A chill in US-China relations
A slew of recent announcements on China by U.S. President Donald Trump is a clear indication that the competition between the U.S. and China is likely to sharpen in the post-COVID world leading to further deterioration of US-China relations.
What are these announcements?
- The Trump administration has said that it would revoke Hong Kong’s special trade status under U.S. law.
- The administration also passed an order limiting the entry of certain Chinese graduate students and researchers who may have ties to the People’s Liberation Army.
- The U.S. President has also ordered financial regulators to closely examine Chinese firms listed in U.S. stock markets, and warned those that do not comply with U.S. laws could be delisted.
Fascination for China
- Americans have had a strange fascination for China ever since the early 1900s when Protestant missionaries decided that it was God’s work to bring salvation to the Chinese. Books like The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck and Red Star Over China by Edgar Snow in the 1930s romanticised the country.
- Even after the Chinese communists seized power, the Americans hoped to cohabit with Mao Zedong in a world under U.S. hegemony. The Chinese allowed them to believe this and extracted their price.
- U.S. President Richard Nixon gave China the international acceptability it craved in return for being admitted to Mao’s presence in 1972; President Jimmy Carter terminated diplomatic relations with Taiwan in order to normalise relations with China in 1978; President George H.W. Bush washed away the sins of Tiananmen in 1989 for ephemeral geopolitical gain; and Bill Clinton, who as a presidential candidate had criticised Bush for indulging the Chinese, proceeded as President to usher the country into the World Trade Organization at the expense of American business.
- All American administrations since the 1960s have been complicit in China’s rise in the unrealised hope that it will become a ‘responsible stakeholder’ under Pax Americana.
Hiding the real objectives
- The Chinese are hard-nosed and unsentimental about the U.S and have always pursued America with a selfish purpose, albeit couched in high principle.
- They have spoken words that the Americans wanted to hear — anti-Soviet rhetoric during the Cold War and market principles thereafter — to disguise their real purpose of thwarting U.S. hegemony.
- Ever since Cold Warrior John Foster Dulles spoke in 1958 of weaning China and other “satellites” away from the Soviets through regime change, known as “peaceful evolution”, every Chinese leader from Chairman Mao to President Xi Jinping has been clear-eyed that the U.S. represents an existential threat to the continued supremacy of the communist regime.
- The collapse of the Soviet Union only reinforced this view and strengthened China’s resolve to resist by creating its own parallel universe.
What is China’s response?
- China is building an alternate trading system (the Belt and Road Initiative); a multilateral banking system under its control (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, New Development Bank); its own global positioning system (BeiDou); digital payment platforms (WeChat Pay and Alipay); a world-class digital network (Huawei 5G); cutting-edge technological processes in sunrise industries; and a modern military force. It is doing this under the noses of the Americans and some of it with the financial and technological resources of the West.
Complacency of the West
- Voices of caution have been few and far between, among them political scientist John Mearsheimer, who wrote in 2005 that the rise of China would not be peaceful at all, but the world chose to believe General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Hu Jintao’s assurances about “peaceful rise”.
- When satellite evidence showed that China was building military installations in the South China Sea, China’s Southeast Asian neighbours and the U.S. preferred to believe assurances to the contrary given by Mr. Xi on the lawns of the White House in 2015.
Realisation by President Trump
- It is only under Mr. Trump that the Americans are finally acknowledging the uneasy fact that the Chinese are not graven in their image.
- He has called China out on trade practices. He has called China out on 5G. It was Mr. Trump’s 2017 National Security Strategy document that, perhaps for the first time, clubbed China along with Russia as a challenge to American power, influence and interests.
- His recent China-specific restrictions on trade and legal migration are, possibly, only the beginning of a serious re-adjustment.
Questions of interdependence
- Both sides are acutely aware how closely their economies are tied together: from farm to factory, the U.S. is heavily dependent on supply chains in China and the Chinese have been unable to break free of the dollar.
- If Mr. Trump’s wish is to disentangle China’s supply chains, Mr. Xi is equally determined to escape from the U.S. ‘chokehold’ on technology.
- To what extent the de-coupling is possible is yet to be determined, but one thing is inevitable, India will become part of the collateral damage.
Hong Kong – The new flash point
- With Hong Kong, the U.S.-China rivalry may, possibly, be entering the ideological domain. For some time now there are reports about Chinese interference in the internal affairs of democracies. Countries in the West have tackled this individually, always mindful of not jeopardising their trade with China.
- Hong Kong may be different. It is not only a bastion for Western capitalism in the East, but more importantly the torch-bearer of Western democratic ideals.
- The lines are beginning to be drawn between the Americans on the one side and China on the other. A binary choice is likely to test to the limit India’s capacity to maintain strategic and decisional autonomy.