Over the weekend, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered the US Central Command to redeploy military equipment and personnel, including missile defence systems, which currently exist in Middle Eastern states such as Saudi Arabia.
The Pentagon said some of those will go back to the United States for maintenance, while others will be sent to other parts of the world. The move seems to be linked to a specific goal: countering China’s strategic growth.
This is not conjecture: US officials have already put it straightforwardly. John Kirby, the Pentagon’s spokesman, told reporters last week that “these initiatives, some of which will remain classified, are designed to focus departmental processes and procedures and better help department leaders contribute to the whole of government efforts to address the challenge of China.”
Austin is currently approaching the end of his worldwide review of US forces. This is a man who thinks of Beijing as “in fact, our pacing challenge” and “my priority focus. You saw me stand up a China task force that has helped to focus the efforts of the department on making sure that we are doing the right things to create the capabilities and develop the operational concepts that we need to be successful. You’ve seen that through, quite frankly, our actions,” Austin told the Senate Appropriations Committee during a hearing on the 2022 Budget Request for the Defence Department.
Yet, experts believe both states are still far from a confrontation. Victoria Hui, an associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, said Washington is trying to “send strong signals to deter war”, highlighting nonetheless that it passed congressional legislation to directly confront China “now”.
Hui, who previously testified on China in US Congress, explained that China has tried for decades to present itself as “the land of opportunities” to counter any talk of a threat despite its military buildup, economic coercion, sharp power and militarisation of the South China Sea. “It is only when China’s actions have become so staggering in recent years that the world could not turn away from its aggressive actions,” she added. For her, such actions include China’s “repression” in Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan, which Beijing “managed to convince the world are part of its internal affairs.”
This seems to be true to a great extent. The Brussels NATO Summit on 14 June emphasised that “China’s growing influence and international policies can present challenges that we need to address together as an alliance.”
NATO’s statement also warned that China’s ambitions and behaviour “present systematic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to alliance security.” The US-led, joint defence body brought attention to China’s “rapidly expanding” nuclear arsenal and production of more warheads and larger number of sophisticated delivery systems, as well as military cooperation and joint drills with Russia in the Euro-Atlantic area.
Beijing responded almost on the same day. Its mission to the European Union said “defence and military modernisation is justified, reasonable, open and transparent.” China also called on NATO to “devote more of its energy to promoting dialogue.”
Nevertheless, Zhiqun Zhu, a Bucknell University’s professor of international relations, questioned “whether each and every NATO nation sees the so-called ‘China threat’ the same way.” Some NATO nations, such as Germany, France, Italy and Spain perhaps, have indicated that they prefer a more balanced approach to China, seeing China as both a challenge and an opportunity.
Zhu stated that a war between two nuclear powers would be “disastrous for the whole world, so other countries should also try to help them learn to live peacefully and focus on areas of common interest for humanity such as combating climate change and promoting nuclear non-proliferation.”
This partially explains why the US has resorted to a trade and technology war against China. Donald Trump banned two Chinese social media apps, TikTok and WeChat, and imposed trade tariffs and restrictions on the Asian giant.
US punitive actions, most of which Biden has kept so far, were huge. Trump added tariffs that range from 10 to 25 per cent on Chinese imports. Ironically, China responded by doing the same for US products.
It would be difficult to describe how hard the impact was on US companies. But it is enough to say that more than 3,500 companies including Coca-Cola, Disney, Ford and other, smaller ones, filed lawsuits against Trump’s Republican administration over its China tariffs.
So the Americans ended up playing a losing game. Robert Ross told Al-Ahram Weekly that, whether through resisting Huawei’s participation in telecommunications across the globe, restricting Chinese investments in US technology companies or imposing trade tariffs, the United States “intends to slow down the growth of China.” The Boston College’s political science professor said, however, the Biden administration understands that the “trade war has not worked”. Biden, Ross noted, would like to ease the trade war, which is why he lifted sanctions on TikTok and WeChat. This was a “signal to China” to try to gradually negotiate a new trade agreement with the US, which will be “less painful and harmful” to the latter.
He pointed out that the trade war and Covid-19 caused the trade gap between the US and China to grow to the latter’s benefit, but it remains unlikely to lead to a “hegemonic war”. “These wars occur when two powers compete over vital security interests. But the United States is competing with China in Asia, not in the Caribbean, not in Central America. So this is less than the usual great power hegemonic transition, which in Europe was between Germany, Russia, France and England, with them all living next to each other in the same strategic theatre,” Ross said.
The US-China relations expert, who testified before several Senate and House committees and the Defence Policy Advisory Committee, argued that Biden wants Europe to cooperate with him on China, which explains putting the topic at the top of NATO’s agenda.
“But it’s not clear if the rise of the Chinese military has challenged European interests because Europe doesn’t have an interest in the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan or the South China Sea. The European security focus is in Europe, and in that respect focusing on Russia and the Middle East and the Mediterranean,” Ross said. Still, he concluded that the NATO statement “does not have great consequence”, especially since Europe still wants to use the Chinese market and cooperate with China on European economic growth.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly