The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated, and probably sharpened, the competition, if not the rivalry and conflict, between the United States and China. This at a time when the security and long-term stability of the international system calls for cooperation among the super and great powers.
Back in April 2017, three months after he entered the Oval Office, President Donald Trump received in grand pomp Chinese President Xi Jinping at his luxurious Mar-a-Lago estate in Miami, Florida. The warm exchanges between the two leaders laid to rest, for a brief period of time, doubts about the path American-Chinese relations would take under a president whose rallying cry within the US has been to “Make America Great Again.” The visit raised hopes that these relations would be managed wisely and in a spirit of cooperation instead of confrontation.
I believe the world reacted positively to the news coming out of Florida in April 2017. And China, judging that the US administration was genuine, its desire to improve and expand relations with Beijing went along and consequently played a role in defusing the war of words between the United States and North Korea that ultimately led to the first summit between a sitting US president and a North Korean leader, at Sentosa, Singapore, on 12 June 2018. With these two summits, separated by the Pacific Ocean, it seemed that North East Asia, as well as the South China Sea, would enter into a new phase of accommodation and diplomacy, playing a more active role in reducing tensions in that strategically-important part of the Asia-Pacific region.
It goes without saying that China played a determining role in persuading the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to make concessions to the United States, like ending nuclear testing as well as testing of long-range ballistic missiles — moves that reduced, considerably, tensions in North East Asia and reassured Japan.
Prior to the pandemic, American-Chinese relations had seen a tariffs war started by the Trump administration that led to renewed uncertainty as to the directions of relations between the two giants, a war that ended with a phase one agreement in January that is expected to be followed with more comprehensive agreements after the November US presidential elections.
Despite the January agreement, tensions were palpable in American-Chinese relations with an American campaign aimed at the allies to convince them of the “threats” that Chinese G5 technology represents for their security. Moreover, the US administration imposed sanctions on the Chinese tech giant Huawei.
Then came the pandemic.
In the first two months of 2020, the Trump administration praised both President XI and the way Beijing shared information concerning the nature of the novel coronavirus with America and the world. However, when the cases of those infected among the American population began rising, particularly in New York City, the administration in Washington DC started targeting China and accusing it of bearing direct responsibility in the propagation of the virus in the United States. This change coincided with the convening of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress in March. In interview with Maria Bartiromo of Fox News on 31 March, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the CCP “has come to view itself as intent upon the destruction of Western ideas, Western democracies, Western values. It puts Americans at risk.”
He went on to list other serious accusations. “The list is long, whether it is stealing American intellectual property, destroying hundreds and millions of jobs here in the United States, or their efforts to put at risk sea lanes in the South China Sea, denying commercial traffic the opportunity to move through, armed encampments in places that China has no right to be… For the first time, we have a president [who is] prepared to push back against that and protect the American people.”
On 4 July, the US Navy said that USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan, two aircraft carriers, have been deployed in the South China Sea for the first time since 2014. That move coincided with Chinese exercises around the Paracel Islands, a disputed archipelago with Vietnam and the Philippines. According to the US Navy, the two nuclear-powered carriers are conducting exercises to “support a free and open Indo-Pacific”.
Lieutenant Joe Kelly, spokesman of the US Seventh Fleet, said the deployment of the two carriers supported “enduring US commitments to stand up for the right of all nations to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows”. He added that this opportunity for the two strike groups “to train and operate together” in the region “provides combatant commanders with significant operational flexibility and capabilities that only the US Navy can command”.
It is interesting to note in this respect that Great Britain is reviewing its defence posture East of Suez, and forward-deploying some British forces to be near the South China Sea. The review is expected to be ready before the end of the year and is expected to propose a more visible British presence in China’s sphere of influence, which would mean more cooperation with allies such as Japan and South Korea. According to British sources, this new strategic shift fits a vision of a more “global Britain” in the post-Brexit world. The Royal Navy announced recently that it would deploy a few hundred Royal Marines commandos as part of a new “persistent global presence” of naval personnel based on ships that can quickly deploy to developing situations. In the last five years, the Chinese navy has grown by the equivalent tonnage as the whole Royal Navy, according to experts. It should not come as a surprise that the British review fits well with the US strategy of forming an alliance against a rising China.
Tobias Ellwood, a Conservative MP and chair of the Commons Defence Select Committee, said this week that “we need to work out how we will deal with China that economically, technically and militarily is going to surpass the US within our lifetimes.”
In contrast to the previous assessment, years ago, the US National Intelligence Council published a report on the year 2030. Its forecast was that the United States “would be the most powerful country in the world, but there will be no ‘hegemons’”, concluding that the “unipolar moment” is over.
That leaves one strategic option for both the United States and its allies and China: to manage their power relations wisely and accept the fact of the emergence of China as a new superpower on the world stage.
In his book entitled Is the American Century Over? Joseph S Nye argued that the “rise of China globally is a long process that is still far from signifying the end of the American century”.
If this is the case, accommodation of China as an equal partner in governing world affairs is the best strategic choice to make.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly