The strategic competition between the United States and China has spiraled uncontrollably into outright hostility. The US closed the Chinese consulate in Houston calling it a haven for espionage. In response, China took control of the American embassy in Chengdu in southwestern China, as the US diplomatic corps vacated the premises. The exacerbation of tensions between the two countries is perhaps not entirely surprising. The National Security Strategy Report produced by the American administration in 2017 branded China a ‘revisionist power’ whose growing clout in the international arena is inimical to the norms and values of the free world. Sanctions on officials connected to human-rights violations in the Xinjiang province, an unsavoury trade war that has led to talks of ‘decoupling’ the American economy from that of China, a brazen attempt to dub the coronavirus in racist terms insulting to China and general anti-Chinese rhetoric in the US as exemplified by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent philippic against ‘Communist China’ have all portended that the relationship between the superpower and a major power is likely to fray in the near future.
However, as one ponders upon the growing confrontation between the two countries, which have led to speculations of a new cold war, the question arises whether rivalry between them is inevitable. Is there no way for the US and China to resolve their differences amicably and keep the world free from conflict? From a realist perspective, the answer would be on the negative. When a rising power threatens the hegemony of an existing superpower, they are likely to clash in one way or the other. I subscribe to this view. That said, it would be too pessimistic to believe that an outright confrontation would mean a shooting war or a nuclear conflict. Adroit diplomacy and sensible policies can go a long way in containing tensions. The impending rivalry between the two superpowers has many dimensions. They will vie for supremacy in the domains of strategy, ideology, economy and technology. In this essay, we will examine the first two.
The United States has been the unquestioned leader of East Asia ever since the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. It has stationed troops in South Korea lest Pyongyang muster the courage to launch another attack on its southern neighbour. America’s support to Japan, Australia, Vietnam and few other Southeast Asian countries has given it an extensive network of allies in the region. Furthermore, the recent creation of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between the US, Japan, India and Australia meant to counter China’s designs in the South China Sea has demonstrated America’s intention to make deep inroads into the strategically important Indo-Pacific region.
This strategy obviously ruffles the feathers in Beijing. For, as International Relations (IR) theorist John Mearsheimer noted, the primary goal of an aspiring hegemon is to achieve supremacy in its own backyard. Surrounded by powers that are ready to do America’s bidding at Washington’s command, China feels rather paranoid. Hence its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative to expand its influence in East Asia and Eurasia through land. Despite possessing a vast swath of territory, China’s proximity to the sea is constrained by the presence of several other countries in the South China Sea which stake claim to the waters. The strategically vital Malacca Strait between Malaysia and Indonesia transports huge amounts of Chinese exports and imports. Beijing would be severely curtailed in case this waterway is shut off by a hostile power during a confrontation. Therefore, China has been assiduously trying to build a blue-water navy, build artificial islands in the South China Sea and secure an outlet to the Arabia Sea through the Gwadar Port in Pakistan.
However, the alliance system of America has become rather weak in recent years and needs reinvigoration. The trade dispute between South Korea and Japan last year assumed ugly proportions and the US hardly intervened to mediate the crisis. America can counter China’s rise adequately only when its alliance systems are robust and ready for action. Viewed in this light, President Trump’s record in maintaining amicable relations with European countries has been unenviable. Soon into his term in office, he pulled America out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership dealing a major blow to the western alliance. He took this disdain for multilateral institutions further by pressuring allies in the NATO to contribute more toward its military budget. Continuous internal tensions in the Western Bloc would make some countries susceptible to be swayed by China’s overtures. This was exemplified by Greece’s public avowal of support to China’s BRI. Moreover, America has made no headway in wooing Russia into the Western coalition. President Putin is currently on the fence in the US-China security competition. The US should undertake serious efforts to co-opt Moscow on its side. A united China and Russia would be all the more menacing to the imminent security competition.
The strategic situation seems to be slightly in favour of the West at the moment. However, this edge should not create complacency in Washington. China is ready to exploit the slightest inaccuracies in America’s calculations.
Decay of International Institutions
The World Health Organization (WHO) has been accused of being complicit in covering up the real seriousness of the virus along with China. While accusing WHO of a cover-up and President Trump’s decision to suspend funding to the global health body may be seen as disproportionate reactions, there is a consensus that its dilatory handing of the crisis in the early stages certainly misled the world into underestimating the lethality and infectiousness of the virus. That a UN-affiliated body like the WHO would prove incapable of curbing the pandemic is sobering enough. But the relative ham-handedness of the WHO has also to do with a general disposition of countries to ignore the advice of institutions. Repeated UN urgings to declare ceasefire in the sanguinary proxy war in Yemen have gone unheeded. European Union’s attempt to mediate the civil war in Libya has miserably failed. The war in Syria has also spiraled down into a humanitarian catastrophe while all attempts by Russian President Vladimir Putin to get Turkish President Recep Erdogan to agree to a ceasefire have become dismal failures. The decaying of institutions is intrinsically related to another defining theme of present-day international relations; rise of right-wing populism.
Speculations of ideological rivalry can be seen as an upshot of thinking about the current conflict from a cold-war lens. Capitalist, democratic and free America was pitted against communist, autocratic and unfree USSR. The end of the cold war in the USA’s favour was seen as a vindication of liberal democracy. However, this approach to the history of the cold-war misses the woods for the trees. Soviet Union was engaged in a security competition with the US not because it was communist, but because it saw the US as a threat to its core interests. Moscow’s foremost intention was not to spread the principles of Marxism-Leninism, but instead to expand its sphere of influence in other countries. The same way of thinking informed America’s conduct during the cold war. In fact, Washington, which considers itself the leader of the free world, toppled several democratically elected rulers during the course of the cold war and beyond. Moreover, ideas of restricting Western trade to Europe alone (which runs counter to the principles of free market) were also bandied about. These examples demonstrate the fact that superpower rivalries have more to do with strategy than ideology.
The same principles apply to the US and China. Policymakers in America believed for a long time that bringing China to the market would cause it to become a liberal-democracy. However, China is now a capitalist giant but is still a repressive authoritarian regime. This example emphasises the folly of viewing the conflict through an ideological perspective. The undemocratic communist party is ensconced in the leadership of China and is not going away. Foreign policy that is directed toward pressuring China to become a liberal-democracy would only precipitate this conflict.
To say that great power competition is back is not to fear-monger. It is merely to state the reality as it is, warts and all. In this juncture of world politics, idealism or liberal internationalism propounded by the IR theorists Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye would not be of as much help as offensive realism would be. Offensive realism is a school of IR theory that has defined international politics for almost as long as it has existed. Its principal tenets are that the state is the fundamental unit of world politics and the international system operates under anarchy. Anarchy in IR does not mean chaos or confusion, rather it refers to the absence of an entity that governs all countries. There is nobody that a state could call for help at a time of crisis. Each state has to fend for itself. In such an arena, a state that is remotely interested in ensuring its survival will try to be powerful – not just powerful enough or achieve a certain target of influence-but be as powerful as possible.
-Prasanna Aditya (Freelancer)
Picture Credits: wharton.upenn.edu