Managing a competitive relationship

Hussein Haridy
Friday 30 Jul 2021

US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman was in China for talks this week as part of further steps in managing the relationship between the US and China

US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman travelled to China to hold talks in the Chinese city of Tianjin with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Deputy Foreign Minister Xie Feng on 25-26 July following stops in Tokyo and Seoul.

In Tokyo, Sherman held trilateral talks with her Japanese and South Korean counterparts to underscore the US commitment to act with allies and partners in addressing urgent and pressing global challenges, advance a free and open Indo-Pacific region and uphold the rules-based international order.

Her visit to China comes four months after the high-profile meeting in Alaska last March between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan with two senior Chinese officials, Communist Party Politburo member and Director of the Office of Foreign Affairs Commission Yang Jiechi, and Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister.

US-Chinese relations have come to occupy centre stage in the Biden administration’s global diplomacy. Blinken has said that the US relationship with China will be collaborative where it can be, competitive where it should be, and adversarial where it must be. US President Joe Biden succeeded last June at the US-NATO Summit meeting to convince the leaders of the member countries to look at China for the first time in the history of NATO as a strategic concern.

The first international summit hosted by Biden, via videoconference, was the Quad Summit on 12 March that included Japan, Australia and India. The major topic was how to secure the Indo-Pacific region and strengthen the strategic alliance and partnership that the US has with the three countries. The undeclared objective has been ever since to consolidate the US network of alliances and partnerships around the Indo-Pacific, and also the rest of the world, in order to contain the rise of China as a newcomer in the club of superpowers.

The objective of the talks that Sherman had in Tianjin was to set the terms of the US relationship with China and to reach an understanding on achieving a “steady state of affairs,” according to a senior US administration official, between the two countries. He said that Sherman would make clear that while the US welcomes what he called “stiff and sustained competition,” everyone needs to play by the same rules on a “level playing field.” Sherman would represent US interests and values and those of its allies and partners, he said.

From the US point of view, the major concern is to make sure that there are guard rails and parameters in place to responsibly “manage” the relationship with China. The purpose of the Tianjin meeting is thus to hold “frank and honest exchanges” about the future of the US-Chinese relationship. It goes without saying that this relationship should stress collaboration and cooperation rather than confrontation and conflict, which would benefit no one. The areas of bilateral cooperation between the two Pacific powers for the sake of security and strategic stability in the Indo-Pacific region are manifold. In an ideal situation, such cooperation should be enlarged to include other powers in the region.

On 11 June, Blinken spoke by telephone with Yang Jiechi, and the two discussed how to address global challenges together, including the climate crisis, how to deal effectively with the Covid-19 pandemic and how to work on the bilateral level to ensure the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. Blinken underscored US concerns over what Washington sees as the “deterioration of democratic norms” in Hong Kong, as well as the “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity “against Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minority groups in the Xinjiang region in China. He also called on the Chinese to cease what he called the “pressure campaign” against Taiwan and to peacefully resolve maritime disputes in the South China Sea.

The US-Chinese talks in Tokyo before the Tianjin meeting was in the light of the results of the review process undertaken by the Biden administration of its North Korean policy, with this not representing a marked change from previous American administrations. Other items on the agenda were strengthening the alliance to contain China.

Generally speaking, the discussions in Tokyo and Seoul stressed the importance of promoting peace, security and prosperity in Northeast Asia and in the Indo-Pacific. The three countries also reaffirmed the importance of their trilateral cooperation to deal with global challenges such as the promotion of the post-Covid-19 pandemic economic recovery, climate change and provisions for pandemic relief.

For both the US and China, the future holds challenges and opportunities. The major challenge that both will have to deal with it is how to contextualise and manage their strategic competition in the years to come in an intelligent way to avoid conflict and permanent confrontation. This will be possible if China and its neighbours succeed in settling their maritime disputes in the South China Sea and if the US and China do not turn this into a major cause of confrontation. On the other hand, the rules-based international order concept should be relied upon to promote security and stability for the benefit of countries bordering the Indo-Pacific region and not be used to contain China.

The US and China realise how much international peace and security will depend on the way they manage and steer their relationship in the future. It is to be hoped that this will guarantee that the two countries will do their best not to find themselves in a military confrontation. As for Egypt, which has enjoyed very good relations with both China and the US, its interests lie in keeping a safe distance from the US-Chinese competition. 

*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

 *A version of this article appears in print in the 29 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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