US-China Relations: Where are they headed?

On March 18, top diplomats from the United States (US) and China had their first open dialogue in Anchorage under the Biden administration. The rhetoric of labelling China’s ascendancy as a “threat” to the rules-based order is a mere construction undertaken by the US, which continues to imagine itself as the universal, indispensable nation-state in relentless need of achieving absolute certainty and security. Notably, the rejection by the US to see it as a strategic dialogue is striking, signifying that framing of such kind is not acceptable. Apparently, the US is not willing to see China as an emerging great power. It also hints that the Biden administration will continue the hardline China policy undertaken by its predecessor.

Many analysts fixate the rivalry between the US and China on a Cold War scenario, which is problematic and contains real dangers. The geopolitical competition between the US and China is fundamentally different from that between the US and the Soviet Union. A framing of such kind has the potential of conducting great damage to the world. However, the competition is real and is bound to increase mainly due to the economic reasons that are at play and because the US establishment is determined to maintain US global leadership. The confrontation is not existential, as many believe it to be, as the friction is not between two opposed systems; rather, the contestation is from within. However, it is vital to highlight that a shift has been observed in the way China sees the narrative of “strength” provided by the US. Premised on the idea that the hegemony that the US enjoyed is at a gradual decline, China refuses to see itself as a “junior partner” in its relationship with the US.

However, the competition is real and is bound to increase mainly due to the economic reasons that are at play and because the US establishment is determined to maintain US global leadership.

Though, the point that gives the missing nudge is the manner in which the Biden administration conducted itself during the exchange or the ban that was imposed on 14 high-level Chinese officials for inflicting a crackdown on the opposition in Hong Kong. Even before assuming office, many in the policy circles anticipated a change in the way the incoming administration will respond to the growing friction and will not fixate the relationship on a zero-sum trajectory. Rather the divergences will be dealt with in a more balanced and non-confrontational manner. Assuming a confrontational stance on the initiatives taken by China; such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) or the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), must not be seen or defined in the context of a “threat”, as that will brew a series of frictions that the world must avoid. Instead, the opportunity must be used to further cooperation.

Recently, President Joe Biden, in a telephonic conversation with President Boris Johnson, suggested establishing an infrastructure plan by the democratic countries for providing help to the communities that are on the lookout. It appears that the infrastructure plan will serve as a competing model to China’s BRI. This idea came a day after he remarked on preventing China from surpassing the US to become the most powerful country globally and pledged to ensure its prevalence in the growing rivalry between the world’s two largest economies. Whereas in another news, China has signed an agreement with Iran covering a wide array of economic and security cooperation, and the said “strategic partnership” is to last for 25 years. Though, no further details regarding the agreement have been made public. However, as per a New York Times report, China has agreed to invest US$400 billion in return for steady supplies of Iranian oil. The deal carries considerable risk, as the rivalry between the US and China is accelerating. Unsurprisingly, the agreement will bring a massive outcry from the US and its allies, and big questions will be raised on China’s policy front as the sanctions on Iran are still intact.

As much as it is essential for the US to limit its confrontational stance, China must remember that the rivalry might have an impact on the BRI, and the countries associated with it would not be willing to choose sides. Maintaining a stance of neutrality and continuing to have a beneficial relationship with both the great powers will be a priority. The rivalry must not be intensified to the point of no return, and Asia must not be at the receiving end of the repercussions. In this entire strategic competition, sense must prevail, and issues should be dealt with pragmatically. On the other hand, the inaccurate portrayal of China as a threat to the international world order will only bring the US and China at odds. Moving away from such fixated Manichean rhetoric and understanding the overall rivalry will reap benefits for all the parties involved. In contrast, the decision of coming head-on will leave us with no winners in the end.

Saman Rizwan

Saman Rizwan is a former Research Assistant at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research.

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