The real damage has been to the prospects of stabilising the overall US-China relationship. The key issue has been that the two sides have different perspectives on what constitutes stable relations. But there is a bigger problem – the incoherence of US policy.
At one level, the US has been framing its current policy as a contest between democracy and autocracy. Speaking to the Taiwan Parliament, Nancy Pelosi said, “Today, the world faces a choice between democracy and autocracy. America’s determination to preserve democracy here in Taiwan and in the world remains iron-clad.”
Yet, just two weeks ago, US President Joe Biden was in the Middle East, wooing two regimes that are hardly the apotheosis of democracy: Saudi Arabia and Israel. More than anything, it would seem that the Pelosi trip was aimed at shoring up American primacy in the Asia-Pacific region.
At one level, the US has been framing its current policy as a contest between democracy and autocracy. Yet, just two weeks ago, US President Joe Biden was in the Middle East, wooing two regimes that are hardly the apotheosis of democracy.
In many ways, the problem is a lack of consensus within the US regarding how it should deal with a rising China.
Applying a policy that was devised for the 1950s on the China of 2020s is inherently destabilising.
Some scholars see the current US-China interaction as the opening of the Thucydides Trap, where an established power refuses to yield to a rising power, rendering war unavoidable. But there is nothing inevitable about this.
Biden Govt Confused About How to Deal With China
In many ways, the problem is a lack of consensus within the US regarding how it should deal with a rising China. And it goes back a decade when the US sought to create a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a high-quality trade agreement aimed at reducing China’s influence in regional trade. The agreement became fodder for the ongoing US presidential election politics when even its original proponent, Hilary Clinton, denounced it. Not surprisingly, one of the first acts of Donald Trump as President was to walk out of the TPP, which he said was against the interests of American workers.
The Biden government’s outlook remains confused. The administration came out with an Interim Security Strategic Guidance in March 2021, which said that democracy alone had the answers to the challenges of the future. For this, the US needed domestic renewal – and also to work on a common cause with its allies and partners.
As for China, the US spoke of strategic competition, which did not necessarily preclude working with Beijing.
Towards the end of May, the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, provided a glimpse of what is probably, as yet, a classified China policy of the Biden administration. He said that the US strategy was to constrain China by shaping the environment around it. The Biden administration had concluded that the decades of direct economic and diplomatic engagement had failed to shape China in the direction the Americans wanted. The time had come to develop coalitions with other nations and undertake policies, both military and economic, to contain China.
It was under this strategy that the US transformed the notion of the Asia-Pacific into that of the Indo-Pacific.
By bringing India into the equation by reviving the Quad in 2017, the US has attempted to offset the gravitational pull of China on regional states.
The Quad was mooted as an inclusive group of democracies that advocated the freedom of navigation of the seas (against Chinese encroachments).
Quad, IPEF, AUKUS: Why All the Groupings?
The Biden administration has doubled down on this and has raised the status of the Quad by undertaking summit-level meetings, the last of which was held in Tokyo in May. Since domestic opinion was unlikely to support a return to the TPP, the administration has initiated a somewhat nebulous Indo-Pacific Economic Forum (IPEF) to offset the Chinese economic challenge.
Realising that the Quad was unlikely to turn into any kind of a military alliance – largely because of India’s reluctance in getting involved in such a venture – the US has come up with an Australia UK US military alliance, known now as the AUKUS.
The Biden administration has got parts of its Asia-Pacific policy right, specifically where the US says that it will outcompete China in a range of issues. The Quad’s agenda, as outlined by its recent summits, relates to areas such as the COVID-19 pandemic, developing infrastructure and cooperation in space, climate change, cyber-security and critical and emerging technologies. The IPEF wants to focus on the issue of infrastructure but also take up subjects like supply-chain resilience, which actually means building China-proof supply chains.
But the rich countries of the Quad need to invest good money if they are serious about this.
There is little value in setting standards or promoting networks unless there is a substantial commitment to investing in the infrastructure that is needed across the Asia-Pacific region.
At the recent G-7 meeting, the US said it would offer $200 billion for a new Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment and that it expects other members to come up with $400 billion by 2027. The aim would be to use this to leverage private sector investment. But then, this would be a global effort, not just confined to the Indo-Pacific.
A Bit of History
There is a fundamental problem in the US policy towards China. The policy was shaped by the Communist victory over Chiang Kai-shek, who was supported by the US in the civil war. Chiang retreated to Taiwan and signed a defence treaty with the US, which maintained a close air and naval deployment off the shores of the new People’s Republic of China.
But when the US decided to befriend Beijing, it accepted that there was only “One China”; it terminated its military pact with Taipei and declared that it was committed to only aiding Taiwan’s self-defence. However, its regional military deployments remained unchanged.
In the years from 1950 to 2000, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was largely a static defence force and the PLA Navy had the capacity to protect the country’s coastline. But in the period 2000-2020, the PLA grew by leaps and bounds, as, of course, did the Chinese economy.
Having successfully used their engagement with the West to become a manufacturing super-power, China now wanted the US to acknowledge its politico-military clout, especially in the Asia-Pacific region.
But the US is having none of it. It wants to retain its forward posture in the region, which is backed by its military capability and deployments in a wide arc from South Korea, Japan, Okinawa, Philippines, Guam and Singapore, with friendly Taiwan acting as a stopper to Chinese ambitions.
Applying a policy that was devised for the 1950s to the China of the 2020s is inherently destabilising. In 1950, the US share of the global GDP was 50%; it has come down to 14% in 2018, while China’s is 18%. And the PLA Navy’s size actually exceeds that of its American counterpart.
Don't Blame 'Inevitability'
This situation makes any military confrontation, be it in Taiwan or the South China Sea, fraught. The likely consequence of an outcome of a war over Taiwan would be the total destruction of the island, whose sophisticated industrial capacity benefits the whole world. That is why even a person like Tom Friedman of the New York Times, who is hawkish on China, has termed the Pelosi visit “utterly reckless, dangerous and irresponsible”.
Some scholars see the current US-China interaction as the opening of the Thucydides Trap, where an established power refuses to yield to a rising power, rendering war unavoidable. But there is nothing inevitable about this. The US can accommodate China without comprising its core interests and values. Accommodation, as Amitai Etzioni pointed out in 2013, “should not be misconstrued as appeasement or unilateral concession”. Both sides need to spell out their core interests and values and then negotiate a modus vivendi that will, at the least, help preserve world peace.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)