China & the USA: Conflict, Competition & Cooperation

Former US Secretary of State Dr. Henry Kissinger, a reputed China expert, having 40 years of direct interaction with four generations of Chinese leaders has  said: “The incoming Biden administration should move quickly to restore lines of communication with China that frayed during the Trump years or risk a crisis that could escalate into military conflict….Unless there is some basis for some cooperative action, the world will slide into a catastrophe comparable to World War I and military technologies available today would make such a crisis “even more difficult to control” than those of earlier eras”.

Similarly, Graham Allison, eminent Harvard Professor states that China & United States are heading towards a war neither wants. ‘Thucydides Trap’ holds: When a rising power threatens to displace a ruling one, violence is the likeliest result. As has been observed over the past five hundred years, such conditions have occurred sixteen times & war broke out in twelve. Today, as an unstoppable China approaches an immovable America, and both Xi Jinping  and outgoing Donald Trump are on confrontational path promising respective country men to make their countries “great again”.  Trade disputes, a major cyber attack, accident at sea, or misstep on the Korean Peninsula could easily spark a major war.

The two major economies of world-G2 (US & China) together represent about 40% of the world’s GDP & 50% of its military spending. Both the countries were thought to be ever more bound together by their interdependence: Integrated supply chains ( i-phones designed in the US but manufactured in China), total trade in 2018 ( before the trade war) of $738 billion, $116 billion of US investment in China and Chinese investment in the USA totaling $60 billion & more around 4 lakh Chinese students in US Universities, contributing $13 billion on the US economy.

Former US President Clinton would call China’s joining of WTO ( World Trade Organization of 135 nations) in 2001 as “one of the most important foreign policy developments” which in fact opened the markets of two countries for trade and business between them. But the ‘WTO consensus’ has broken down and engagement is giving way to estrangement, trade wars, conflict over economic & security issues, talks of “decoupling” of the two economies, an arms race, and battle for economic models & indeed for primacy in the rest of this century which is evolving in a new cold war like situation albeit of a different kind. However, the terrible human & economic costs of the novel Coronavirus epidemic in 2020 led to real decoupling as travel was canceled & trade constrained, recriminations mounted, and hostility reached a new level.

China has become what Britain had been during industrial revolution, the manufacturing ‘workshop of the world’ producing almost 50% of world steel, aluminum, computers, necessary gadgets for electric vehicles & wind turbines. China consumed more cement than the United States did in the entire twentieth century & holds foreign reserves totaling $3 trillion. In Year 2000 China sold 1.9 million cars whereas USA sold 17.3 million. In the year 2019 number was 25 million for China & 17 million for the US. In 2002 China had 4% of world GDP which was 16% in early 2020. China has emerged as largest economy of the world. However it is the energy sector where USA got push due to Shale revolution whereas China has to import 75% of oil for its use.

The rivalry between two countries is evident in military capabilities. Over last two decades China’s military expenditure have grown six fold which is $240 billion & the third & fourth spenders are far behind i.e., Saudi Arabia & Russia each around $65 billion. According to RAND Corporation assessment, China’s military has transformed itself into a capable modern military power focusing on development of a wide variety of missiles, air defense, & electronic capabilities that could neutralize US capabilities from ships to satellites thus narrowing the gap with US. Moreover advantage of proximity in most plausible conflict scenarios & geographical advantage will likely neutralize many US strengths. Xi demonstrated China’s great power status while hosting 29 leaders of other countries at Beijing forum. He made it clear that China, unlike US, would not lecture them about Human Rights nor support democracy activists & maintained, “We have no intention to interfere in other countries internal affairs, export our own social system or impose our own will.”

USA military is also making a major shift in focus, strategy & weapons. The US marines, for instance, are going through a transformation as an agile naval expeditionary force able to move with great speed & in dispersed fashion from island to island in the Pacific in order to neutralize a Chinese navy that is capable of attacking traditional US military assets. The rivalry is most evident in South China Sea which involves geographic maps & is considered, the greatest point of tension, as well as ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ representing an effort to redraw the map of the Global economy. The other danger points are Taiwan which China describes as of “Core interest” & can go to war to prevent its interest. The strategic islands of northeast Taiwan that both China and Japan claim, North Korea & its nuclear weapons and missile program are of great concerns.

US-China relations are at their lowest in decades, despite the two sides reaching a “phase one” trade deal at the start of the year. Since then, the virus outbreak that began in Wuhan, China, has gone global, killing more than 1.3 million people and crushing economies around the world. President Trump has squarely blamed China for spread of Virus and death toll in US which has further worsened the scenario. Following crackdown on Hong Kong law makers by China, the US imposed sanctions on 31 firms & blamed them to be operated by Peoples Liberation Army of China.

Coming to Dr. Kissinger again, “Trump has a more confrontational method of negotiation than you can apply indefinitely”. A military conflict between the two powers would be a global disaster. Instead of confrontation, both sides must create institutional mechanisms to remain engaged and address each other’s grievances. Relations with China may dominate the foreign policy agenda of President-elect Joe Biden’s administration. He’s expected to seek ways to defuse tensions in areas including the future of 5G technology; China’s expansionism in the South China Sea and Hong Kong’s fading autonomy. The two nations’ leaders need to recognize that they see the same issues very differently, and that colors their approach to talks.

Dr. Bashir Ahmad Veeri is a former legislator of Jammu and Kashmir. Views are personal.