For me the story begins years ago when I was in the US. My children had asked me to buy them the latest iPhone model, an errand that I had no objection to whatsoever. I loved visiting the Apple store in downtown Boston, with its sparkling glass facade, its bright white interior and its youthful staff filled with the exuberance of a new age. Unfortunately, when I arrived I was told that they had run out of the model I was looking for. I had never encountered this type of situation before in the US. Fortunately, they told me to come back the following morning.
When I returned at 6:00 am, I found a queue that must have been at least a mile long. I knew that if I stood in that line, by the time my turn came the model I wanted would be out of stock again. Later, when I inquired about the source of the problem, I made an amazing discovery. Apple, the very emblem of high-tech ingenuity, actually has its products manufactured in China. Yet it is assumed they are made in the USA, which is where people stood in mile-long queues outside the main outlets of the firm (now worth some $2.5 trillion) in order to buy those products. It was at that point that my mind turned from my iPhone purchasing mission to another problem: the new composition of international relations in general and US-Chinese relations in particular.
The many interrelated complexities of that subject have become a major focus of research and study for international relations experts. Washington and Beijing are locked in what might best be termed a bond between enemy siblings. They are siblings by virtue of an unparalleled bilateral trade connection. China exports $400 billion worth of goods to the US and the latter exports $127 billion of goods to the former. China has essentially become the US’ industrial backyard and it is a supply chain linchpin. The production and marketing cycle for both high-tech and conventional goods would fall apart without it. Moreover, by dint of a balance of trade in its favour, China has such a large reserve of dollars that it has become a partner in setting that currency’s international value.
I could probably use up the rest of this column enumerating the many ways these two countries are connected. But they are not sufficient to dispel their latent mutual antagonism. In World War II, China and the US were allies. Then, following the victory of the Communists led by Mao Tse Tung in 1949, they began to eye each other as strategic and ideological enemies. The hostility was articulated in the Korean War in the 1950s. Yet, by the 1970s, Washington began to take a different view. It believed a rapprochement with China would serve as a counterweight to the Soviet Union. This led to US President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China on 1972 and an historic agreement to normalise relations. The thaw gained impetus with the economic reforms introduced by Deng Xiaoping who took over as Chinese Communist Party chairman and began to implement market economy principles. By the 1990s and the end of the Cold War, political and business communities in the US and the American public at large saw China as a trade partner whose products had begun to dominate US markets. With the spread of globalisation under president Bill Clinton, China and its rapidly increasing share of the world market became an important part of the phenomenon. After China’s entry into the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2001, the Chinese-US partnership had become deep and global. Ten years later, China was the second largest economy in the world after the US.
Nevertheless, US-Chinese relationship seemed bent on being the exception to the general rule in international relations that mutual dependency gives root to peace and cooperation. The US never shed its strong suspicion that a country ruled by a communist party could never become a messenger of peace with others. Beijing never lost its deep seated belief that a global superpower would work to increase its hegemony and interventions in the affairs of others. Still, the bilateral relationship and mutual dependency continued to grow despite the doubts and suspicions. But then, the US came to fear China’s competition. President Donald Trump tried to penalise US firms that invested in China and levy taxes and customs on Chinese products. He also pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Accord in which Washington and Beijing were key partners in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. After all, they were responsible for producing the lion’s share of them. He then blamed China for Covid, even calling it the “Chinese virus.” Then President Biden stepped in to change gears and shift the antagonism into an “ideological” mode. Soon after coming to power he drew a line in the sand between “democratic” and “autocratic” countries, with China falling in the latter camp. Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi makes her appearance in this context.
What actually unfolded was a case of American schizophrenia towards China. On the one hand, the White House had to keep its relations with Beijing steady due to the exigencies of the war in Ukraine. It therefore kept its channels of communication open with fairly regular contacts at the head-of-state level. On the other hand, it sustained its negative classification of the Chinese political system, with the underlying tensions that perpetuated. The attempt to reconcile the contradiction took the form of talks in the framework of “efforts to manage the rivalry between the two countries and discuss the impacts of the Russian war against Ukraine on regional [ie European] and international security.” During those talks, the US referred back to the Shanghai Communique of 50 years ago, which had established the basis of US-Chinese relations since. President Biden acknowledged that relations had reached a critical juncture that would determine the shape of the world in the 21st century, and stressing that the US did not seek a new cold war with China. Accordingly, he said, the US does not seek to change the Chinese regime or to activate its alliances in Europe and Asia against Beijing. He also stressed that the US did not support the independence of Taiwan and had no intention of going to war over it.
This, at least in part, was driven by the need to work together on vital global issues such as climate change, preventing nuclear dissemination and maybe advancing the cause of peace in Europe, according to conditions the US would accept. Then along came Pelosi, who represents another, more fundamentalist faction of the Democratic Party. Like her predecessors in office, she wanted to go on record proclaiming a stance in favour of “democratic Taiwan” versus China. So now we’re waiting to see the result of the test as to whether Washington will truly stick to its word regarding “one China.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.