Back to a bipolar world?

Published January 1, 2021
In this Nov 9, 2017, file photo, US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping participate in a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China. – AP
In this Nov 9, 2017, file photo, US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping participate in a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China. – AP

THE China-US relationship is like a bad marriage that must continue due to the vested – and common – interests of both the parties. There is deep mistrust of each other within the respective establishments in Washington and Beijing, but it is also a fact that both sides enjoy bilateral trade relations worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

Relations in 2020 began on a somewhat positive note with a bilateral deal being signed in January, signalling the easing of the vicious trade war between the two parties. But as the tumultuous year ended, relations were at a low ebb, with Donald Trump lambasting Beijing for the “Chinese virus” — a politically incorrect and offensive term for Covid-19 — while the Americans have also pilloried the People’s Republic for “human rights abuses” in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

As both the US and China jockey for power and influence across the world, the outlines of a new Cold War have emerged. But while the 20th century conflict was an ideological confrontation between the Eastern and Western blocs, with the Americans and the Soviets as its major protagonists, the current confrontation between the US and China is primarily economic and technological. Perhaps the alarm in Washington has been raised by projections that China will overtake the US as the world’s largest economy possibly within this decade.

Interestingly, while the rhetoric coming out of the US has been combative and aggressive, the reaction from China, while firm, has been more measured, perhaps indicating that while Beijing is willing to play the great power game, it does not want to take the confrontation to the point of no return.

There were a number of incidents in 2020 that indicated that all was not well on the Sino-US front. Even before taking office, Trump had criticised the Chinese for “ripping off” America. However, after entering the White House he invited Chinese President Xi Jinping to his golf club in Florida for a summit, ostensibly to sort things out. While the optics may have been good, there seemed to be few long-lasting benefits that emerged from the conclave, perhaps because of the deep-seated mistrust of China amongst Trump’s right-wing inner coterie.

The emergence of Covid-19 gave Trump a chance to rip into the Chinese, blaming Beijing for the pandemic. It would only go downhill from there in 2020. There was a mutual expulsion of each other’s journalists, while the US sanctioned Hong Kong’s chief executive to ‘punish’ the self-governing Chinese territory for cracking down on anti-government protests.

In July, the US ordered the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston over allegations of espionage and intellectual property theft. China replied in kind by calling for the American consulate in Chengdu to be shuttered.

Also in July, an indication of things ahead came when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a speech right out of the classic Cold War playbook, titled ‘Communist China and the Free World’s Future’. The message from Washington was clear, and it was one of confrontation. There would be no more Mr Nice Guy as Pompeo thoroughly demonised Beijing in the speech, calling for “democracies worldwide” to pressure China to “change its behaviour”.

Impact on South Asia

The Sino-American rivalry, while having impacts on both states, has naturally reverberated across the world. South Asia has also been affected, as both Washington and Beijing compete for influence and clout in this region, amongst others.

Where this country is concerned, the US has made its displeasure over the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor evident on more than one occasions. Both Pakistan and China have questioned US allegations that CPEC is not transparent, and have reiterated their resolve to work together. Considering the deep political, economic and strategic relationship between Islamabad and Beijing, Pakistan will have to play its cards carefully where balancing relations with the US goes, especially if the Sino-American confrontation intensifies.

Elsewhere in the region, the US continues to pamper India as a counterweight to China. In late October Secretary Pompeo was in New Delhi to ink a military agreement with the Indians. The message to Beijing was clear as Pompeo said “we stand shoulder to shoulder … in light of increasing aggression and destabilising activities by China”. There was little ambiguity or diplomatic niceties in the pugnacious American official’s tone as he fired off the warning to Beijing while standing in the Indian capital.

However China is also throwing its geopolitical weight around to send the Americans the message that the two can play at this game. The People’s Republic adopted an aggressive posture where its border dispute with India in the Ladakh/Line of Actual Control area is concerned. Moreover, a potential multibillion-dollar long-term bilateral deal between Iran and China sends the message to Washington that despite American pressure on the international community to avoid Tehran, Beijing is free to choose its friends and enemies. The deal also supports the argument of an emerging bloc led by China and Russia, which includes Iran, to confront America and its clients in the Middle East.

Today, the big question is how the incoming Biden administration will deal with China, considering the wide gulf of mistrust created by Trump and company. While Joe Biden is very likely to bring down the temperature with China, and bring policy coherence compared to team Trump, a return to business as usual will not be likely, especially if those elements within the US establishment that see China as a threat to American global hegemony have anything to do with it.

While military confrontations harking back to the Cold War are unlikely — barring black swan events or brinksmanship displayed by either side — the quest for global dominance and influence will continue. While both the Chinese and American establishments are mostly rational actors, events like the Trump presidency have shown that expectations and analyses can be turned on their head if irrational actors enter the game even briefly.

Therefore, in 2021, the Sino-US relationship is likely to remain in a cool phase, with Washington and Beijing competing in soft and hard power theatres across the world in order to win influence, while paradoxically also realising that their economies are intertwined, and anything that seriously rocks the boat will have an impact on both sides.


Published in Dawn on January 1, 2020, as part of a special supplement – YEARENDER 2020

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