“Balanced” US-China Relation – Why Competition is a Misfit Characterization?

Rahul Jaybhay

Picture Courtesy: Reuters

US-China relations are going through a tumultuous phase, transitioning from a mutually beneficial relationship to a more aggressive one. The two countries have provided benefits to the world and to each other, where China acted as a global manufacturing powerhouse churning out goods and services more efficiently than others, while the US provided necessary conditions to maintain sustainable business environment. Since Beijing is emerging as a peer competitor to the US, each is becoming more cautious about other’s intentions. The realist mindset is taking a toll on worsening the relations, as suggested by recent events and its subsequent impact on the relations. Trump’s hyper nationalism concluded with making policy choices which compromised the relations beyond repairs. Market access, trade related IP issues, protectionism, forced technology transfers acted as a catalyst which turned competitive relations into hostilities. Recently Biden administration accused Beijing for breaching into Microsoft mail systems, which is used by important organizations like military contractors and corporates to engage in daily conversations. Likewise, there has been talks to set up “NATO for trade” to counter Chinese leverage to gain concession from states by threatening to impose trade barriers. Perhaps, the trends in relations are more hostile than previous decade due to developing geostrategic competition, still the bilateral engagements remain fairly intact, despite periodic hiccups. Interestingly, as interactions between the two are turning hotter and strategic competition deepening, some realist argue that such transition will undermine cooperative relations between the two countries, as highlighted above. But this piece argues that competition still has not reached its extremes to compel drastic cuts in engagements, which have been cemented since previous decade.

Deng Xiaoping’s economic reform in 1978 enhanced the prospect for global collaborations in economic goods, by emphasizing the benefits of open markets and free trade instead of a closed economy. The economic trading with the US increased dramatically from over one billion dollars of business when the reforms were initiated in 1970’s to around $120 billion dollars at the end of the century. Moreover, China also joined the WTO in 2001, thus enhancing the scope for more collaborations, by reducing the risks and uncertainty in trading. Likewise, China also got membership in major international institutions, which more than doubled within a time span of two decades during 1977-1997. Additionally, China also joined INGO’s whose membership spiked from 71 to 1163 during the same period of expansion. Furthermore, regional institutions in Asia like APEC, ASEAN also welcomed Chinese move to affiliate with them. These evidences suggests that China made considerable efforts to get involved within the world order. Such efforts in 1990s to get close to the world and particularly with the US was welcoming, despite facing each other in a tense skirmish over Taiwan. Further evidence of growing engagement can be discerned through Alastair Johnston’s paper, where he uses two parameters namely Integrated Crisis Early Warning System (ICEWS) and United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) voting patterns to understand the relations between the US and China. Both these measures weigh cooperative actions on day-to-day issues or general matters concerning the world, at large. Johnston found that both these powers converge on many issues rather than diverge, when compared to decisions taken during the decade of 1990s. This shows that engagement with the US on major issues fairly remains cooperative. Moreover, this also implies that apart from traditional security aspects, China and the US are more willing to work together and cooperatively on non-traditional security domains like climate change, arms control, institution building.

Much optimism for the great power cooperation fades away if undue importance is paid to the domains where the divergences are brewing. Trump’s trade war, revolt against Huawei while Xi’s persistent efforts towards a more activist global engagement directly contradicts US interests. Likewise, Beijing crackdown in Xinjiang and democratic suppression in Hong Kong is perceived by Washington as the incipient of a new “ideological war”. Second the pacifist circumstances created by US-China economic ties and business community is fast losing its reputation. Tariff war resulted in 13% contraction of bilateral trade since 2018, resulting in China dropping to third place behind Canada and Mexico, to be US’s third largest business partner. Business community in USA sees Beijing’s policy as discriminatory, where state support for local firms gives them unnecessary advantage. Thus, the complete picture is more pessimistic than highlighted above. But these are only economic domain-specific issues where the tussle between the two powers is evident, while in other domains relations have been fairly stable, as highlighted in Alastair’s paper.

Moreover, as argued by David Edelstein, time horizons matter to gauge the state relations. And accordingly, a more competitive relationship is developing between the US and China. All the cooperative engagements during the start of this decade namely against global terrorism after 9/11, financial cooperation post-economic crisis of 2008 became redundant, as the US started the “pivot” to Asia program, where it intended to re-engage with the East Asian states to counter-balance the rising China. Taiwan consistently fears takeover from Beijing, while the US opposes a “forceful unification”. The missile attack systems directed against Taiwan is also seen as a source of threat by Japan and South Korea, who responded accordingly by introducing theatre missile defense system, which is technically directed against North Korean attacks, but is enough to deter Beijing’s aggression. Likewise, Japan and China remain in contest to claim sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands, with rivalry reaching peak when both the countries formed Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), to check on air incursions. South Korea fears Beijing’s efforts to nuclearize North Korea and constant support for arms and ammunitions, which creates intense security dilemma. Beijing’s relations with the ASEAN countries is complex, with intense security outbreaks observed during the Scarborough Shoal seizure by Chinese naval vessels. China used its economic clout time and again to appease these ASEAN countries mainly Malaysia and  Cambodia to compromise on the multilateral solution to the ownership of South China Sea. Economic “bribery” and Beijing’s military power discourage these states to form a collective means to oppose China. Unless, a powerful state like the US seriously engages with the region in both economic and security dimension, these states will be troubled by Beijing.

Besides this, recently Beijing was involved in a bloody outbreak with India in its borders, while also creating anxiety for Indian navy in the Indian Ocean region. Beijing’s enlargement threatens the security and prosperity of many in the region, hence a more conflicting relationship with Washington. Since the US is a global power that resides in Asia, all countries in the region look towards Washington for ensuring their security. Recent QUAD formation emphasis this reality and also tried to create alternative to China’s economic order. Any skirmishes in Asia will mean more of US involvement within the region, hence the possibility of clash between them. On a theoretical level, a rising China is set to overturn the privileges enjoyed by the US, as power transition becomes more acute. Though the war remains a distant reality, the possibility of China becoming a regional hegemon in Asia will surely compromise Washington’s security interest. Notwithstanding the distress developing within these states, the security anxieties are still manageable. Thus, even if the cooperation in one domain (traditional security) gets transformed to excessive competition, this won’t undermine the stable, if not growing cooperation, in other domains as highlighted. Yet, the economic domain is also getting trapped in zero-sum equations. Whether such tense relations get splattered in other domains needs intelligent forecasting which is beyond the scope of International Relations theories to explain, since theoretical propositions privilege certain interest more than the others, which may not be true in foreign policy behaviour of states. However, the time has not come for such extreme case to actualize.

To conclude, the current trends in US-China relations are not sanguine. Instead, they are burdened by collapsing relations in both economic and security domain. The future will continue to be the same unless both countries try to dampen their insecurities. Thus, it is safe to conclude that both states are “coexisting competitively”. Both are trying to unsettle the other, but at a threshold below the level of war. Despite this, the engagements have not been terminated. Quite contrastingly, still the bilateral and global engagement between both the powers remains fairly intact. Some domains have succumbed to realistic thinking, but others will try to maintain their liberal parameters, where conflicts are avoided by inducing cooperative behaviour.

*The author is a Research Intern at the Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies


The Views in the Article are of the Author