China and the US: A Competitive Relationship

March 16, 2021

Following the Second World War, the standoff between the US and Russia, NATO and the Warsaw Pact was called the Cold War. Nonetheless, in 1969, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was signed. The same year, Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) were launched. These talks led to Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 1972. Thus, East-West relations moved beyond Khrushchev’s “peaceful co-existence” to a period of “détente”.

In September 1990, Congress of People’s Deputies voted for the dissolution of the Soviet Union. This marked the end of a bipolar world and the beginning of a unipolar one, of US supremacy.

After a decade of decline, Vladimir Putin was elected president of Russia on March 26, 2000. During the next two decades he restored Russia’s status as a global power. The year 2008 witnessed a brief war between Georgia and Russia. Moscow recognized the two “breakaway provinces”, South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states. President Obama hoped for a reset in relations with Russia and pivot to Asia. Both failed to materialize. Then came the Arab spring, the Ukraine conflict.

During this period, the faraway China emerged as a global power and the world returned to the multi-polar system.

On October 25, 2020, Democratic Party presidential candidate Joe Biden said that the biggest security threat to the US is Russia and he called China the “biggest competitor”.

On February 1, in an interview with Andrea Mitchell of MSNBC Secretary Blinken said that China poses the most significant challenge to the US of any other country; that there are adversarial aspects to the relationship as well as competitive ones, and still some cooperative ones, too. He then added, “… we have to be able to approach China from a position of strength, not weakness. And that strength, I think, comes from having strong alliances, something China does not have…”

On February 10, President Biden spoke to President Xi Jinping. The readout of the call said, “President Biden underscored his fundamental concerns about Beijing’s coercive and unfair economic practices, crackdown in Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and increasingly assertive actions in the region, including toward Taiwan. The two leaders also exchanged views on countering the COVID-19 pandemic, and the shared challenges of global health security, climate change, and preventing weapons proliferation.” (emphasis added)

In a bipolar world, during the Cold War, the contours of the confrontation between Russia and the US/West were more or less clear. Today, this no longer is the case. And defining a competitive relationship appears more complicated than defining a hostile one. In a Brookings report titled, “Getting the China challenge right”[i] David Dollar and Ryan Hass said:

“… China is not purely a partner, competitor, or challenger: it is all of them at once. Effective management of this complex relationship will require policymakers to move beyond the simplistic thinking of China solely as a rival or enemy. They will need to abandon notions of collapsing China’s governance structure or impeding its rise with unilateral American pressure. Instead, policymakers will need to craft approaches tailored to the China that exists today and the challenges it poses to America’s interests and values going forward.”

On Thursday, Secretary Blinken and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan will meet with Yang Jiechi, China’s most senior foreign policy official, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Anchorage. Secretary Blinken will be on his way back from Seoul and Tokyo, a trip he took with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to underline the strength of US’ regional alliances.

The visits to Seoul and Tokyo and the virtual meeting of Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) leaders last Friday were messages to China before the Anchorage talks. Quad is an informal strategic forum, featuring summits, information exchanges and military exercises. It is not an alliance although some call it that.

On the Chinese side, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in a press conference last week, underlined the principle of non-interference in internal affairs as a basic norm governing international relations. He said what matters most is to manage differences, to avoid strategic miscalculation, conflict, and confrontation. He referred to COVID response, economic recovery, and climate change as areas of cooperation. Regarding Taiwan he said, “… there is but one China in the world. Taiwan is an inalienable part of the Chinese territory…We have the capability to thwart separatist attempts for ‘Taiwan independence’ in whatever form.”

At present the plight of Uyghurs and Hong Kong top Washington’s specific public criticism targeting China. Because they are more easily defined than “assertive actions”.

In what Reuters called a “parting shot”, the Trump administration determined that China has committed “genocide and crimes against humanity” in its repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. This was on January 19, a day before US President-elect Joe Biden was to take office. The same day, Mr. Biden’s nominee for Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated at a Senate confirmation hearing that he agreed with the genocide determination and denounced the Xinjiang “concentration camps.”

There is no doubt that Peking’s repression of Uyghurs is wrong. It tarnishes China’s global image and gives the West an opportunity to question its human rights record.

As for Hong Kong, in a press statement on March 11, Secretary Blinken condemned the China’s continuing assault on democratic institutions in Hong Kong. The next day, the G7 Foreign Ministers of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US and the High Representative of the EU, expressed their grave concerns at the Chinese authorities’ decision regarding the electoral system in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong has enjoyed enviable democracy and prosperity for decades. It has firmly established itself as a major international trading and financial center. It has been ranked as the world’s freest economy for years. According to the World Bank, its GDP per capita in 2019 was 48,713.5 dollars. Interestingly, in some global statistics Hong Kong is wrongly listed as a “country”. It only is a “special administrative region” of China.

Agreeing to special administrative status for Hong Kong has proved a wise choice for both China and colonial powers. But this was not an ad infinitum arrangement. It was one all sides should have tried to preserve.

In managing the emerging crisis in Hong Kong much depended on the attitude of the protest movement. Because there were redlines beyond what was said in the agreement between China and Britain on the future of Hong Kong. Although these were not stated with precision, their essence was no secret. The protesters must not have lost sight of the fact that Hong Kong’s democracy could serve as a source of inspiration for Chinese people during time when democracy’s decline is a current topic. And they must have seen that the confrontation over Hong Kong is only a reflection, perhaps a subtitle of the wider competition between the US and China for global supremacy/ascendancy. Unfortunately, in Peking’s eyes, the crossed the Rubicon.

It is worth remembering that in remarks at the 2021 Virtual Munich Security Conference a month ago where Chancellor Merkel and President Macron were also present, President Biden said, “You know, we must prepare together for a long-term strategic competition with China.  How the United States, Europe, and Asia work together to secure the peace and defend our shared values and advance our prosperity across the Pacific will be among the most consequential efforts we undertake…”

However, Washington’s European allies would be reluctant to be dragged into a confrontation with China. It should be noted that after seven years of negotiations, the EU and China reached an investment deal at the end of 2020. China is EU’s top trading partner.

While Hong Kong related developments and the suppression of Uyghurs give Washington an opportunity to publicly criticize Peking, in the months ahead Biden administration’s focus would be on China’s extending regional and global outreach, trade issues, intellectual property rights, cybersecurity, climate change, non-proliferation and North Korea. In the light of developments in Hong Kong, the Biden administration would be well advised to tread a careful line on Taiwan. Today’s global military balance does not allow the three major powers to undertake interventions in the immediate periphery of the other two.

During the past two decades the US has engaged in military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and in Syria. Trump years have led to disarray in Washington’s domestic front and foreign relations. This is why some observers hold the view that the Biden administration’s “America is back” policy should start by addressing America’s internal problems, healing its polarization, strengthening of the economy, and restoring America’s global image.

China by contrast has focused on its economic development. It has built economic bridgeheads across the world becoming world’s top trading nation. It has avoided getting involved in international disputes, Arab spring adventures. US officials have continuously referred to its aggressive policies, but Peking has not allowed regional questions to turn into crises. It has not resorted to force. Chinese officials have reacted to such allegations in measured language because China’s public diplomacy is generally reserved, cautious.

The Anchorage meeting is unlikely to mark the dawn of a new era of cooperation between China and the US. But if they were to use Mr. Blinken’s analysis of the relationship, many countries including Washington’s European and Asian allies, would certainly hope the two sides to concentrate on the “cooperative aspects” of their relationship rather than “adversarial ones”, and allow for fair “competition”.

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[i] https://www.brookings.edu/research/getting-the-china-challenge-right/?utm_campaign=John%20L.%20Thornton%20China%20Center&utm_medium=email&utm_content=112785460&utm_source=hs_email

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