Wednesday, 19 May, 2021

US-China Strategic Competition

Hira Bahadur Thapa


The world’s two largest economies have perceived each other to be their main adversary. This is evident in the first encounter of American and Chinese top diplomats in Alaska after US President Joe Biden’s announcement that America is back to take up leadership in global affairs. The analysts of Sino-US relations have not found the meeting to be any more surprising given their strained tensions. They contend that the new US administration is not going to be much different from the Trump era with regard to US attitude to China.
Relations between them have nosedived with their rancorous trading partnership remaining intact. Though foreign relations professionals, including Henry Kissinger, believed that economic engagement would be the key to bringing them closer, if the last few years are any guide, the ground reality does not meet their prediction. Many argued that China’s early integration into the world economy would be advantageous not only to China but also to the whole world as that would pave way for China’s political reforms leading to the strengthening of democracy.

China’s growth
Economically, China has leapfrogged and some economists assume that given the pace of economic growth, China would outstep the US and become world’s number one economy in the foreseeable future. Such forecasts are based on credible evidence. China’s economy has recovered quickly in the wake of pandemic. China has suppressed the outbreak of coronavirus with lower number of infections and deaths albeit critics question the authenticity of government data. While the global fight against the health crisis has continued, the country has not relaxed the health precaution measures. It still keeps strict limit on the international travel.
Judged from the effective vaccine diplomacy pursued by China in the neighbourhood and elsewhere, the pandemic has been turned into a diplomatic tool using which the country has gained leverage in dealing with the vaccine receiving countries. No wonder that China has persuaded Brazil to permit the Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant in 5G technology, for its operations in the country. It supplied vaccines to Brazil at a time when it desperately needed. This enabled China to win the support of Brazil.
More interestingly, China’s lead in vaccine diplomacy opposed to vaccine nationalism of the West has prompted India and the US in committing vaccine doses to other needy countries in their neighbourhoods. Canada and Mexico are being supplied millions of US vaccines and many South Asian countries, including Nepal have become the beneficiaries of Indian magnanimity. One million doses of India-manufactured vaccines have been received and injected to the population of Nepal and this great feat at a time when 30 countries in the world have not received a single dose.
Admittedly, there are serious differences between the US and China on issues ranging from human rights, freedom of navigation and more importantly on trade practices. Regarding their tumultuous relations even during the previous administration, when President Trump slapped heavy tariffs on Chinese goods with a view to slashing US’s trade deficit, the current leadership is still suspicious of China’s fulfilling its promises made in so-called Phase One trade deal struck in 2020.
Accusations were leveled against each other in the Alaska meeting between the US Secretary of State and Chinese top diplomat, which astonishingly ended even without issuing any statement, an internationally practiced norm when senior government representatives meet. Their closed-door meeting later on was reportedly less rancorous and this is understandable given the impact of US-China competition on geopolitics.
Both the US and China can do a lot in managing global challenges and more so in reining in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and addressing climate change. China has championed the transition from fossil fuel-based economy to renewable sources. It has become the largest producer of electric cars, which would be transformational in reducing the global carbon emission. The paradox is that when countries ascend in power due to economic and military strength, the likelihood of their competition to preserve one’s dominance in global affairs increases. This is exactly what has happened in US-China relations as US is anxious to ensure that its dominance remains intact and China worries that the US action imperils its peaceful rise.
Existing tensions between them reflect more of a relationship between an existing superpower and a rising power than anything else. In the opinion of Richard Haass, the US and China are peer competitors and their confrontation can have serious repercussions on the geopolitics of the twenty-first century. The Chinese mega infrastructure project known as Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is an example of its grand commercial mercantilist move with political designs to enhance its global influence. This concept is deeply rooted in the psyche of US policy makers. They emphasise that America must be more strategic in planning its economic future.

American thinkers believe that China’s unveiling of Made in China 2025 programme in 2015 underscores the country’s willingness to use government subsidies and state-owned enterprises to dominate key technologies. Their fear is that China is changing the global economic system instead of that system changing China’s. The US attitude to China is sharply influenced by Beijing’s suspension of the export of the medical supplies including face masks produced in Shanghai by American 3M company during the pandemic. This has reinforced their conviction that it should not rely on foreigners for critical products. Being cognizant of this the Biden government has announced a 100-day review of supply chains involving technologies including pharmaceuticals and their active ingredients.
Despite their adversarial relations, there is hardly any alternative to US-China cooperation for tackling world’s gravest challenges like pandemic and climate change. Their interdependence will hopefully prevent the strategic competition from turning into confrontation, which is beneficial to the humanity as a whole.

(Thapa was Foreign Relations Advisor to the Prime Minister from 2008-09.