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Foreign Policy

Unraveling Relations

Jan 18, 2022
  • Tom Watkins

    President and CEO of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, FL

A gauntlet has been thrown down.

There is clear competition between authoritarianism and liberal democracy. More specifically, competition between the U.S. and China. The pretext about a “win-win” relationship between the two has been snuffed out like an old cigarette butt, scuffed into the pavement of history in 2021.

In Washington D.C., where hyper-partisanship makes even agreeing on lunch nearly impossible, perhaps the only thing Republicans and Democrats agree on is being tough on China. There is a growing consensus that the era of engagement with China has come to an unceremonious close. The debate is over. What next? Where will the U.S. and other democracies go from here?

This is our new reality. What the U.S. had developed and wished for when “Nixon went to China” and Jimmy Carter entertained Deng Xiaoping at a Houston rodeo is over. What we make of this new reality is now up to our respective leaders and how the world will be shaped as the 21st century unfolds in the balance.

Clearly the U.S. and China remain the most significant bilateral relationship in the world today. All major global issues will intersect at the corner of Washington D.C. and Beijing. Our leaders’ actions, reactions, and inactions will impact the people of China, the USA, and all humanity.

It is now clear for all to see there is a chasm between two largest economic, military, and technological powers. A widening split has emerged with distrust and disagreements on a range of issues oozing out which will likely shape the global landscape for decades to come.

China has come a long way since Mao declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China at the gates of Tiananmen Square on October 1, 1949. As a young boy, I watched this evolution while growing up in the shadow of our nation’s Capital. Today China uses its newfound economic, diplomatic, and military might as economic silencers, deflecting criticism from other nations. All while much of the West has gotten moral laryngitis, looking past what – in earlier decades – would have resulted in economic sanctions and public rebukes. 

The prevailing consensus in Washington and overseas is that China is surging past the United States. “If we don’t get moving,” President Joe Biden has said, “they’re going to eat our lunch.” Countries everywhere are preparing for China to be “number one.”

Yet, in 2021 the voices that have been timid, if not silenced, have grown louder and more confident as have those of the Chinese. Neither side is about to genuflect to the other.

“The Quad” – United States, Japan, India, and Australia – along with Canada, Germany and other smaller nations have begun to push back against Beijing’s bullying in the South China Sea and other areas that China has been elbowing itself into. Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, “These four navies [in the Quad] are very powerful” and when acting together send a message to China that they intend to secure trade routes and, as democracies, uphold the rule of law in international disputes, as in the case of Taiwan.”

I don’t bemoan China’s desire to knock off our crown. Who strives to be number 2? I get it. It should come as no surprise that China wants to rise. Since opening to the world four decades ago, China has been like an economic rocket on steroids.

The West has woken to the China challenge. Yet, it is still dawdling, bickering, and blaming, while China is busy investing, building, and thinking long-term — in short, acting. Both at home and abroad, China is heavily investing in the future of artificial intelligence (AI), education, communication, space and infrastructure, green energy, electrification of transportation and yes – their military and internal security: China’s future. 

Shades Of a Plan Emerge

President Biden’s ‘Build Back Better’ agenda had been the only tangible part of any plan to prepare America for a competitive future. Investing in America and Americans is a thoughtful strategy to compete and be world competitive, yet is stalled in Democratic Party infighting and looks doubtful of passage at the moment.

So, America now seems to understand we are in a fight to remain relevant, if not dominant. Yet, simply whining and complaining about China’s rise is neither a strategy nor a plan. Attempting to stop China’s rise is about as effective as building a chain link fence to hold back a tsunami. 

Where is the Shared Vision and Common Agenda?

“Together for a Shared Future” is the official motto of the Beijing Winter Olympics and Paralympics scheduled to begin on February 4, 2022. The Chinese proclaim their motto represents the power of the Games to overcome global challenges as a community, with a shared future for humankind. The words reflect the necessity for the world to work together towards a better tomorrow. Yet, it has been decades since the world has been this splintered.

Clearly there is no shared vision and common agenda drawing the world closer today. Given the global pandemic and the heightened fear of the surging Delta and Omicron variants, there will be no global tourism pouring into Beijing. The U.S., United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada will not send government representatives to the Games because of concerns over China's human rights record. The U.S. has accused China of genocide in its repression of the Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups in the Xinjiang region. China denies all allegations of human rights abuses and has declared it will retaliate against countries boycotting their Olympics.

The Olympics are supposed to unify the world for a moment in time. I don’t believe there is enough paint in the world to whitewash the current global dysfunction, disagreement and dissent to do so.

I wish I could turn to the literature to find answers to having the U.S. and China join for global common prosperity. But I don’t have answers. So, we can turn to the tea leaves and hope to find a way forward.

As the Beijing Olympics begin, so too, does the Year of the Tiger in the 2022 Chinese Zodiac. The zodiac Tiger is a symbol of strength. Tiger years such as 2022 are all about going big or going home. What will Presidents Biden and Xi do?

It would be nice if they both adopted the Beijing Olympic slogan: “Together for a Shared Future.”



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