- Jonathan Marcus
- Diplomatic Affairs Correspondent
The meeting between senior officials from the administration of US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterparts marks the first opportunity to measure face-to-face the dynamics of the relationship between the two major global powers.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan meet with top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Alaska on Thursday.
Biden’s team is under no illusions. Before the meeting, Blinken noted that this “is not a strategic dialogue” and that “at this time no intention to have a series of subsequent commitments. “
“These commitments,” he said, “if they are to happen, they really have to be based on the proposition that we are seeing tangible progress and tangible results on the issues that concern us with China.”
Relations between the US and China go through the worst time in many years and they are projected to get even worse.
Before his appointment, Sullivan co-authored an article in Foreign Affairs magazine written with Biden’s top adviser on Asian affairs – Kurt Campbell – in which they openly declared that “the era of rapprochement with China had come to an abrupt end“.
It has become common to describe the US-China relationship as the new “Cold War,” a reference to the rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union that lasted a generation and overshadowed the last half of the 20th century.
It is important to know how to characterize the relationship between Washington and Beijing. It helps determine the types of questions we ask and the answers we receive. It sets the parameters for making policy decisions, leading us down certain paths and perhaps blocking other avenues.
The use of certain historical analogies is said to help clarify options, context, and dilemmas. But others argue that this may be counterproductive. History does not repeat itself that way and the differences may outweigh the similarities.
If by “Cold War” we mean the great titanic struggle that implies that two incompatible political systems put into motion all aspects of their national power in that struggle, then clearly the US-China rivalry has echoes of the US-USSR showdown.
As the interim foreign affairs strategy launched this month by the Biden administration points out, a more “resolute” China is the “only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military and technological might to exert a sustainable challenge against an international system. stable and open “.
Biden’s White House mantra is to challenge China whenever necessary and cooperate when possible.
For its part, China takes a similar stance, sending signals of its desire for a constructive relationship, while continuing to redouble its efforts to uphold its interests: the undemocratic restrictions in Hong Kong, and the shameless treatment of the Uighur Muslim minority (which Blinken labeled “genocide”).
Beijing rarely misses the opportunity to highlight the evils of the American system. It has taken advantage of the catastrophic handling of the covid pandemic during the previous presidency of Donald Trump and the siege of the National Capitol to highlight the superiority of its social and economic model.
So, on the surface, perhaps the “Cold War” label seems appropriate, but how useful is it?
During the original Cold War, the Soviet Union and its allies were mostly isolated from the world economy and subject to strict export controls. In stark contrast, China today is the lynchpin of the global economy and its own economy is deeply integrated to that of the USA.
While the original Cold War had an important technological dimension – primarily in weapons and the space race – the new rivalry between the US and China involves the essential technologies that drive and will drive our future societies, such as artificial intelligence and 5G.
The global context is also different. During the Cold War, the world was divided into two static camps, in addition to a significant non-aligned bloc (which was frequently seen by the West as biased towards the Soviets).
Today we have essentially a multipolar world, but one in which the institutions of the liberal world order are threatened like never before. That gives China an advantage in trying to impose its own perspective on the world.
However, the “Cold War” model is deeply dangerous in one fundamental respect.
The Cold War was a zero-sum political struggle in which each side denied the legitimacy of the other. While the US and the Soviet Union very rarely faced each other, huge numbers of lives were lost in third-party conflicts around the world.
Ultimately, one side was defeated – the Soviet system was swept away with the tide of history. And many fear that interpreting the US-China rivalry in these stark ideological terms could lead to both sides a miscalculation, and especially to give Beijing even more reason to potentially do the unthinkable or catastrophic to avoid defeat.
However, China is not the Soviet Union. It is considerably more powerful. At its peak, Soviet GDP was roughly 40% that of the US China will reach the same GDP of the United States within a decade.
China is a more powerful competitor than anyone the US has faced since the 19th century. And it is a relationship that will have to be managed for perhaps many decades.
This is the essential rivalry of our time. We have to abandon cliched and false analogies. This is not the “Cold War, Part Two” -In fact, it is something much more dangerous. China is already a level competitor with the US in many areas. And while it is not yet a global superpower, it is a military rival on par with the US in the areas that matter most to China in terms of its own security.
The China problem that President Biden has in his hands is complex. His foreign policy goals give rise to opposing strategies with Beijing.
How is China being pressured on initiating fairer trade practices, on democracy and human rights, while being expected to cooperate in the fight against climate change and maintain stability in the Asia-Pacific region? Everything will depend on the management of strategic competition.
However, while the nature of the competition should not be underestimated, it should not be overstated either. This tired cliché of a rising China and a declining America – like all clichés – has an element of truth. But it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Will the US be able to recover from the “Trumpian” chaos and revitalize its own economy? Will he be able to convince his allies that the US is here to stay and that it is a trusted player on the world stage? And will the US be able to rapidly expand its educational and technology base?
Beijing has been ahead of Washington in many ways. But will economic progress hurt its authoritarian course? Can China cope with slowing economic growth and an aging population? And will the Communist Party be able to retain the loyalty and support of Chinese society in the long term?
China has many strengths but also many vulnerabilities. The US has great weaknesses but also exceptional dynamism and the ability to reinvent itself. But as the COVID-19 pandemic has starkly demonstrated, what happens in China does not stay in China. He is a global player who matters in all of our lives.
Fasten your seatbelt! It’s going to be a rough ride. And it’s just beginning.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.