inherently zero-sum. The coming conflict is not something we (or the rest of the world) can afford to get wrong. In order to get it right, we must first get China right.
A steamy summer night in Beijing seems like a good place to start. The air is oily and metallic. It has the seasoning of rich tradition and the spice of modern industry. Cutting through the thick urban stew, I dip into a pedestrian underpass beneath one of countless broad boulevards in the city center. Street peddlers line the walls, making the passage even more congested. They hawk wares on woven mats – headphones, DVDs, phone cases, battery packs – all most likely counterfeit.
At the far end of the tunnel, I come to a panhandler. He has a small cardboard sign explaining his hardships and hunger. Below the description is a QR code. Curious, I take out my phone and scan it. Sure enough, his online profile pops up, complete with a selfie. He reads my surprise. “You can donate,” he explains.
“You can. For my dinner.” Impressed by his ingenuity, I transfer the equivalent of a couple dollars to his account. As I head up the stairs to street-level, I get a thank-you text from him, complete with several amusingly cute emojis.
That underpass is surprisingly representative of modern China. Like that Beijing beggar, his country is defined by a zeitgeist of resourcefulness and adaptability. Of course, like the digital platform on which he accepts donations (and like the products being sold alongside him), Chinese economic growth has also been leveraged by the government’s tendency to turn a blind eye to copyright infringement. Through this strategy, China is likely to become the world’s largest economy in terms of GDP within a decade.
As the United States adapts to this reality and seeks to defend its interests, it is my hope that courtroom battles will far outnumber armed conflicts. There are certainly a lot of legal fights ahead. Despite recent reforms, the Chinese authorities have made it virtually impossible for US companies to litigate copyright infringement in China. Yet, as Chinese companies increasingly expand onto US soil, their alleged IP thefts – once insulated from legal scrutiny – become vulnerable to US law.
This is playing out for the first time in the criminal case brought by US prosecutors against the Chinese mobile giant, Huawei. More than the specific allegations of IP theft, this case is about national security concerns regarding China’s involvement in developing the 5G network. The precedent set by the Huawei proceedings will be pivotal in defining the rules of engagement for this emerging battlefield with China.
As the United States becomes increasingly concerned about Chinese intentions and encroachments, it is vital to support and reinforce the rule-of-law that grounds our proud nation. If we deal with the Chinese on a case-by-case basis, allowing our court system to do its job, we stand the best chance of protecting our interests and our core values.
Much like the Chinese, we Americans pride ourselves on pragmatism. I believe in the capacity of this shared ideal to steer our two nations away from an unwanted war, i.e., a conflict in which military action precedes or prematurely supersedes legal action. The United States remains the dominant global superpower. It is our responsibility to take the lead in fostering a future of strategic, law-based engagement with the Chinese (and maybe even cooperation).