The US and China: Avoiding a meltdown

The Biden administration is preparing for a Pivot to Asia 2.0, but there is little it can do to stop China rising.

Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with US Vice President Joe Biden as they pose for photos at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China on December 4, 2013 [File: AP/Lintao Zhang]

The world’s leading powers, the United States and China, are like giant glaciers moving slowly but surely towards a collision. Their chilling conflict and competition are destined to dominate the 21st century as the Cold War dominated the second part of the past century, and more.

So it is fitting that their national security teams are meeting in Alaska on March 18 to avert an early crash with dire consequences for both nations and the world.

Early reports that the two governments did not agree even on the framing of the high-level meeting does not bode well for its outcome. Beijing sees it as the start of a “strategic dialogue”, but the Biden administration, which called for the meeting, deems it a one-off event, possibly to put China on notice regarding their differences.

On the face of it, this may seem like a misunderstanding over diplomatic phraseology. But in reality, President Xi Jinping is in a rush to normalise their great power relationship as the world’s leading G2, while President Joe Biden would like to see China moderate its strategic posture and tone down its menacing ultimatums before restoring normalcy to the bilateral relationship, which had deteriorated under his predecessor, Donald Trump.

Truth be told, the relationship was not exactly peachy during the eight years of the Obama administration either. Although President Barack Obama maintained a civil tone with Beijing and welcomed a constructive, responsible and strong China, his “Pivot to Asia” was in fact a serious attempt to contain rising China.

But Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership undercut Obama’s containment strategy. He killed the expansive free trade agreement, which included 12 nations that make up 40 percent of the world’s economy, and which could counter Chinese power on the continent.

Instead, Trump embraced a populist-nationalist course, accusing China of “theft” and of “raping our country” through unfair trade practices and pursued a dual policy of offering deals and threatening sanctions. But Beijing is no donkey to be treated with carrots and sticks, and four years later, his strategy seems to have produced more pain than gain, as China continues to expand in Southeast Asia undeterred.

Meanwhile, Trump increased the Pentagon’s already colossal budgets to $738bn in 2020, while Xi rushed to modernise and expand China’s military power as tensions flared, notably in the South China Sea.

Against this chilling backdrop, Washington intensified its criticism of China.

It condemned China’s mistreatment of its Uighur Muslims and its devouring of Hong Kong, warning against potential military invasion and annexation of Taiwan.

It criticised Beijing’s overall threat to regional stability and its “sabre-rattling” in the strategic, resource-rich South China Sea.

And it condemned China’s overall human rights violations, intellectual property theft, currency manipulation and cyber attacks.

But pretty much all of that indignation has fallen on deaf ears in Beijing. China reckons the West is the least qualified to preach about minority rights, respect for national sovereignty, cybersecurity, and military overreach, considering, for example, its horrific record in the Middle East.

More importantly, all these diatribes are in fact symptoms and pretexts, not the actual root causes of the American-Chinese friction.

The real cause of the conflict lies in China’s assertive rise as a regional hegemon that is slowly reshaping the structures of power in Asia and in America’s attempt at containing its influence before it becomes a peer competitor or a truly global power.

From the Napoleonic wars, through the world wars to the Cold War – the geopolitics of the past two centuries, and their tragedies, were largely shaped by this type of great power conflict between dominant and rising world powers.

Long considered a “sleeping lion”, China has finally awakened. And, despite Xi’s assurances that it is a “peaceful, amicable and civilised lion”, its roaring is already shaking foes and friends alike.

China is moving rapidly to occupy what it considers to be its “rightful place” at the helm of the world power structure, and there is little the US can do to stop it.

It aims to surpass America as the world’s largest economy by setting up a global network of economic relations through its massive Belt and Road Initiative.

It has also established various multilateral and financial institutions like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, BRICS as well as the New Development Bank and the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank to compete with the West-dominated IMF and World Bank.

Xi believes China has long punched below its weight, and it is high time for the Chinese to “make China great again”. After all, the country was a great power throughout much of its 5,000-year history.

The seasoned Biden understands that all too well and seems to fully realise the momentous challenges ahead. His administration has already named China the top nation-state threat to the US.

Biden also moved quickly to fill his national security team with Asia experts, including Kurt Campbell, the architect of Obama’s Pivot to Asia, as his “Asia tsar”, in order to meet the China challenge early on in his administration.

The US president will try to slow down the rise and expansion of China’s influence through an effective containment strategy. And, unlike his predecessor, he knows the US cannot go at it alone. It needs its Asian and European allies. Desperately.

Biden’s virtual meeting with the leaders of Japan, India and Australia on March 12 may be the first step towards a Pivot to Asia 2.0. Likewise, the follow-up meetings in Japan and South Korea of his secretaries of state and defence this week are meant to lay the ground for an effective new grand strategy.

But this may still prove an uphill battle as some of these allies had moved on to shape their own foreign relations with mighty China during the disruptive Trump presidency. The EU, for example, concluded the landmark Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with China only three weeks before Biden took office.

Moreover, the US president is certain to face an even greater challenge because he seems to have decided to take on both China and Russia at the same time, which will help bring them closer together.

When the West slapped Russia with sanctions in response to its military intervention in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea in March 2014, it was China that came to the rescue, signing a $400bn gas pipeline deal with Moscow, only two months after Western retaliation.

The case of Ukraine has resonated in Taiwan among those who worry that their country could meet the same fate.

China wishes to see the island return to the fold peacefully but makes no secret of its ambition to outright annexe Taiwan by force if necessary. Only a few days after Biden took office, China threatened Taiwan with war if it seeks “independence” – even though the two have been separate since the end of the civil war in 1949.

All of this leads to certain pessimism about the outcome of what seems to be an inevitable collision. But it does not have to end in tragedy.

Instead of supporting this or that side, Asian and other major powers with much at stake, like Japan, India, Indonesia Russia and Brazil to name a few, must come together and deter the United States and China from resolving their differences through unsavoury means.

Hegemons like the US and China cannot be trusted with power and should not be entrusted with global security.