A Chill in US-China Relations
A new Cold War in the offing?
Relations between the United States and China plunged to a nadir in recent weeks. On May 15, President Donald Trump threatened to “cut off the whole relationship” with China over the Covid-19 pandemic, which originated in Wuhan. He had earlier called the coronavirus “Chinese virus” and threatened to seek compensation from China for the damages caused by the outbreak. The rising tensions between the two super powers have prompted many experts to warn of a new Cold War. A rising chorus of American voices now argues that confronting China should become the organizing principle of US foreign policy, akin to the Cold War against the Soviet Union. It, however, would be a strategic error. Hawks in the Trump administration openly push for a more aggressive approach towards Beijing.
A slew of recent announcements on China by US President Donald Trump is a clear indication that the competition between the United States and China is likely to sharpen in the post-Covid world. On May 29, the Trump administration said it would revoke Hong Kong’s special trade status under US 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 US President has also ordered financial regulators to closely examine Chinese firms listed in US stock markets, and warned those that do not comply with US laws could be delisted.
Complicit in China’s rise
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 US hegemony. The Chinese allowed them to believe this and extracted their price. US 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.
Disguising its real purpose
The Chinese are hard-nosed and unsentimental about the US They 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 US 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 US represents an existential threat to the continued supremacy of the communist regime. Mao put it best, when he told high-ranking leaders in November 1959, that the “US is attempting to carry out its aggression and expansion with a much more deceptive tactic… In other words, it wants to keep its order and change our system.” (Memoirs, Chinese leader Bo Yibo). The collapse of the Soviet Union only reinforced this view and strengthened China’s resolve to resist by creating its own parallel universe. 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.
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 US preferred to believe assurances to the contrary given by Mr. Xi on the lawns of the White House in 2015.
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.
A full-spectrum debate on China is now raging across the US Former White House Chief of Staff Steve Bannon declared that the US is already at war with China. Others like diplomat Richard Haass and former president of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, warn that a new Cold War will be a mistake. Scholar Julian Gewirtz, in his brilliant essay, ‘The Chinese Reassessment of Interdependence’, talks about a similar process under way in Beijing. Both sides are acutely aware how closely their economies are tied together: from farm to factory, the US 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 US ‘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.
The Hong Kong question
Will Hong Kong become a game-changer in the post-Covid world? China’s decision to enact the new national security law for Hong Kong has been condemned in unison by the US and its Western allies as an assault on human freedoms. Why is this significant? The points of divergence, even dispute, between them have so far been in the material realm. With Hong Kong, the US-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. Think of it as a sort of Statue of Liberty; it holds aloft the torch of freedom and democracy for all those who pass through Hong Kong en route to China. This is an assault on beliefs, so to speak.
This comes on the back of not unreasonable demands that China should come clean on its errors of omission in the early days of Covid-19, when greater transparency and quicker action might have prevented, or at least mitigated, the pandemic. In the months ahead, more information may become public, from sources inside China itself, about the shortcomings of the regime, that will further fuel a debate on the superiority of the Chinese Model as an alternative to democracy. Will this form the ideological underpinning for the birth of a new Cold War? That will depend on who wins in Washington in November; on whether profit will again trump politics in Europe; and on how skilfully the Wolf Warriors of China can manipulate global public opinion. 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.
China in US politics
President Donald Trump is entering deeper into a political quagmire on three related fronts: America’s death toll from COVID-19 is perilously close to the psychologically important mark of 100,000; the economy looks to be on the verge of slipping into a deep recession, if not outright depression, in the wake of the pandemic impact across sectors; and his management of both the crises is facing acerbic criticism from Democrats even as the 2020 US presidential election draws closer. There is one factor that links all three political hazards he is facing — China. On the pandemic front, Mr. Trump has regularly tweeted to the effect that the novel coronavirus ought to be called the “China virus” and his top officials including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have made unsubstantiated suggestions that the virus may have leaked out of a Wuhan laboratory. While Mr. Trump appeared relatively more mollified after a call with Chinese President Xi Jinping in late March, he reverted to name-calling a few weeks thereafter. Beijing meanwhile has concertedly pushed a campaign around the message that the virus — contrary to any publicly verified evidence — originated outside China. On the economic front, the savage trade war that roiled global markets through most of 2019 appeared to be near a resolution when Washington and Beijing inked the ‘phase one’ pact for lower tariffs and trade concessions this January. The pandemic appears to have set that process back considerably: neither side will be in the mood to make concessions given that tens of millions of jobs have been lost in the US and China is far from an economic recovery.
It is however the third factor, the presidential poll in November, that could most significantly alter the landscape of conflict-ridden bilateral ties. Presumptive Democratic nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden has for several months launched scathing attacks on Mr. Trump’s bungling in the early phases of viral transmission, including repeated messaging that the President was slow to respond to warning signs from Wuhan and reluctant to lock down the US to enforce physical distancing. Pro-Trump campaign organisations have in turn taken to labelling Mr. Biden, “Beijing Biden”, which gives Democrats the tough choice of either attacking or defending China. If Mr. Biden does either, he will open himself up to political attacks. There is, however, a third way. If he steps back from the brink of what some analysts are describing as the potential “New Cold War”, based on the understanding that neither side would stand to gain from the cumulative tally of economic and geopolitical conflict, he may not only avert a torrid clash between the two nations, but in the process he might win over economically insecure, independent and undecided voters across the US, who are decisively important to secure an election victory. Not only the US and China, but the world at large, might stand to gain if he did that.