The Sino-American collision course

Hany Ghoraba
Tuesday 29 Nov 2022

This week’s banning by the US of imports from Chinese technology firms Huawei and ZTE is just part of a larger conflict between the two countries, writes Hany Ghoraba


US-Chinese relations have witnessed growing tensions over the past few years, and while the US modus operandi in handling growing Chinese expansionism has been a point of contention among the country’s think tanks and political analysts, they all tend to agree that China’s rapid economic and military growth represents a clear and present danger to US and Western interests, particularly in Asia. 

It is no secret that the Chinese government has supported one of the most vocal enemies of the US and the West over the past five decades in the shape of North Korea. That support has existed since the Korean War (1950-1953) when nearly three million Chinese soldiers fought alongside their North Korean counterparts against the US-backed South Korea. 

The survival of the North Korean regime led by supreme leader Kim Jong-un is reliant on Chinese support as most of the country’s income is diverted towards arms and increasing the nuclear capabilities of Pyongyang. The North Korean leader never ceases to repeat his threats of using nuclear missiles against the US and his own neighbour of South Korea. He is emboldened by Chinese support such that these nuclear threats have become almost a weekly activity even as US nuclear retaliation to a North Korean attack would wipe his entire country from the map. 

Despite statements by US President Joe Biden that he is seeking a diplomatic solution to defuse any potential conflict with the Chinese, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) this week banned the import of communications equipment, including surveillance equipment, from the Chinese tech giants Huawei and ZTE. This is the latest step in the communications war between the two superpowers that ignited during the tenure of former US president Barack Obama and was heightened under subsequent president Donald Trump. In making the decision, the members of the FCC cited concerns over the Chinese equipment that seemingly relate to growing security fears. 

“Our unanimous decision represents the first time in FCC history that we have voted to prohibit the authorisation of new equipment based on national security concerns,” tweeted Brendan Carr, a Republican FCC commissioner. Earlier this month, Carr indicated that he hoped that the US would also ban the popular Chinese application Tik Tok in the US market. 

There have been attempts to reach a reasonable solution in order to avoid the ban on the application in the US. US security officials believe that millions of its citizens’ accounts and personal data are insecure and vulnerable to possible forms of espionage by the Chinese government. The mostly benign short video app could be a tool in the hands of the Chinese, and this would be something that the US administration could not accept.

However, the conflict over technology is just a small aspect of the bigger picture of the growing feud between China and the US. It is evident that the countries are currently on a collision course, no matter how both governments try to downplay or hide it. Chinese President Xi Jinping, who was just re-elected to serve a third term in office, is adamant about continuing his country’s policies of economic expansionism in Asia backed by strong military support. The Chinese navy has acquired 132 new warships over the past 17 years. 

Taiwan remains one of the main points of political contention between the US and China, and the struggle has only increased this year. While the US officially acknowledges the “One China” policy that says that Taiwan is part of China, it has consistently supported the Taiwanese government and rejects any military actions by the Chinese against Taiwan. 

Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan earlier this year as the highest-ranking US official ever to visit the country. The visit, cautioned against even by US officials, gave rise to a large number of retaliatory reactions from China, including military exercises. The situation escalated further after Biden declared that the US would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion of the island.  

Taiwan represents a strategic economic interest for the US and the rest of the world. It makes about 65 per cent of the world’s semiconductors and almost 90 per cent of its advanced chips. Most laptops and computer motherboards in use in the world today are either fully produced in Taiwan or contain many parts produced there. In comparison, the US only produces 10 per cent of the world’s semiconductors, and China produces just five per cent. 

If China were to occupy Taiwan, it would mean that most of the world’s production of semiconductors would be in the hands of Beijing. That would entail the control of the world’s electronics, military, and communications industries by the Chinese, and the US would rather go to war than see that happening. 

However, Biden’s ability to take initiatives against China and other rivals of the US remains severely lacking and has mostly been in reaction to initiatives taken by the countries concerned. It has been hindered by the many missteps made either by himself or impetuous US politicians like Pelosi. The meeting during the G-20 summit meeting in Bali, Indonesia, between Biden and Xi in November helped to deescalate tensions. But the main points of contention remain the same, as China continues to treat Taiwan as a rogue Chinese district that needs to be taken back under control by Beijing, which has indicated that its ultimate aim is to unify Taiwan with the mainland. The Chinese, like the Russians, do not consider Biden to be capable of stopping them. 

Of course, a war between China and the US, even one on a limited scale, would spell further disasters and add to those that have already occurred as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. All possible measures must be taken to ensure that Taiwan’s current status is respected. It is not clear if the Chinese have clearly understood this message from Biden or not. 

“Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. And weak men create hard times.” This is the summary of the history of nations presented in the post-apocalyptic novel Those Who Remain by US author G Michael Hopf. The danger is that it can be stated without a shred of a doubt that Biden is perceived as one the weakest US presidents in history. The actions by the country’s rivals, among them Russia, North Korea, Iran and China, are testaments to that fact. 

The global political situation requires a different sort of leader in the US who can take initiatives that go beyond his personal fixations on domestic social issues of a less pressing nature, with these being placed at the top of the political agenda by Biden even as his country’s power and political stature diminish by the day. 

Should the US survive the next decade as a superpower, it will definitely require a change in leadership in the next presidential elections to one that can truly lead the country during its collision course with China and others.

* The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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