US-China Relations in the Changing Global Context – Telegraph Nepal

– Paras Ghimire,
Former Ambassador of Nepal to Myanmar (2012-2016)

The International system – as designed, following the World War – II will almost disappear by 2040 on account of the rise of emerging powers, a globalizing economy, an historic transfer of relative wealth and economic heft, from the West to East, the growing influence of non-state actors and above all by the unprecedented rise of China and subsequently its global footprints in every domain.

By 2040, the international system will be a global multipolar one with gaps in national power continuing to edge closer between the rich world and developing nations.

Although the remaining sole superpower, the United States is likely to continue as pre-eminent powerful actor, is relative strength – even in the military realm will decline and US leverage will become more constrained.

Conversely, China is poised to have more impact across the world, two decades hence than any other country.
If current trends are any guide, by 2050, China will be the largest economy both in GDP terms as well as in dollar market exchange numbers.

US-China relationship has been complex since the end of the second world war.

The economic ties grew rapidly following the then strongman Deng Xiaoping’s landmark market economy reform efforts.

The relationship is one of close economic bonds as also hegemonic rivalry in the Asia-Pacific described by global leaders as the world’s most important bilateral relationship of the 21st century.

Historically, relations between the two countries have generally been stable with some notable waxing and waning-punctuated with a smattering of open conflict during the Korean war and the Vietnam war.

Currently, America and China have mutual political, economic and security interests such as non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, cybercrimes, Huawei technology trade black list, climate change and close cooperation as seen in the recent Glasgow climate summit.

At the same time, there are unresolved concerns pertaining to the role of democracy in government and human rights issues in China.

The two countries remain in dispute over territorial issues in the South China Sea.

China claims sovereignty over virtually the entire South China Sea, while the United states sees it as international waters and therefore free and open and claims the right for its warships and aircraft to conduct operations in the area.

It is noteworthy that since US President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972, every US President barring Jimmy Carter, has toured China. Relations with China did come under strain following President Barrack Obama’s Asia Pivot strategy.

Notwithstanding tensions during his term, the Chinese population’s favorability of the US stood at 52% in Obama’s last year of 2016 only to decline during the Trump administration.

A recent Pew Research Center survey posits 25% of Americans have a supportive view of China, with 75% expressing an unfavorable view, one of the most adverse perceptions of China.

The poll also showed that 25% of Americans view China as the top threat to the US.

Additionally, another survey of Chinese public opinions also found a corresponding diminishing favorability towards the US, with 62% venting an unfavorable view.

The relationship plunged steeply under the President Donald Trump with issues such as China’s militarization of South China and Chinese espionage in the United States leveling up.

The Trump administration labeled China a strategic competitor and launched a trade war against China, banned US companies from selling equipment to Huawei and other companies linked to human rights abuses in Xinxiang, ratcheted up visa restrictions on Chinese nationality students and scholars, designating China as a currency manipulator.

During the entire administration and especially since the US-China trade war erupted, political observers warned that a new cold war likened to the “Thucydides trap” between the ruling or an established and the rising or the emerging power is “on the horizon”.

By the end of the last year, 2020 and even after, the relationship faced headwinds as both sides were recruiting allies to attack the other regarding guilt for this global Covid-19 pandemics.

Tensions in the US – China relations have far from abated during the current Biden administration which made China one of its focal points in implementing American foreign policy.

The more aggressive and combative stance has prevailed with the Biden Administration training its guns on China’s treatment of Hong Kong, its threat against Taiwan, the “Uyghur genocide” and “Chinese Cyber warfare”.

As tit for tat, China has mounted “Wolf warrior diplomacy” to refute all accusations of human rights abuses. China was the biggest trading partner of the United States till the outbreak of the deadly Corona pandemic in December 2019, thereafter it dropped to the third place because of the ongoing trade war. On January 19, 2021, outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced China committing a genocide against the Uyghurs and crimes against humanity and the current Biden administration is continuing with the same assessment on the Uyghurs.

Around the time of President Biden’s inauguration, China unveiled sanction against Pompeo and several other former officials and a handful of immediate family members accusing them of fomenting troubles – planning, interfering and working against China’s internal affairs, also restricting suspicious companies from doing business in China.

Influence in Asia:

The fact remains that China’s unprecedented economic rise since 1979 and its sprawling global footprints have certainly raised eyebrows, triggering some geo political friction between the US and China in East Asia, not to speak of, in South East Asia as also in central Asia including Afghanistan, which has now emerged as a country of “strategic importance” seeking support and friendship and therefore snuggled up by China since its blitzkrieg takeover by Talibans in the mid-August 2021 following a hasty retreat by America.

It is quite conceivable that the US – China trade and investment ties remain robust and enduring doing everyday business transactions of US$ 2 billion till the pandemic broke out at the end of 2019.

Even last year, China was America’s largest goods trading partner, third largest export market and largest source of imports.

Exports to China supported an estimated 1.5 million jobs in the United States in 2019.

China also is the largest source of international students in the United States.

A record 4 hundred thousand Chinese students were in America in 2020 representing 35% of international students in colleges and universities.

Of them, many of the top scorer Chinese students have chosen to stay in the US following graduation thus contributing to America’s scientific, technological and economic development.

It remains to be seen if this trend will continue.

Competitive Interdependence:

The dense cobwebs of relations formed by trade, finance, scientific and academic links between these two global powers – one ruling and the other rising will make it difficult for one side to inflict harm on the other at the expense of itself.

President Joe Biden likely will use the challenges posed by China as a stimulus or motivation for his domestic resilience agenda.

The Biden team is fully aware and is inclined to take proactive steps to realize progress on serious global challenges like climate change, pandemics and inclusive global economic recovery undergirded by pragmatic lead efforts working in lockstep even with “non-democratic states” cognizant as we are all living in a multipolar world. US-China overall relations, far from smooth-sailing in the foreseeable future are poised to be hard-nosed and fraught.

Neither side is likely to buckle and offer concessions for smoother relations, hardening competition that pervades alongside a mutual awareness that both sides will be impacted for good or ill by their capacity to address common challenges.

It is no secret that the Biden administration has called managing/navigating relationship with Beijing, the biggest geo-political test of the 21st century.

Sino-American relations are vitally important for Asia and the World:

It is no brainer that China and America are, by any yardstick, world’s two richest and strongest countries and, therefore, have wide leverage and pull strings, wielding sizeable influence on all countries in opposing directions.

Further, if they work in tandem and get along well, Asia’s future will be promising, which in turn will do a “world of good” to the global community and if they squabble, locked in conflict and behave badly, they will spell doom, bringing curse to Asia and the world in general, affecting adversely global peace and prosperity.

As their trade and economies are closely interlinked, happy Sino-American relations will certainly be in the broader interests of the Asian population consisting far more than half of the global 8 billion planetary inhabitants.

Does Asia deserve many more decades of peace and stability or will it be headed for conflict, disputes and confrontation?
The answers are not all clear-sighted now. Everything largely and squarely depends on how Washington and Beijing responsibly make choices and rolls out policies to accommodate the other.

Only by working together in the global high table including in multilateral institutions can they make accommodations needed to pave the way for creative cooperation and constructive future.

Both have equal stakes and so share responsibility to work with each other and thereby contribute to maintaining equitable international order.

There are now no two opinions that it does not take long for China to have a large economy than America and also that it is indisputable that by midcentury, political scientists share the view that China’s GDP could be almost double America’s.

As China grows rich, it becomes stronger and more powerful adding to its capability to invest more to its state-of-the-art technology, cutting-edge of knowledge and development and shore up its military prowess.

This will then invariably tilt the global balance of power shaping up permutations, configuration and combinations in nations across the world.

China, once it gets a foothold with its global footprints and as it becomes rich and stronger, the calculations and algorithms would change thus allowing China to use its new-found power to veto decisions in global institutions including in the United Nations.

This shift of power gradually from the West to the East is not necessarily by America’s decline but is driven by China’s unprecedented economic ascent and while all this happens, America has closed options but to tolerate or accept.

On closer examination, a wiser US-China statesmanship would be: mutual accommodation, meaning – America can remain in Asia on a shared basis, ceding China a larger role, at the same time, maintaining a stronger presence of its own, other than blocking China and preserve its status quo in Asia.

It is again that at least over the next few decades both America and China would hardly be stronger enough to lead Asia in the way America has done post-Nixon’s historic opening of China in 1972, in that each will work to deny the leadership to the other.

How China will work in future: It is now fairly obvious that China’s economic growth is translating into growing strategic and military powers.

A recent Pew survey has established that China would not be prepared for overall global leadership, expressing reluctance to lead the world responsibly befitting a great power and with no choice but to leave all this to America.

This could be the questionable. For now, China shows little interest in asserting any meaningful leadership role beyond East Asian and Western Pacific regions.

There is no mistaking the possibility that China may not take the onus of safeguarding US – led liberal international order and that it will cozily use its power to nurse its own interests where it can.

It is as well discernible that China may continue to settle for the status quo in Asia foreseeing any challenge could be contrary to its economic interests for, in a globalized world, economic interdependence makes it possible for US-China not to risk the consequences of strategic rivalry.

For good measure, China’s political leadership would do well to keep its economy growing to make the Chinese people happy and prosperous and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sustainably in power position.

Needless to mention, this requires a stable international environment and profitable and righteous relations with the Unites States.

It can, therefore, be safely assumed that China may continue to accept American primacy as the viable way forward at least for now so as to maintain a stable global environment and keep even-handed relations with America.

It can further be argued that China’s political leadership has made clear more than once that it needs to work more peacefully till the next three decades to emerge as the stronger, indisputable super-power almost in all respects and that obviously requires international stability.

While we posit that America will continue to remain a leading power for the next three decades, it can be argued on the flip side that China also wants to portray itself as the great power – out to gain traction reclaiming its place as a leader – in Asia and across the world.

It needs no recitation that China and India were largest economies from AD1 to 1820 before Europe took off, followed by America. For the past two centuries, China has been deprived of that status by other great powers and it is but natural that China is in a bid to revert to its lost glory, its status and identity with its new-found wealth and power.

Interdependent World:

Since the beginning of the new millennium, relations between the World’s major powers have largely been stable and peaceful, coinciding and co-existing with – unprecedented globalization and economic growth.

As globalization is the precursor to peace and it is irreversible – except for the indefinite pandemic period – so peace subsequently down the line, between major powers can be assured at least for now.

America and China today are interwoven and more interdependent economically that any two comparably powerful nations we can think of.

This will certainly limit any vaulting ambition and untoward rivalry on both sides and will eventually create a conducive environment to live and work side by side even if willy willy amidst waxing and waning of their relations for the past decade stretching this far up to the current Biden Administration.

It is an inescapable reality that the West has hitherto provided the motivations, driving economic growth and the Rest hitched their wagons to it. China’s watershed economic growth especially over the past two decades is, in large part, triggered by exports to America.

Now in contrast, the Rest is providing motivations and western nations are poised to deliver economic growth to their populations by hitching their wagons to the Rest.

As regards China’s stupendous success over the past four decades since its spectacular economic ascent post historic 1979 Deng Xiao Ping – led economic and market reforms preceded by Mao Ze Dong’s rule to now “Xi Jinping thoughts” with iron-clad grip on power and overarching leadership.

This all explains and which culminated in the extraordinary transformation of Chinese society: 800 million Chinese of the 1.4 billion populace have so far been rescued from the absolute poverty – a Herculean task in itself.

China’s BRI stacked against America’s IPS:

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) known as One Belt One Road or OBOR for short – is a global infrastructure development strategy adopted by the Chinese government in 2013 to invest in nearly 70 countries and international organizations.

It is touted as a center-piece of the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s foreign policy which calls for China to assume a greater leadership role for global affairs in consonance with its rising power and status.

The project has a target completion date of 2049 coinciding with the centennial of the people’s republic of China (PRC)’s founding.

In response, the United States, Japan and Australia formed a counter initiative, Blue Dot network in 2019, followed by the G7′ B3W ‘Build Back Better World’ initiative recently in 2021.

While BRI is primarily a geo-economic initiative- dotted with many ongoing debates on its geo-economic and geo-strategic implications.

Trump administration’s Indo Pacific strategy in mainly designed to deter and contain China and address the threat of the BRI.

Together with Japan, India, Australia and other like-minded countries, the US would therefore plan and formulate investment standards and principles for the BRI infrastructure and use its own influence in international financial institutions as also other multilateral agencies to ameliorate the West’s status in the global economy.

The emergence of Indo-Pacific as geo-strategic concept is a response to China’s rapid rise from major power such as the United States, Japan and India.

As against China’s accelerated and ground-breaking ascent to wealth and power, the US is more than most trying to re-integrate order and unite allies and partner countries to implement a unified strategy and thereby make its presence conspicuously felt in the wider world.

The Obama administrations rebalance to Asia Pacific policy also known as Pivot Asia was in fact an Indo-Pacific strategy containing three distinct pillars: a) military and security b) economy and trade popularly called Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as well as c) value and diplomacy.

Parallel to the Obama administration’s policy, the Trump administration’s indo-pacific strategy hinges and focuses more on military and security realm.

Be that as it may, whether it is BRI enunciated by China as a global infrastructure development project and Indo-Pacific Strategy floated by the United States as a counter-vailing measure-over the long haul, China and the United States need to work in tandem, side by side, on areas where their interests converge, keen on negotiating and opening multiple channels in areas where their interests collide and diverge with a view, eventually to contributing to global peace, progress and prosperity in this strife torn and conflict-ridden world.

All said and done, one must not lose sight of the unfolding scenario that profound changes are casting a long shadow on China as the country’s political system is set to shortly undergo consequential reforms, pending final approval at next year’s congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC). President Xi Jinping, the Party Chairman and the helmsman of the country is intent to shepherd China on a new course, abandoning the principle of collective leadership.

Xi Jinping is steering China away from the path taken by Deng Xiaoping after the dark days of the cultural revolution and back towards a system of absolute “one-man rule” without term limits as under Mao Zedong.

Summing Up:

It is now abundantly clear from the above that US – China relations in this day and age of instantaneous communications and rapidly and radically changing world, marked by knowledge society and proliferating service industries cannot escape the reality of working together in a spirit of constructive cooperative and mutual accommodation.

It is with this end in view and as a fence- mending exercise both the leaders of America and China decided to turn the page on a new US-China relationship as characterized by the November 16, 2021 more than three hours’ video call in which President Joe Biden and Xi Jinping decided to put everything in cold storage and reiterated to begin a fresh, new chapter of friendship and camaraderie and move US-China relations forward in a positive, forward-looking and future-oriented direction.

In a long virtual meeting, they offered reassurances on the prickliest issues and troubling points in the bilateral relationship like independence of Island of Taiwan, military build-up in South China sea, new developments in Afghanistan, trade war, climate change, energy security, public health and the nuclear program of North Korea and Iran.

The video call meeting speaks much about the dire state of relations that this conclusion-free meeting held online because the Chinese President is all throughout confined to his home country, not meeting any foreign leader – since the Covid-19 pandemic erupted.

This virtual meeting is rated and dubbed as a modest breakthrough.

As Biden is presented in China as a more pragmatic president than his predecessor and XI is looked in China as a no-nonsense and reasonable leader with whom Washington can do business with, America and China in the interests of world peace, global stability and human welfare, need to pivot away from intense competition and find a pathway to co-exist sustainably.

While it is true that one simple video call cannot begin to fix a relationship in crisis, it is equally true that US-China relations must be managed responsibly driving Sino-US relations based on mutual respect and mutual interests living side by side caring, sharing and mutually accommodating each other, warts and all, indefinitely into the 21st Century.

End Text.
Text courtesy: Association of Former Career Ambassadors of Nepal (AFCAN), Volume 2, 2021.
# Thanks the AFCAN Journal and the distinguished author Ambassador Mr. Ghimire.
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