With 30 percent of global manufacturing, and an economy poised to become the world’s biggest in a decade, China is a global powerhouse. China is the biggest trading partner for a large number of the world’s nations; its economic presence is undoubtably felt around the world. For the past decade, China’s consolidating power in Asia and beyond has become increasingly hard to ignore.
China understands that countries want to improve economic opportunities for their citizens, and that its own phenomenal economic achievements are a role model for much of the developing world.
Through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) China has provided a vision and means of rapid infrastructure development and shared prosperity to hundreds of countries. Consequently, China has created an interdependency amongst multiple nations and when these partner countries develop, their connectivity with China benefits the two sides mutually. Assisting capital deficient states and raising living standards of under-privileged people burnishes China’s image and its influence globally. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) that China launched in 2015 with 103 states provides China with an opportunity to further advance this interdependency.
China is now in a position to leverage this growing dependency, not only of developing nations, but also of interconnected European countries, to accelerate domestic and international growth. China is evidently one of the world’s most significant drivers of economic change.
America, on the other hand, due to a paucity of growth policies, wars and deficits, is losing ground to China when it comes to supporting the developmental aspirations of less privileged countries. America is worried that China is now using its economic prowess to export its model and governance.
The U.S. has declared China (and Russia) as a ‘strategic competitor’, brands it as an adversary and has openly launched policies that damage China’s interests. Countries are now ill at ease with the American expectation of choosing either China or the U.S. Some analysts blame China for their breakdown in relations with Australia, Britain, Japan, India and other countries in Europe. Such critics fail to appreciate that tensions in China’s relations with most of these countries are a direct result of matters related to America or the consequences of anti-China actions by these countries at America’s behest.
Asian powers, especially in East and Southeast Asia, find it too costly to choose between the two as America demands. Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong cautioned in an article published in the widely read ‘Foreign Affairs’ journal in July/August 2020 that the troubled U.S.-China relationship raises profound questions about Asia’s future and the shape of the emerging international order. America, he wrote, should understand that “China is a reality on the doorstep. Asian countries do not want to be forced to choose between the two.”
China finds positions taken by the U.S. and its allies provocative and understandably reacts. On Taiwan, the U.S. signing on to ‘One China Policy’ and yet arming Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province, is increasingly inconsistent and will be perceived as a violation of China’s sovereignty. In reality, it is unlikely that China will give even an inch on the topic of Taiwan.
On the Senkaku Islands/Diaoyu Islands disputed amongst Japan, China and Taiwan, China was provoked by the Japanese when on September 11, 2012, Japan nationalized its control over the islands by purchasing them from private owners. China, which tolerated the previous status quo of the islands, declared it would not accept that latest development.
With American forces based in Japan, the Republic of Korea, Guam, the Philippines, and Singapore, China feels vulnerable by having American military presence so close to its mainland. As the largest trading nation in the world, China cannot afford another power that declares it their adversary, simply on the grounds of trade. Sea lanes are still very much critical to international trade. China will be unlikely to waver on its position in South China Sea.
The U.S. under President Trump launched a trade war imposing duties on Chinese imports into America, ultimately causing products to be more expensive for the American consumer. While banning over 400 Chinese companies from doing business in the U.S., as well as banning universities from buying high-tech products from China, America is also waging an international campaign compelling allies to exclude Huawei (a Chinese technology giant that is the world leader in 5G technology) from their markets.
American policy appears to seek exclusivity in the face of China’s rise, presenting the world with a clear picture of a metaphorical duel between democracy and autocracy. The U.S. should instead search for coexistence. In a nutshell, the American policy wants to ensure that “China will not become number one under my watch.”
Sadly, the U.S. is more likely overestimating its own influence and underestimating how much other countries will lose by turning their back on China. With China’s burgeoning economy many countries may actually pick China over America.
Rhetoric and projected confidence only get nations so far. The Anchorage meeting in March 2021 demonstrated this. The first meeting between the U.S. and Chinese foreign policy chiefs were riddled with hostility and rhetorical barbs, losing out on an opportunity for coordination and cooperation.
Going forward there will likely be more tensions between the two countries. The United States should not put itself in a position from where it cannot proceed without grave risks, or from where it cannot withdraw without losing face.