The United States-China rivalry has intensified, as presidential elections in the US get closer. Both President Donald Trump and Democratic Party nominee Joe Biden have taken an aggressive position against China. It is a multifaceted attack that challenges China’s economic policies as being exploitive and against World Trade Organization (WTO) standards that are harming US interests. On the political front Washington is denouncing Beijing’s recently enacted Hong Kong national security law. It considers it a breach of the special status that Hong Kong was supposed to enjoy for 40 years. The US is also critical of Chinese policy on Taiwan and its handling of the Tibet situation.
President Trump emphatically blames China for being the originator for the spread of the coronavirus. This allegation has no solid basis but is meant to keep the pressure and demolish China’s international standing. At the strategic level it is persuading Russia to bring China in the negotiations of the arms limitations treaty.
The US claims that China is fast building up a sophisticated nuclear arsenal and missile capability and its inclusion in the negotiations is necessary. This is a major area of interest on which the US would like to keep the pressure on China. It is possible that China’s build-up is being exaggerated to bring it under a strategic regime. As expected, China would not be a party to any restrictive arms control regime at this stage.
The US-China relations are far more complex and parallel with the previous US-Russia relations during the Cold War do not apply. The two leading world economies are closely integrated and mutually supportive. While President Trump would like to extract trade concessions, tighten technology transfers and focus on indigenisation of strategic components, maintaining economic and commercial relations are in mutual interest. China is currently the US’ largest goods trading partner with the goods trade totaling approximately $660 billion both ways, according to 2018 figures. The balance of trade is heavily tilted in China’s favour with goods exports to the US at $539.5 and imports at $120 billion. China has indicated that it would increase its imports. Meanwhile, the US is trying to diversify imports and rely where feasible by stepping up its own indigenous capability. At a time when millions of workers have lost jobs in the US, this shift in policy is also politically popular. Despite these changes to reduce and diversify imports from other sources, economies of the US and China will remain interdependent. There is no clear alternative of China for the US in the near future. It is possible that after the US elections, there might be an easing of confrontational policies.
During a recent Zoom session, eminent author and political and security analyst Anatol Lieven was of the view that the US — having a bitter experience from its bellicose policies including the earlier in Vietnam and recent in Afghanistan and Iraq — is unwilling to undertake military operations.
It, however, is stepping up its economic pressure on China so that it yields to its economic and political objectives. China would only go that far to accommodate US interests without compromising on its primary objectives.
President Trump’s aggressive policy toward China is having an adverse fallout on its ally, Britain. Cyber security and policy differences on Huawei have created dents between the two allies. The next few weeks will see how this unfolds.
The South East nations — Japan, South Korea, Australia — are supportive of US in its policy to keep political and economic pressure on China. India is fully backing President Trump’s China policy as it coincides with its conflict in the Himalayas. But the economies of all these countries are so closely intertwined with China that no one country would like tensions to rise to a stage where its economy would suffer.
The Western industrial complex however finds the current political confrontation with China an opportunity to reassert itself and expand its global market share.
Trump’s policies are self-centred and personalised and that is pulling the US down. While the world at large is focused on dealing with the scourge of Covid-19 what is different is that the US is so absorbed in its own problems that it has abdicated its leadership’s responsibility.
With US presidential elections a few months away people would judge Trump’s achievements and failures more objectively.
In the foreign policy realm, there have been serious setbacks. Initially, President Trump has been optimistic in being able to get a deal with North Korea in denuclearising it and invested considerable time and his reputation by engaging with its leader Kim Jong-un.
It would not be an exaggeration that the state of relations now is much worse than when engagement with Kim was initiated.
Trump is averse to international agreements and the hasty US withdrawal from the WTO is a classic manifestation of it. The President is contemptuous towards the IMF and World Bank and these have serious implications for the world order. Having walked out of the nuclear agreement with Iran, the US has created a security vacuum that has left other signatories to the agreement in a limbo.
Whereas it has been building India to challenge China at the regional level but the recent skirmish between India and China must have realised that the power potential between them is heavily tilted in favour of China. The US will be cautious and not involve directly in the China-India conflict while supporting India diplomatically. It would consider it an opportunity to enhance its trade and step up its sale of sophisticated weapon systems to India.
The opinion in India is also divided on what extent it should align itself with the US for Indian leaders and establishment have their own aspirations of playing an independent role in world affairs.
Despite US efforts to thwart China it has succeeded in carving an important position in the world order. China, through its BRI projects, is expanding its influence in African and Asian countries.
Henry Kissinger recently aptly remarked, “the world situation is very grave”. In this scenario it becomes even more important that world powers cooperate rather than pursue confrontational policies.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 8th, 2020.