In Superpower Showdown (Harper Business, June), Wall Street Journal reporters Bob Davis and Lingling Wei examine how U.S.-China relations deteriorated to the point of impasse just as cooperation between the world’s two largest economies has become more urgent than ever. PW discussed the book with Davis; Wei, who until recently worked out of the Journal’s Beijing bureau, was unavailable.
When did China become a nation you’d describe as a superpower?
After the Soviet Union collapsed, the United States was seen as the sole superpower. Then President Clinton gets China into the World Trade Organization. It brings China into the Western trading system, and within 15 years they’re the factory floor of the world. It was an astonishing rise in a very, very short time. By 2008–2009, the American model doesn’t look as potent as it once did and the Chinese government becomes less likely to look at the U.S. as the leader of everything. That’s when the idea of the dual super- powers starts to emerge.
Why do you and Lingling Wei see the relationship, as you say in the subtitle, heading toward a Cold War?
We started reporting on the Xi-Trump trade battle in 2017. As relations deteriorated, it became clear that they were on the path to a hostile separation. A Cold War was the best analogy, although one that is very different from the one with the Soviet Union. This one is mainly defined by economics and technology. Both, though, have deep elements of ideological competition.
How are the countries dependent on each other even during a time of hostilities?
A lot of the stuff we buy and sell in the U.S. is made in China and will continue to be. We’re dependent on their production capabilities, the skill of their workers, and also, remember, they own a trillion dollars of U.S. government securities. They’re financing the U.S. debt, which is about to get quite a bit larger. So we’re enormously dependent on China. And they’re just as dependent on the U.S., especially for technological leadership.
What was the biggest challenge in putting this book together?
Writing a book when we had no idea how it all would end. We started writing in earnest in April 2019 with a December deadline. When we got the preliminary book deal we figured that the fight would be over in the summer of 2019. Instead, the fight got worse through the summer. We attended a G-20 meeting in Osaka in June and came away thinking there was no way the two were going to get a deal. We reported and wrote a 6,000-word chapter every two weeks while also reserving time to report on current events. That was very tough.
Where do you see U.S. and China relations now?
It’s like two tectonic plates crashing into each other and separating. The relationship is so bad, President Trump and President Xi Jinping went seven weeks [in February and March] without talking to each other in a time of global crisis. Compare that with the financial crisis where Bush was calling [then–Chinese president] Hu Jintao every day. The two worked together in a very coordinated way to bring the world out of a recession. It’s a different sort of crisis this time, but there’s still an enormous need for coordination on both the economic and the health front.