In the recent few years, the world's two biggest powers, the United States and China have been at loggerheads over a myriad of issues. From the tussle over trade, the political wrangle over Taiwan, the control over Indo-Pacific region, the diplomatic rows, the ideological warfare, to the military power posturing- the two global giants are cranking up the tempo of a situation not much different from that of the Cold War tensions between the US and the USSR. This US-China confrontational development on multiple fronts underscores the global realities almost all countries in the world are finding progressively challenging to grapple with. As a Bangladeshi citizen, I see my country walking the tightrope while maintaining a smart and proportionate balance between these mutually antagonizing powers with each of whom we have multifaceted relations. Naturally, it is important to understand the nature and tendencies of the rivalry of the great powers- one already established and another emerging- and this article is an attempt at that.
First and foremost, the two nations have been waging a trade war against each other for quite a few years. The second largest economy of the world, China is fast moving forward to catch up with the US, the numero uno. China's tremendous economic growth and an increasingly assertive military rise have put the US in a spot of bother. Relations between Washington and Beijing started nose-diving, particularly since 2018, when the Trump administration imposed tariffs on billions of dollars' worth of Chinese goods and Beijing reciprocated with similar counter-measures, pulling both sides into a lingering trade war that runs on through the incumbent Biden administration. As per data compiled by think-tank Peterson Institute for International Economics earlier this year, U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods stood at an average of 19.3% on a trade-weighted basis in early 2021, while Chinese tariffs on American products were at about 20.7% (CNBC, Nov 30, 21). The trade war now spills over into multiple other economic rivalries worldwide, especially as Beijing is amplifying its actions under the Belt and Road Initiative. China has set its economic footmarks on vast swathes of the African continent, Central Asia, ASEAN region and beyond. The US is naturally concerned as its own foothold is weakening and so, an ever-intensifying economic rivalry is coming into play.
Second, the Indo-Pacific region has turned out to be a new center of confrontation between the state parties. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has called managing the relationship with China "the biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century." The new theater for the US-Sino strategic competition is unfolding across the vast area of the Indo-Pacific with a special focus on the South China Sea. Under the new US regime of Joe Biden, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (popularly known as Quad) has been revived. This strategic group includes the US, Japan, Australia and India. In a joint statement released back in March 2021, the Quad members explained the spirit of their grouping as "a shared vision for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific," and a "rules-based maritime order in the East and South China Seas," in order to challenge the Chinese maritime claims. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian slammed the Quad as an "exclusive clique" and warned that "To form exclusive cliques targeting other countries does not conform with the country's aspirations, won't be popular and has no future." As if Quad was not enough, the US, the UK and Australia announced on 15 September 2021 a new pact of AUKUS under which the US and the UK would help Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines. The pact also includes cooperation on "cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies and additional undersea capabilities". Under the mechanism, Australia will acquire new long-range strike capabilities for its air force, navy and army. However, China has legitimate concerns about such groupings and so promptly pummeled the three Anglophone countries for their "cold-war mentality." The Asian Dragon sees the recent development on the US watch as an encirclement policy to contain its growth and prosperity by the world's only superpower. Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has embarked on his first tour to Southeast Asia and "his itinerary was meant to portray the United States as a more reliable ally to nations here than China, the regional heavyweight," wrote Lara Jakes (New York Times, Dec 15, 21). In all likelihood, this tour is intended to bolster US ties with Southeast Asian nations, especially those with whom China has issues over the claim of the South China Sea. On a previous occasion, China's Deputy Permanent Representative Dai Bing hit out at Washington saying, "The US has been stirring up trouble out of nothing, arbitrarily sending advanced military vessels and aircraft into the South China Sea as provocations and publicly trying to drive a wedge into regional countries, especially countries concerned" (India Today, August 10, 21). It is clear that tensions between global contenders regarding the influence over the Indo-Pacific will snowball as time passes.
Third, the self-governed island of Taiwan appears as a serious flashpoint between Washington and Beijing. "After holding out against unification demands from China's communist rulers for more than 70 years, Taiwan is now at the heart of the deepening discord between China and the United States. The island's fate has the potential to reshape the regional order and even to ignite a military conflagration - intentional or not," said commentators in The New York Times (October 9, 21). In a display of its extraordinary military excellence and the resolve to reunify Taiwan with the mainland China under One China policy, quite a few Chinese fighter jets, bombers and other warplanes flew in menacing formations off the southern end of Taiwan, on China's National Day, Oct. 1. It is obvious that China looks more resolute and clear-eyed than ever to claim ownership over the self-ruled island. Hence, any US move to support Taiwan as an independent entity, in whatever subtle way, receives strong Chinese response. In a virtual summit with his counterpart Biden, Chinese President Xi Jinping warned the US supporting Taiwan's independence bid saying, "Such moves are extremely dangerous, just like playing with fire. Whoever plays with fire will get burnt" (Global Times, Nov 16, 21). It must be mentioned that although the US acknowledges and reiterates its support for One China policy, it also maintains a "strategic ambiguity" meaning it does not want to see the status quo with regards to Taiwan be disrupted through any unilateral moves on the part of China. However, amid the current high-voltage political hostility between the nations, chorus with the demand for a "strategic clarity" on the US defense of the island in the face of a Chinese invasion is becoming louder across the political and intellectual elites of the US. It needs to be seen how the Taiwan crisis unfolds further in times ahead. Fourth, the Uyghur issue is another bone of contention between the rival powers. The US Congress has recently passed a bill, formally known as the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which requires companies to prove that goods imported from China's Xinjiang region were not produced with forced labor. "Many companies have already taken steps to clean up their supply chains. And, frankly, they should have no concerns about this law," said Florida Senator Marco Rubio, after the bill passed the upper chamber of Congress. She adds: "For those who have not done that, they'll no longer be able to continue to make Americans - every one of us, frankly - unwitting accomplices in the atrocities, in the genocide" (BBC News, Dec 17, 21). Meanwhile, the Biden administration blacklisted dozens of more Chinese companies and research institutes restricting access to U.S. investment and technology for their alleged support for China's military and the mass surveillance of mainly Muslim ethnic groups. The Commerce and Treasury departments targeted a flurry of Chinese businesses, from a company that lays undersea fiber-optic cables to developers of facial-recognition technology to the world's largest commercial drone-maker, DJI Technology Co. The agency also further took a dig at China's Academy of Military Medical Sciences and a complex of research institutes under its operation. The blacklisting of the Chinese academy and its research institutes was claimed to be for their alleged support for the Chinese military, including research into "purported brain-control weaponry," a Commerce Department statement said. The Treasury Department also pointed to biometric surveillance in its blacklisting of eight companies (Wall Street Journal, Dec 16, 21). It has been observed that the US and its allies have been cranking up their volume of condemnation of the alleged state-sponsored genocide, gross violations of human rights, forced labor, rape, sterilization, cultural uprooting, and other crimes being perpetrated against the mainly Turkic-speaking Uyghur and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang province of China. Despite repeated denials from the Chinese side, the issue has gained a massive momentum in the US policy formulations and the western media. In all forums, the US and allies are trying to mobilize their coordinated attack against the Beijing authorities on the alleged human rights violations. China has reciprocated by highlighting the allegedly unsavory human rights records of the US government on home fronts and abroad, especially in the Middle East and North Africa. Such mud-slinging, verbal spates, smear campaigns and propaganda between the progressively hostile sides run unabated, thus pushing the world into a precarious future.
Fifth, an ideological battle is playing out between democratic US and communist China. Biden now characterizes the U.S.-China conflict as "a battle between the utility of democracies in the twenty-first century and autocracies." As part of implementing his electoral promise, President Biden arranged the 2-day long Summit for Democracy (December 9-10) in order "to renew democracy at home and confront autocracies abroad." A slew of analysts, commentators and some US allies have seen the US move as divisive and purported to discredit China. It comes across as a US ploy to galvanize global opinion against China by using the democracy card. Naturally, the series of Chinese responses that popped up were as vitriolic as you could imagine. Ahead of the summit, they called the move hypocritical and 'a flurry of tweets from Chinese diplomats refer to the event as a "so-called" democracy summit, while a Russian political commentator writing in a state-run Chinese newspaper compared the US initiative to "a mistress of a brothel teaching morale to schoolgirls"' (CNN, Dec 9, 21). China went on to release a 30-page whitepaper titled "China: Democracy That Works" eulogizing how Chinese-style democracy is effective and functional while cudgeling US democracy as failing to deliver. In a thinly veiled attack upon the US-model democracy, Chinese ice foreign minister Le Yucheng said, "China's whole-process people's democracy is not the kind that wakes up at the time of voting and goes back to dormant afterwards." It should not go under our rudder that part of China's fiery reactions is the inclusion of Taiwan in the list of invitees to the US summit, which runs counter to the One China policy. The ideological battle between Washington and Beijing is likely to offer us a lot more drama over narrative-building, the political implications of which are enormous.
Fifth, US-Sino diplomatic tensions heat up every now and then as the world watches how things pan out. Recently, the US announced a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in China. "We will not be contributing to the fanfare of the Games," the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said on December 6, noting that the United States had formally defined China's behavior as genocidal. The Chinese authorities saw the move as a "self-directed political farce". "The US just wants to politicize sports, create divisions and provoke confrontation," said a statement by the Spokesperson of the Chinese Mission to the UN (as cited in BBC, Dec 7, 21). This diplomatic row further adds to the bitterness underlying the tumultuous relations between the powers auguring badly for the global peace and stability. Another front of diplomatic face-off may open up as 38 senators and 27 House members, in similar letters, urged the United States to press China to resume dialogue with the Dalai Lama's representatives that last took place 12 years ago. A focus on Tibet would be a "tangible manifestation of a principled foreign policy that prioritizes human rights and the quest for human dignity," said the letter led by Democrat Patrick Leahy and Republican Marco Rubio (as reported in Al Jazeera, Dec 15, 21). A renewal of the Tibet issue revolving the selection of the successor of the incumbent Dalai Lama may fan the flames of yet another furor leading to an avalanche of vitriolic exchanges and actions on the ground.
To wrap up, the areas of conflict enunciated above are not the whole story and there are plenty of other issues underscoring the US-china realities. The two giants resorting to a path of conflict, rather than a healthy and mutually respectful competition, is no good news for the world at large. The entire planet is beset with problems, not least among them the climate change-induced potential Armageddon, and the world desperately needs all nations to unite and take action. For any and every solution to a problem on global scale, the US and Chinese coordination, cooperation and consultation is a must. However, the mutual hostilities between them we are watching is the last thing we expect of them. As a Bangladeshi, I urge both nations to navigate their way through differences and build consensus on which to work shoulder to shoulder without, of course, sacrificing respective national interests and ideologies.
The author teaches English at Central Women's University and can be reached at [email protected]