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CWA # 73, 7 January 2019

Global Politics
US and China: Between Confrontation and Competition

  Seetha Lakshmi Dinesh Iyer

Research Associate
International Strategic and Security Studies Programme (ISSSP)
National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS)

 

 

In what could be dubbed as a well-nurtured rendezvous until recent past, the year 2018 has visibly drifted the axis in the US-China great power alliance for worse. With prolonging trade tensions and, broadening political divergence and accusations between the two, ‘the World this year’ pretty much depends on the road these allies decide to take. Now, the much discussed American economic face-off is possibly an overt manifestation of larger geopolitical agendas. So, given the politics, where will this transition take to? Would it result in stable cooperation or would it give room for more competition? What will be the global implications?

As with most of its overseas relations lately, the American leadership had probably decided to underplay its existing arrangements with China. Trump’s ‘America First’ could be a reason to blame but much of the turbulence is invariably seen as a liberal, law-abiding Washington’s counteraction to Beijing’s assertive foreign policies, its internal record of human right violations and illegal territorial expansion. In popular media, this tug of war is often intended as a second run of the Cold War era. A part of the problem in what could become a neo-Cold War lies in China’s unprecedented and intensified efforts to slip in and fill the US-let perceived void in place of a period which expected a peaceful rise. The Chinese President has been using infrastructure diplomacy and extensive military assistance in his well sought-after Belt and Road initiative for accelerated influence. This might have been uncalled for in a relationship that withstood the test of time and flourished through global meltdowns since China got into the World Trade Organisation (WTO). That apart, America’s failure as a longstanding ally to persuade its partner might have finally resulted in a heightened trade war putting protectionism at the fore. On the other hand, the Trump administration alongside the emerging widespread anti-China sentiments there, might not have anticipated a conflict sprouting within bilateral interests past year. However, it is certain to bring in a lot of impulsiveness to the duo’s relations in the coming days, be it cooperation or competition.

If cooperation is what awaits the US-China relations, thumping issues such as a slowing climate change to a legally well-regulated global commons to curbing the spread of nuclear weapons stay addressed at the political and strategic level. Following this, the extensive economic interdependence between the two might force the White House to settle in for minor adjustments in the trade front. The projected possibilities of negotiation or if that works, a peace deal could re-kindle economic cooperation to an extent from the ongoing tariff war in 2019. China might also want to rework and reflect on its structural measures and internal commerce to match its prominent trade partners. So, cooperation in terms is commerce is something worthwhile to expect.

But, at the political front, all might not be well. On the one hand, 2018 could be deemed as a year of conflict in an established partnership. That said, what lies ahead would be competition and staunch political rivalry spreading through the world. This will further put many major powers around the globe in pressure to choose one, for they had till now maintained a balance between their individual diplomatic ties with USA and China. Though, this might not necessarily invite conflict, it will undoubtedly rise concerns over trouble spots such as the ongoing maritime disputes, a crippling Pakistan and the Korean peninsula to name a few. On the other hand, adding real sense of the American rhetoric, the previous year could also be seen as Washington’s gradual retaliation to Chinese authoritarianism after a dormant phase which involved gathering means for a push back. This might come as a reassurance to other liberal international stakeholders like India and Japan which are fighting the China Factor, especially along Asia.

The US has only made clear that their differences with China have broadened. This year will unveil the possibilities of a commerce-driven “neo-Cold War” or rather an “economic iron curtain” as Hank Paulson, a former US Treasury secretary called it. As far as regional geopolitics is concerned, much of the strategically significant east Asian and Southeast Asian countries which intended to maintain a constructive balance might be put in pressure to opt for one and support a single superpower.

Meanwhile, individual powerbrokers like France, UK, Australia and India might still intend to stick to China for economic support and, team up with the US for strategic aid and partnership.

Clearly, Washington’s strategic rearrangement is here to remain. At a time of changing world order, what lies ahead is undoubtedly a troubled road to competition. US will look to keep its allies close and this will make room for increased cooperation within. But given the confidence, this prospect offers, only time can unveil how much a trusted partner the unpredictable Trump government can get to be.


By arrangement with the Rising Kashmir. 

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