Author: Editorial Board, ANU
The United States and China now confront each other awkwardly across the regional and global stage in a new era of great power competition.
Though it’s been labelled thus by some who ache for it, this is no new Cold War.
For one thing, the Chinese economy, unlike that of the old Soviet Union, is not isolated from that of the United States, its allies and its partners. It is heavily interdependent with them in international trade and financial dealings. China is the largest trading partner for around 120 countries, including the United States itself, and leading allies in Asia like Japan, South Korea and Australia. That’s not because the Chinese state has somehow successfully penetrated global markets, despite the better judgment of the US and other governments, although that’s a common US narrative. It’s because the Chinese state opened itself to markets at home and to foreign investment, and its private and foreign-invested firms grew competitive across a growing range of industrial production. And, as its economy grew to become the second largest in the world and more trade dependent than most economies of its size, it became the biggest trader in the world. These facts sear themselves into the understanding of the Chinese leadership as it awkwardly fledges the wings of China’s new-found power.
For another thing, there is no comprehensive alliance structure that confronts China as the West confronted the Soviet Union during the Cold War. China’s party state, while it has instincts to behave brutishly in the conduct of China’s foreign affairs, does not harbour an expansionist ideology in the mould of the Soviet state. The incentives to align deeply against it are not strong. US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s creating ‘situations of strength (against China by) building a latticework of alliances and partnerships globally that are fit for purpose for the 21st century’ is an uncertain work-in-progress and a pale and distant reflection of what confronted the Soviet Union.
And the beacon of US democracy that once shone bright and called people everywhere to its light is dimmed in its mortal struggle against being snuffed out at home.
The awkward contest between these two great powers today may be by their circumstance constrained but it’s no less dangerous. Accidents, clearly understood and recognised as such in times past, are fraught with hostile and dangerous potential absent confidence in straight dealing and trust.
Tensions and uncertainties between the United States and China affect the way the whole world works.
They have undermined the global order in ways that now threaten the shared prosperity and security that it has promoted over the past 70 years. The United States is inclined to see China’s participation in — perhaps capacity to alter — the global order as a primary threat. But America’s retreat from multilateral institutions and distrust of enfolding China within them is a system-damaging flipside that corrodes all arrangements ordered around the principles of multilateralism that are central to that order. In our region, economic cooperation arrangements such as ASEAN, APEC and the East Asian arrangements are all founded on those principles and rely upon those institutions. How to defend them in the face of the US–China stand-off is the critical strategic question for East Asian and many other countries around the world today.
As Jia Qingguo says in our lead article this week, it is difficult to see any early spring in relations between China and the United States.
‘Despite some cooperation on particular issues, like climate change, the conflict between the two sides has increased’, says Jia. The flashpoint became Taiwan. ‘US endorsement and support (of Taiwan) elicited a tougher stance from China, which included sending military aircraft to patrol the vicinity of Taiwan. The vicious cycle of interactions between Beijing, Taipei and Washington increased the likelihood of a military showdown’.
The virtual summit between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping on 16 November ‘was more about how to set guard rails for the relationship than exploring the possibility of substantive cooperation’. The relationship between Beijing and Washington continues to drift with an official US boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, sanctions over Xinjiang and Chinese retaliation.
As Wang Yong points out in a second feature on the US–China relationship viewed from Beijing, China–US relations will face even bigger tests in 2022. ‘The United States will hold its midterm elections and China policy may become the target of fierce partisan politics as US conservatives and progressives accuse each other of being soft on China’. And China’s domestic power transition is also likely to shrink space for compromise with the United States.
Neither China nor the United States has laid out a viable plan for exit from this impasse. Those that carry sway among proto-protagonists well back behind the lines are premised on some ill-specified and totally unrealistic adversarial capitulation.
Re-establishing a measure of good intention and trust is what’s needed. Demonstrating good intention is virtually impossible in this fraught and sensitive two-power game.
If China were of a mind, however, there are other theatres in which to demonstrate good intentions and generate trust — on economic reform and political accommodation — that might lead to a stronger foundation for confidence and constructive dealings with the United States.
Perhaps that is what motivates China’s application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) that includes some of the United States’ closest allies with whom proxy engagement on some of the thornier problems in the US economic relationship would be a useful start. Early conclusion of agreement with ASEAN on a code of conduct in the South China Sea would build trust not only with China’s Southeast Asia’s partners, but with the United States too.
For the United States, if it is serious about competition with guardrails, it needs to do better than being the less brutish superpower. It needs to get its own house in order, help fix the global system, become more competitive and have its political system set an example for the rest of the world.
The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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