China’s rise and America’s decline spell conflict

Monday’s summit between Xi and Biden addressed everything from trade to security and human rights, but resolved nothing.

US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping hold a virtual meeting
A screen shows Chinese President Xi Jinping attending a virtual meeting with US President Joe Biden via video link, at a restaurant in Beijing, China November 16, 2021. [Tingshu Wang/Reuters]

This week’s Chinese American summit was sweet and sour. The three-hour virtual meeting between US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping started respectfully, was even friendly, but soon descended into recriminations and veiled threats.

No surprise there.

The friction between these two leading world powers has grown too wide and deep to bridge with diplomatic niceties. They disagree on almost everything from trade and security to human rights, and in the rare case they agree on an outcome, they disagree on the process.

But some of the disagreements, such as the future of Taiwan, are boiling over, risking bringing the two powers into direct confrontation in a reckless test of wills. Beijing seems to insist on bringing the self-governed island back into the fold, by force, if necessary, while Washington appears determined to push back against China’s use of military intimidation and economic and diplomatic blackmail to strong-arm Taiwan into submission.

So, while both leaders have officially committed to maintaining the status quo in Taiwan in the context of the “One China” policy, they also took time at the summit to put each other on notice.

President Xi warned the US against interfering in intra-Chinese affairs, and cautioned that “whoever plays with fire will get burned”. President Biden, who had hastily promised to defend Taiwan against any Beijing aggression in the past, meanwhile, warned China against the repercussions of altering the status of Taiwan by force, which in my view are more likely to be economic than military – but no less disruptive.

In that way, the summit has addressed everything from security, trade to human rights, but resolved nothing. It merely clarified the rules of engagement moving forward once the three-hour diplomatic truce is over.

No surprise there either.

The disagreement over Taiwan, like those over Hong Kong and North Korea, is a symptom of a far greater conflict over supremacy in Asia and indeed, the world – all of which invokes a comparison with the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Yes, I am mindful of the pitfalls of such an analogy, aware of both the similarities and dissimilarities between the two eras, and yes, I am conscious of the fact that China, unlike the USSR, is deeply integrated into the western-led international system, and does not seek world domination through an alternative global ideology. Not yet anyway.

But the similarities are becoming uncanny as a rising China begins to pose a strategic challenge to the global system similar to that of the Soviet Union; as Biden frames the conflict between the US and China in ideological terms (a clash between democracy and autocracy); and as both sides show a willingness to resort to all means necessary to achieve their goals short of a large military confrontation, or a destructive “hot war”.

China has certainly pulled ahead of Russia, which is trying to revive its old glory and influence by any means necessary. President Vladimir Putin may play dirty games with the West, but Xi is adamant about rewriting the rules of the game altogether.

China’s strongman rejects the “international rules-based order” the West dictates and insists on co-authoring the principles of a new world order.

In other words, the US may downplay Moscow’s provocations as the desperate manoeuvres of a “regional power”, but when it comes to Beijing, it has no choice but to pay attention to this bullish and bullying superpower.

China has succeeded where it counts, where the Soviet Union had failed – the economy. China’s economy has expanded at an incredible rate and, all things being equal, is destined to surpass that of the US in this decade.

China is also developing a strategic doctrine and posture worthy of its economic supremacy, and which includes conventional, naval, digital, space and nuclear military power.

There are many ways to quantify the Chinese miracle, no less in comparison with the US. But it suffices for our purpose here to take an overall look at the century since the US emerged as a world power and the Chinese Communist Party was first established, in 1921.

In its first half, China suffered from turmoil, disintegration, foreign occupation and horrific famine that killed tens of millions, while the US became a world superpower, comprising 40 to 50 percent of the world economy.

China began to get its act together during the past 50 years, which coincided with the US’s recognition of the communist government and the late President Richard Nixon’s historical visit in 1972, the first by a US president. But it was not until 10 years later that China began to widely liberalise and industrialise its economy at a breathtaking pace.

Joining the World Trade Organization (WTO), in 2001, has propelled China to global prominence as the “world’s factory”. In the following 20 years, the Chinese economy skyrocketed from the equivalent of 13 percent of the US economy to 73 percent this year; a five-fold increase. In the process, it pulled hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty.

Furthermore, Xi’s 2013 multi-trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), spanning more than 60 countries, has ensured China’s strategic enlargement and geopolitical expansion like never before. Interestingly, renewable energy investments reached a new high of 57 percent of BRI’s total for energy projects in 2020.

The US may have hoped that China’s membership would mean cheap imported goods and the moderation and democratisation of the Chinese government, but eventually, China’s ascension led to a $300bn annual trade deficit and the communist party tightened its grip on power, alas.

As the China miracle unfolded, US power has continued to unravel over the past 20 years, beginning with the debacles of its wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and the greater Middle East and through the 2008 financial crisis and the disastrous Trump presidency, as Washington lost lots of assets, credibility, and influence among friends and foes alike around the world.

In the process, the US’s share of the world economy shrank by almost half to 22 percent.

That is why Biden, who urged Xi not to let their competition veer into conflict, must tread carefully after the summit ends to ensure the US has the necessary geopolitical clout to deter a bellicose China from making any aggressive moves in Asia and beyond.

Likewise, it is incumbent on the Chinese leader, who is feeling super-confident nowadays, to refrain from resorting to unsavoury means or unnecessary threats that could escalate into a large confrontation with dangerous consequences.

The world’s wellbeing, indeed its survival, depends on it.