Never before have US-China relations been so tense and low since the two grand nations normalized their relations in the mid-1970s after decades of antagonism and boycott.
Hostilities that grew enormously during Donald Trump’s Presidency remain looming as the incumbent President Joe Biden has the China policy “under review.”
Fortunately the two countries are governed by exercising self-restraint regardless if their differences continue to mount, and their rivalries overlap in different parts of the globe. Full-fledged military confrontation remains unimaginable but all other spheres of competition are open.
In his Congress speech, Biden emphasized that: “America will stand up to unfair trade practices that undercut American workers and American industries, like subsidies to state-owned enterprises and the theft of American technology and intellectual rights properties”. He also said that the US will maintain a strong military presence in the Indo-Pacific region “just as we do for NATO in Europe- not to start conflict - but to prevent one.”
Whether Biden is hard on rhetoric and soft on action is yet to be tested, not only in China, but elsewhere too. His dealing with Iran certainly gives such an impression that he is not divorced from political ramifications.
One thing for sure though, is that the President earns bipartisan support when it comes to China. He will exploit this support for sure. He had urged lawmakers to pass legislative packages dealing with human rights in China, trade imbalance and funding American projects in technology to match and compete with Chinese development in this vibrant sector.
He is also studying Trump’s investment bans on companies linked to China’s military which included three of the country’s largest telecommunications firms.
Not only domestically can Biden make use of Trump’s legacy. The former US President practically deconstructed America’s global network of allies and friends. All his policies were - in one way or another - antagonistic to the traditional ties that linked the American political establishment to the world. The “Chinese threat” could be an appropriate slogan to be used in the process of reviving those distorted relations.
Antagonism between the US and China is witnessing unprecedented levels as a Gallup poll in February 2021 revealed that 45 percent of Americans say that China is the greatest threat to the US; more than double the percentage of those polled in 2020.
Then, Americans were more likely to say it was both Russia and China. Long decades of the cold war and the bi-polar international system along with the former Soviet Union and its heir Russia seem to fade away with the rise of the Chinese dragon.
China now stands next in line after the US, but not for Chinese officials. Director of Central Foreign Affairs Office in China Yang Jiechi said: “China looks at the US from an equal point of view.”
Had China not been self-confident of its growing powers and capacity, it would not have launched the famous Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013 by the incumbent President Xi Jinping. The whole initiative seems to be a challenge to the US at all levels, including political, economic, security, climate change and global health.
Chinese banks and corporations have invested across sectors such as, ports, telecommunications, infrastructure, railways, highways, smart cities and other projects around the world.
Major recipient countries for investment cover Pakistan, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, along with many others. Though China might seem to propagate its image as an aid granting friend, it rather is a rent seeking country with the aim of stretching its influence across continents.
If there is continued American inaction imposed by prolonged periods of “policy study” vis-à-vis Chinese assertiveness and long-term planning backed up by enormous funding, then the whole stature of the United States, Europe and the so-called “Free World” become under significant pressure.
Counter US policies need to be schemed and put into implementation if the country wants to remain a leader in the world.
Increasing American competitiveness and addressing the challenges posed by BRI is only the beginning. For this to happen, Washington needs to foster its relations again with its allies. De-antagonizing Moscow is a policy that would, in one way or another, deter China. Russia traditionally enjoyed the cold war games and might be ready to give a helping hand, even if not upfront.
US-China confrontation will continue and the bilateral relations might make unexpected negative curves and escalate further. However, trespassing the military redlines seems impossible. Continued and controlled tension is the best option for both.