Are China and the US listening to each other?

Recent high-level visits from the US to China show that the rival superpowers are talking again. But they must listen to each other too – for the sake of the world.

US China
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China on June 19, 2023 [Leah Millis/Pool via Reuters]

Imagine this scenario: China and Mexico establish a military alliance, training military personnel along the 3,145km (1954-mile) border shared by the United States and Mexico.

Such an eventuality is not so far-fetched. In recent years, both China and Russia have massively increased their investments in Mexico (particularly in minerals, energy and technology). China and Russia are major economic trade partners for Mexico.

So, how would Washington react to that scenario? Perhaps the panicked headlines in the US over recent reports that China might set up a base in Cuba – a claim that Havana has denied – offer clues.

For while the Soviet Union and, since 1991, Russia have invaded several countries – from Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968) and Afghanistan (1979) to Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014 and 2022), while playing a nefarious role in others including Syria (2015) – the US has been involved in very similar and far more numerous invasions, regime changes and wars.

Often, these have focused on strengthening US-friendly regimes or toppling unfriendly ones in its hemisphere, both in Central and South America: from Argentina to Bolivia, passing through Chile, Guatemala, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Panama and many more.

Cuba, which in 1950 had the fifth-highest per capita income in the Western hemisphere before a brutal US blockade contributed to its economic ruin, is an effective example of how the US conceptualised and imposed the notion of its “sphere of influence”.

At the other extreme is Hawaii, which represents a compelling example of how deindustrialisation and linguistic effacement worked. Indeed, what became America’s 50th state (August 21, 1959) experienced one of the most effective attempted identity erasures of a native population, and its organised de-development (Iolani palace had electric lights before the White House): before US colonisation, Hawaii had electricity, mass transit, railroads and one of the world’s highest literacy rates.

In a widely discussed open letter focused on the Russia-Ukraine war and published on the University of Berkeley’s Blog by Yuriy Gorodnichenko and other economists, the authors did not linger on any of these aspects, but were keen to stress that “spheres of influence” is a “notion that seems appropriate for the age of empires and not for the modern era”.

Yet that claim, while fully agreeable in itself, loses much of its legitimacy when applied to Russia and China selectively. Thanks also to over 750 military bases in eighty countries (or 85 percent of all overseas military bases), US spheres of influence extend far beyond “its hemisphere”.

And this is particularly visible in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and increasingly, in the Indo-Pacific, where, in the words of European Union foreign policy chief Joseph Borell, “the future of our planet and of history will be decided”, and from where by 2030, the overwhelming majority – 90 percent – of the 2.4 billion new members of the middle class are expected to reside.

Entering the Pacific

Look no further than the growing process of NATOisation in the Indo-Pacific, which became further evident after the signing of 2021’s AUKUS security pact between Australia, the US and the United Kingdom.

The pact, under which Canberra is to spend up to $368bn on nuclear-armed submarines, poses a major proliferation risk and represents a violation of the spirit of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It is targeted at China.

It is worth remembering that Australia and New Zealand, together with 11 Pacific island states, are signatories of the 1986 Treaty of Rarotonga, which declared the South Pacific to be a nuclear-free zone. The treaty was, to a large extent, a response to the testing of nuclear bombs in the Pacific: Between 1946 and 1966 alone, the US, the UK and France carried out some 300 nuclear detonations in the Pacific.

Back in 1952, NATO’s first Secretary General Lord Hasting Ismay clarified that NATO was about keeping “the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down”.

AUKUS, on the other hand, is effectively an anti-China military alliance, and its main raison d’etre is to limit Beijing’s increasingly assertive claims to the territories and maritime zones in the East and South China seas.

At the same time, AUKUS aims to enable the US to project power across – and preserve its “sphere of influence” in – the Western and South Pacific, an area which is about 8,500km (5282 miles) from the US coast.

Just as important as AUKUS, is a less talked about trilateral strategic grouping composed by Japan, the Philippine and the US (JAPHUS), which on June 1 launched its first-ever joint naval drills.

This alliance – like the Quad security dialogue with Australia, India and Japan – will further enable Washington to implement its “integrated deterrence” policy against China’s hardening posture over Hong Kong, Taiwan (which manufactures over 60 percent of the world’s semiconductors and 90 percent of the most advanced ones) and other key strategic areas. 

In the eyes of many Chinese intellectuals and politicians, both Taiwan and Hong Kong represent today the ultimate litmus test to heal from the final spillover effects of a “century of humiliation”, the expression adopted in China to refer to the period of intervention and subjugation of the Qing dynasty and the Republic of China by Western powers and Japan from 1839, when the British authorities attacked China due to the emperor’s decision to make opium illegal, to the 1940s.

So when Chinese and American officials speak, as happened when US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met Chinese leader Xi Jinping on June 19, or when US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen visited Beijing in early July, are they listening to each other?

Or are they participating in what philosopher Martin Buber described as “monologues disguised as dialogue”?

Buber defined these as dialogues “in which two or more persons, meeting in space, speak each with himself in strangely tortuous and circuitous ways” – effectively ending up talking to themselves.

Buber wrote these words – in a different context of course – in 1947. Almost eight decades later they appear more prescient than ever, both in the Indo-Pacific and the world at large.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.