The world’s most critical bilateral relationship between the US and China faces an unstable trajectory. According to Dr. Henry Kissinger, perhaps the most well-known ex-Secretary of State, the confrontation and rocky emergence of the relationship between the US and China carries seeds of war.
Nonetheless, given the dynamics of contemporary world order and geopolitics, it is unlikely that the 20th century Cold War era aiming to contain the adversary would resume given the fact that the neo-liberal world order has paved the way for “complex interdependence” and cooperation at multiple forums.
Read more: US-China ‘Cold War’: how bad can it get?
Recent statements from the top US decision-makers support this contention. US president Joe Biden described US ties with China under the emblem of “extreme competition” and not conflict. And Anthony Blinken, his secretary of state aptly sums up the dynamics of this relationship under a broad framework that is simultaneously “adversarial, cooperative and conflicted”
Sino-US relations under Joe Biden’s presidency
Expecting Biden’s foreign policy to take a 180-degree change from Trump’s approach particularly in context with forging ties with China would be too simple-minded or overstated assumption.
Even though the reduction in hawkish and belligerent intensity from the White House may dissuade us to believe otherwise, a deeper look makes it evident that the Biden administration’s approach is merely a continuation of Trump’s foreign policy.
The early indication of this emerged in March 2021 when harsh exchanges dominated the stance of both world’s leading powers and the US state department’s “deep concerns” over China’s human rights abuses in Taiwan, Hongkong, and against Uighurs in Xinjiang started to dominate news along with allegations of China’s “economic coercion” and cyber-attacks against US allies.
China’s continuing oppression of its own people, especially the abuse and internment of more than one million Uyghurs, is one of the worst human rights crises in the world today. It can’t be ignored. Human rights must be at the core—not periphery—of our engagement in the world.
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) June 4, 2019
China’s top diplomats responded with equal bluntness claiming that the US no longer has the moral right to lecture China on human rights abuses and democratic principles given the fact that its own track record on the same remains’ dark and dubious.
United States’ troubled race relations, its waning public confidence in democracy, and the extreme xenophobic approach towards immigration displayed recently by Trump’s populist, ring wing rhetoric provided easy ammunition to China to assert that neither the US nor the west represents the world opinion on democratic ideals.
China’s stance: Mutual Respect and Win-Win
As an emerging power that desires on spreading its soft image worldwide at the backdrop of a crippling global pandemic that paralyzed the economic, social, and political activities, China seeks to develop a cooperative mode of ties with the US.
Through its Belt and Road initiative that strives to integrate the world’s leading and emerging economies under a meshwork of connectivity and prosperity and vaccine diplomacy through WHO Covax alliance, China strives to set the things right.
Such an approach is evident under Chinese president Xi Jinping’s narrative, “no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win”.
Although Western analysts cannot ignore China’s vested interests under this cooperative stance yet from a realist perspective the best way forward in these testing times will be to strategically collaborate for the greater good while securing maximum interests.
US stance: Joint front against assertive China
Biden’s four months in the White House didn’t see any transition to a reset mode in Sino-US dynamics; far from normalizing relations, these months have remained tense and rocky. As China’s interests visibly lie in defusing tensions and managing differences through conciliation, a strong US position has continued to fan tensions.
At this point, the only difference between Trump and Biden’s narrative lies in the fact that the latter is aiming to round up its allies to confront China instead of isolating itself and beating the drums of war.
Thus, using the G7 meeting to garner a joint front against China and mobilizing the Quad alliance in response to emerging Indian Ocean geopolitics are the key efforts to confront China’s rise.
Several reasons may explain this confrontational stance taken by the Biden administration. Firstly, it may be the reflection of bipartisan consensus and anti-China rhetoric in America that view China as a currency manipulator and economically coercive power engaged in unfair trade practices.
Secondly, this stance may be the result of Republican’s continued attacks on Biden’s soft approach that has compelled this moderate democrat – now president in power – to reshape his narrative to a more hawkish and aggressive one.
Finally many suspect that Biden, since the early 1970s, was always a part of the system and it was simply not possible for him to divert from the emerging institutional position across the United States’ strategic communities.
Reality: China and the US mutually dependent?
But these Sino-US tensions are also checkmated because of the neoliberal world order. This post-war liberal order, now in its 8th decade, has created avenues for mutual dependencies; and these have penetrated to the grassroots in the form of multiple frameworks of cooperation.
The confrontational aspect of US-China bilateral ties has therefore taken a backseat in the larger picture. American companies still see China as a lucrative economic opportunity for their businesses and ventures to expand.
Furthermore, the statement by Quincy Institute president, Andrew Bacevich, has highlighted the limitations of Washington’s aggressive stance, “Today China produces almost everything that American consumers hanker to buy, which we do using money agreeably loaned by Chinese banks. In Washington, denouncing Beijing’s authoritarianism may become a good applause line. Yet the reality is that our two nations are mutually dependent.”
But by mixing its cooperative needs with its adversarial, Washington appears to be fomenting an unstable and schizophrenic approach which hampers the emergence of converging points for conciliation and collaboration which is much needed at this critical juncture between two leading economic powers whose bilateral trade, amounting to 40% of world transactions, propels the wheels of the global economy.
However, Andrew Bacevich also admits that the US attempts to contain China’s rise is a plausible response which any established superpower may give when an emerging power strives to challenge its existing hegemony.
Allison Graham, the US political writer, has given much hype to this concept in his book, “Destined for War”. Graham argues whenever there is a fundamental shift in power dynamics in the history of international relations by an emerging technological and economic rival, the existing hegemonic power has expressed the same insecurities that the US is reflecting in its adversarial and hawkish response. He called this “Thucydides Trap.”
The response by the rest of the world
The limitations of US foreign policy against China and its apparently futile attempts to lure an anti-Chinese alliance can be gauged by the fact that the rest of the world doesn’t happen to share its narrative.
Despite Biden’s claim in Munich conference in April that the US and its allies are now on the trajectory of facing “long-term strategic competition” and “economic coercion and abuses” by China, much of the Europe that has economic equities with China doesn’t view the latter from this perspective.
Furthermore, the Asian bloc, particularly Japan, is reluctant to sanction China and the other countries are unwilling to get wooed towards an anti-China alliance.
The bottom line
Although China has shown much forbearance in the face of an aggressive stance taken by the US, it has also retaliated with confidence to what it deems as US intimidation and bullying.
This demonstrates that even when China seeks a calmer and restraining relation with the US, it will continue to act assertively as per the growing nationalist fervor in the country. This stance is evident in President Xi’s claim in the Boao conference that any economic decoupling would result in a detrimental impact on global supply chains and hence global economy at large.
In the nutshell, while a neoliberal world order helps in containing open conflicts, the prospects of confrontations between two leading global powers may nevertheless exist in the US insecurities and this signifies the instability in Sino-US bilateral ties in the present term.
Hadia Mukhtar is a geopolitical analyst with a keen interest in international relations. She has extensive research experience in this regard. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.