The great power struggle between the U.S. and China may define international affairs in the coming years. That does not necessarily mean the world will become bipolar. On the contrary, the more the United States and China clash on an ever-growing range of domains, the more cautious other countries will be in avoiding getting pulled into competing coalitions. Other major and middle powers are also taking steps to mitigate overreliance on either of the two protagonists in the economic or security sphere. Can these other poles promote coexistence between the U.S. and China and help heed off conflict, or will they inevitably be enlisted by either rival in their geopolitical contest?
United States: getting heard, but not getting there
America’s sanctions are turning target countries away and causing fissures in its relations with partners. U.S. sanctions on Iran, Syria, Turkey, and Venezuela are pushing these regional powers into the fold of Moscow and Beijing. Washington’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris Climate Accord strained its ties with European partners. Continued efforts to isolate Cuba may diminish given the small-island nation’s COVID-19 medical outreach to Europe, Africa, Caribbean and Latin America. Such swings from previously held positions - as shown in the Iran nuclear deal reversal, withdrawal from the global climate covenant, regression with Cuba, summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, and abandonment of Kurdish allies in northeast Syria - cast doubt on the continuity of U.S. foreign policy, especially as the November elections draw near. Embargoes create openings for rivals whether in the Middle East or Southeast Asia. Umbrage over how U.S. leverages its domination of the global financial system to impose unilateral and long-arm sanctions increases the momentum for Chinese renminbi’s internationalization, and raises the prospects for alternative arrangements such as China’s Cross-Border Interbank Payment System.
Without clear alternatives, it remains to be seen how durable the U.S. campaign to boycott Huawei will be, for example. This is especially so for fast-developing countries eager to revamp their telecoms industry or get into 5G. The same goes for the new round of sanctions meted on Chinese infrastructure companies at the forefront of implementing Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. If such companies are involved in vital or priority projects, such sanctions may elicit resentment from countries racing to develop their infrastructure. Since its announcement late last year, not much has been heard of the U.S.-led Blue Dot Network, seen as a possible counterweight to China’s massive global connectivity bid.
China: once aroused, can the wolf spirit be tamed?
Similarly, China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy especially in flashpoint areas even amid a pandemic create frictions on multiple fronts, from the Himalayas to the South China Sea. Note verbales from its Southeast Asian neighbors joined by similar diplomatic notes from the U.S., Australia, U.K., France and Germany are stacking the odds against China’s maritime claims in the disputed sea. Vietnam is drifting closer to the U.S. as well. A memorandum of understanding on strengthening law enforcement to curb illegal fishing may open greater spaces for cooperation to push back against Chinese interference in Vietnamese fishing in its exclusive economic zone. The Philippines’ decision to suspend the termination of its Visiting Forces Agreement with the U.S., its participation in the RIMPAC Exercises off Hawaii and granting of pardon to a US marine convicted of killing a Filipina transgender woman in 2014 show the continued importance Manila attached to its security relations with Washington despite warming ties with Beijing. Meanwhile, Sino-India clashes and mounting tensions along the border in Ladakh may undermine BRICS and pull New Delhi closer to the Quad.
Moreover, China’s resort to economic statecraft to serve foreign policy goals accelerate efforts by major industrial economies to reduce dependence on the Chinese market. Japan’s subsidy to its companies exiting China, South Korea’s New Southern Policy, and Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy look to tap new markets and investment destinations especially in ASEAN and India. Such moves also signal the desire to build resilient supply chains less reliant on the mainland. Worries that China may dominate the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership probably played into India’s decision not to join the promising regional free trade agreement for now. Backlash from its border skirmish with India also deprive Chinese companies a burgeoning South Asian market. Beijing’s response to Canberra’s call for an independent inquiry on the coronavirus pandemic strained bilateral ties and left a stark lesson to countries with high market or investment exposure from China. Concerns about growing Chinese espionage threats may fuel Japan’s interest to be the sixth in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance with the U.S., Canada, United Kingdom, Australian, and New Zealand.
The Rest: Agents, not bystanders
In their great power competition, the U.S. and China will realize that getting partners may be more difficult than expected. Unlike the Cold War, other countries are not as desperate or beholden to either side, and have their own respective threat assessments. Many countries are not subscribing to Washington’s stark binary portrayal of the rivalry as a choice between free and repressive global visions. But instead of driving a wedge between America and its partners in Europe and Asia, Beijing’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy only alienated partners. Other powers are also not buying into either rival’s coronavirus blame game. U.S. insistence in using “Wuhan virus” to refer to COVID-19 led to a failure to issue a joint statement in the virtual G7 foreign ministers’ meeting last March hosted by Washington. Despite its medical outreach, China’s official coronavirus narrative rings hollow outside its borders.
U.S. initiatives – from the Blue Dot Network, Quad Plus, G11, to the Economic Prosperity Network – are not getting traction. Issues about host nation support, linking of security and economics, and perceived interference in domestic affairs complicate alliance ties with Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. Tokyo scrapped a U.S. missile defense system and continues to provide leadership for the Trans-Pacific Partnership since the U.S.’ withdrawal in 2017. While Japan, Australia, ASEAN, and recently European powers came up with their own Indo-Pacific concepts, their outlook and strategies may not necessarily be wholly congruent with that of Washington. Despite territorial and maritime row with China, U.S. calls for increased defense spending and the establishment of an Asian NATO may not be enthusiastically welcomed by states apprehensive about a self-fulfilling prophecy and more focused on economic recovery. It also remains to be seen how the appeal to “shared values” and “like-mindedness” will be received as these ideas hinge on the assumption that China is in fact challenging these, if not exporting its own ideology and governance model, a view not universally shared.
President Xi Jinping’s longer term may provide policy continuity for China’s Belt and Road, but it will not dissipate criticisms of the global undertaking. Concerns that Beijing may secure military access to Chinese-built infrastructure abroad and the dangers of risky loans and unsustainable debt in a post-pandemic recession will put the initiative on spot. Security concerns may limit Chinese investments in Western countries and pose threats to Chinese capital in developing countries that cannot simply ignore the U.S. ban. Political risks associated with leadership transition will continue to test Chinese projects overseas.
Despite the progress of decoupling, deep seated economic interdependence will make a complete break difficult not only for the U.S. and China, but also to other countries caught in the thick web of global value chains built over decades. Economic straits will make for a constricted Belt and Road and something bluer than the Blue Dot Network. While sanctions, maximum pressure, threats or economic coercion may dissuade adversaries or sway foreign policy directions, only inducements and viable alternatives can gain and sustain partners. Ad-hoc coalitions cannot substitute for multilateralism. In the quest for global leadership, actions, not rhetoric or propaganda, will count more. Indeed, the locomotive that is the US-China power struggle is already in motion. But its route and destination can be shaped not only by the two key characters, but also by other players who may board or derail it off the tracks.