After “four dark years”, and three days of uncertainty, it is time for President Trump to bid the Oval Office farewell.
The whole world watched with bewilderment, amusement and perhaps even disdain as the United States of America went to war with each other. The Blue-Wave anticipated by the Democrats never materialized. And perhaps one key take-away from the indecision that ensued is the existence of deep-divisions between the Red and the Blue.
Between building walls or allowing diversity to flourish; protesting against globalization and multilateralism or strengthening global commitments; between Making America Great Again, or believing that the greatness of America is a reality unopposed; between purely pragmatic, or partially ideological endeavors. Supposedly. But in this entire process, of divisive politics, if one unspoken consensus has been established between both Red and Blue, it is on the rise of China, and the need to contain it.
Read more: The China that I Saw
When China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, President Clinton hoped that with economic reform and opening the Chinese people to the world, eventually true ‘political reform’ will follow. However, China strengthened its capitalism, experienced unprecedented growth, and empowered its middle class, while maintaining Chinese characteristics.
The logic that democratization in the Western sense would inevitably follow economic growth and deeper integration with the world fell falsified, and instead China has progressively assumed a role of significance, second only to the United States, in global governance – without becoming part of the west.
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In 2013, China announced the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and in 2017 the Asian infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) was established, with stakeholders from Europe to Asia, as an alternative for developing countries to meet their growing infrastructure needs.
The Conversation on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations (CDAC), China International Import Expo (CIIE), and enlargement of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) -to include Pakistan and India as members in 2017-, and the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, endorse China’s increasing global commitment, support for multilateralism, and as a result, growing influence.
In 2020, COVID-19 served as another testament of the strengths of China’s system and society. The country has not only defeated the virus and stabilized the economy but prioritized above all saving lives and served as a roadmap for many countries.
Read more: COVID-19: Has it attacked our brains?
China maintains the position that it has no intention to challenge the existing global order and it aims to contribute to the global development. However, few would dispute the fact that we are transitioning away from a unipolar order with multiple spheres of influence emerging- Beijing being the most significant.
“Trump Builds China”
Since 2016 China-US relations have experienced unprecedented deterioration with no political dialogue, rising mistrust, and no substantive cooperation. Chinese netizens often use the term “Chuan Jianguo”, which literally translates to “Trump builds China”.
The irony of the term is loaded with a sense of vulnerability. That with his direct attack on China, Trump has in fact strengthened the resolve for the nation to unite, made the people aware of the need to become self-sufficient in order to be ‘safe’, and that a real gap exists which needs to be bridged.
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In 2017 Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) – an alliance between US, Japan, Australia and India- was revived, with the purpose of targeting “China’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea”. The US-China trade war began in 2018 when President Trump imposed trade tariffs on China- and after two years a phase-one deal was reach in January 2020, but shortly after tensions emerged amidst COVID-19 when President Trump resorted to accusing China for spreading the virus and held Beijing responsible for a mounting death toll in the US- and causing the global pandemic.
Allegations against the BRI, banning Huawei, and deepening ties with Taiwan are among many actions by the Trump Administration to ‘contain’ China’s rise, and to dissuade countries from deepening cooperation with Beijing. Trump’s final attempt to demonstrate a tougher stance on China, and perhaps to strengthen alliances, came just a week before the election as New Delhi and Washington signed the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation (BECA).
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In the Chinese strategic mindset ‘safety’ is the core concept. With the Trump Administration’s direct attacks, regardless of whether there would be a major shift in the US policy towards Beijing, there is a strong realization that China needs to improve, acquire advanced technology, and diversify its economy further. And China has been forced to go ‘all-out’ for prosperity.
Age of Ambiguity
The Trump Administration’s erratic posture towards traditional allies of the US may also have lasting consequence. Declaring NATO obsolete, calling out European allies to ‘pay their fair share’, pulling out from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2017, breaking the Iran Nuclear Deal in 2018, and just before the election announcing a hasty withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq to ‘end the wars’- whether rational or not- have resulted in a state of ambiguity.
Adding fuel to the fire was the quitting the Paris Agreement at a time when Climate Change is one of the highest policy prerogatives for the EU and quitting the WHO during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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While Biden in his campaign constantly reaffirmed the resumption of US’ global commitment to allies, and strong support for multilateralism, the fact remains that the American people are entirely capable of electing a President who may not safeguard European interests.
And in cases, such as unilateral withdrawal from the US-Iran Nuclear Deal, European governments and corporations were pushed against the wall since global financial system is disproportionately controlled by the American institutions.
Balancing between China and the US has now become the trend likely to continue. China and EU may have mistrust, but effective bilateral mechanisms have been established to further economic and cultural cooperation while strengthening political trust.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump’s harsh remarks on China were not mimicked by European allies, and similarly during Mike Pompeo’s final visit to India, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Indonesia- the fight against “the free world and an authoritarian dictator” wasn’t reciprocated with comparable enthusiasm.
What will Change?
If there were any hopes that Trump’s China policy was unique to his administration, these must be discarded. Throughout the Presidential campaign, the President was not criticized for being too harsh on China, but rather for being ineffective in doing so. Biden pledged that he will make China ‘play by the rules’ and that trade deficit with China has ‘gone up not down’. And so, what can be expected is a change of policy, not fundamental purpose.
Read more: Biden: New Man in the White House; Pakistan’s way forward?
The Biden administration is likely to strengthen global governance and lead to more stability, which is beneficial for the international community at large, including China. And as far as US-China relations are concerned, more predictability is expected, but a friendly attitude towards Beijing seems far from reality.
Simultaneously, China’s rise is a reality, that this nation has a strengthened resolve to achieve. For the Chinese people or government, the US is not perceived as an enemy nor a threat; but a country that China has, can and desires to continue cooperating with and learning from.
However, unless China reaches a point of relative equality, suppression and containment will be unavoidable. This suppression can manifest as attacks on China’s economy, technology, domestic affairs, and political system. And whether it is Trump, Biden or any other President in the future- Beijing can expect conflicts to escalate till China surpasses the US’ GDP. That historic moment can potentially mark the beginning of an era of peaceful competition and mutual respect.
Zoon Ahmed Khan is Research Fellow, Belt and Road Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University. She is also an Anchor, at China Economic Net, covers International Relations focusing on Chinese Foreign Policy, Belt and Road Initiative, CPEC and Eurasian Connectivity. She tweets @Zoon_AhmedKhan. She studied International Relations from Lahore University of Management Science (LUMS).
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.