How will the US and China reshape the global landscape?

How will the US and China reshape the global landscape?
President of the People's Republic of China Xi Jinping. (Photo: Cameron Spencer / Getty Images) | US President Joe Biden. (Photo: Quinn Rooney / Getty Images)

After the end of the US-Soviet Cold War, the new post-Cold War world seemed to be one of infinite American dominance. But now there is a new team in town, and this Chinese competition is showing some very sharp elbows.

“It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.

— Deng Xiaoping

In American baseball, when a major league professional team’s talent scouts are searching for the next great, superstar player (other than pitchers who are, of course, an entirely unique breed), and when they believe they have found that elusive diamond in the rough, they often describe such a young player as a “five tool” man. That means he can hit (for base hits); he can hit for power (hammering home runs); he can really run (as in speedily, but also craftily and skilfully); he can field with great assurance and command of his position; and he can throw the ball while he is on defence with precision, accuracy, distance, and speed.

Throughout the Cold War, for Americans, while the Soviet Union was their primary opponent, except for those apocalyptic alarmists, the Soviet Union was never really seen as a genuine, complete, five-tool hegemon. Instead, it could be managed, based on the doctrine of containment set out by diplomat-scholar George Kennan in his famous “Long Telegram”. 

In fact, in after-hours talk over a drink or two, foreign policy analysts and other specialists in the West would sometimes speak surprisingly dismissively, even disparagingly, about the USSR. They would call it an Ethiopia or Burkina Faso with nuclear missiles, just as long as no one was taking down their names for the record. 

The argument would go, yes, the USSR had all those missiles and gigantic warheads, a zillion tanks, and some high-quality spies, but it never found the knack for churning out really desirable, high-quality consumer goods for its population, let alone for export. Instead, besides AK-47s, Katyusha rockets, mines, a fighter jet or two, and hand grenades, its exports were largely the kind of thing a Third World, developing nation would sell: expensive fish eggs, furs, oil and natural gas.

Further, it never really developed the kind of financial resources and infrastructure needed for leveraging success in the modern world. Moreover, it didn’t have the kinds of soft power resources suitable for getting into the pound seats of the global conversation, besides its great ballet dancers and musicians — who sometimes embarrassed the motherland by unceremoniously defecting to the West while on tour. (Its substantial cultural and literary heritage was significantly a legacy from czarist Russia.) 

Moreover, except for a few left-over, endangered-species-style-Stalinists around the world, the Soviet Union’s deeply authoritarian political culture failed to excite people or gain their admiration, let alone point to a plausible way forward into the future.

As things turned out, the way the Cold War ended seemed to prove those more realpolitik analysts and specialists were correct. Flailing economically, the old Soviet Union stumbled into a war it could not win in Afghanistan (and nearly couldn’t extricate itself from) at the cost of thousands of casualties and devastation all across that often-invaded land. 

Further, the USSR could not simultaneously keep pace with a strategic arms build-up engineered by the Reagan administration and, at the same time, deliver on anything approaching the demands of its population for goods and services. Moreover, the growing clamour in the uneasily subservient nations of Eastern Europe for greater political rights, more room for freedom of expression, and an urge to escape from the creaking, repressive regimes that held their populations in thrall eventually led to the collapse of the entire system, first in East Berlin and Poland, then the rest of Eastern Europe, and, finally, the Soviet Union itself.

To its credit, the George HW Bush administration — in tandem with its western allies — eschewed a triumphal victory dance, choosing instead to attempt to transplant western ideas about political freedoms, democratic elections, and more open economic systems onto the East. In the end, of course, after several years of spreading political and economic chaos, with more stable polities, significant portions of the economic base of the region fell into the hands of oligarchs and former Communist Party bosses, newly minted as entrepreneurial business leaders. This took place even as most of Eastern Europe, and even the former Soviet Baltic provinces, joined Nato, the EU, or both structures. 

But in the resurgence that followed the near-collapse, and playing with what was a weak hand, and led by a populist authoritarian, the former USSR has managed to establish a persistent, albeit ersatz, international hegemonic presence through its ongoing intervention in Syria, and the insertion of mercenary units like the Wagner Group into Libya and elsewhere, and via some transactional partnerships with Iran, Turkey, and their friendlier Shia militias. There has also been the occupation of several regions in eastern Ukraine (including the Crimean Peninsula), and portions of northern Georgia, as well as leveraging the strategic political impact of liquified natural gas exports to western Europe in a hunt for influence. Of course, over the previous four years there was also that incomprehensible hold Russia had over the former American president that gave added heft to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s prominence globally, even if the tangible tools for influence were really not there. But that latter tie has now evaporated.

Meanwhile, China has been on an accelerating, ascendant curve, ever since Deng Xiaoping’s new economic approach replaced the confused economic thinking of Maoist-style marxism or the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. By many measures, the Chinese global presence is now on the verge of becoming a geopolitical version of a five-tool baseball player. China has an increasingly powerful military that has a growing ability to project force deep into the East Asia-Pacific region and beyond. Its military base in Djibouti, flanking American and French bases there, gives China the ability to have a security presence throughout the Indian Ocean littoral and on into the Middle East. There is also a roster of port access agreements for Chinese naval vessels in various other places. 

Russia’s shadow presence in Africa: Wagner group mercenaries in at least 20 countries aim to turn continent into strategic hub

Meanwhile, closer to home, China continues to upgrade its military presence on the small but strategic islands in the South China Sea, a major construction programme of expanding its naval force’s aircraft-based force projection capabilities, and deployment of missiles capable of reaching American basing in its traditional allies’ territories. In addition, less problematically, China has participated in numerous UN-organised peacekeeping and peacemaking operations globally, and it is now in second place as a contributor to the UN budget, after the US. 

Through the influence of projects grouped together under its Belt and Road Initiative and relationships engendered via the Shanghai Cooperation Council, China is showing increasing energy in building international economic ties through project financing, joint partnerships, and quasi-governmental institutional investments (and to a lesser extent, government grants). In addition, through trade and investment relationships, it has generated several near-dependency statuses for its relationships with smaller neighbouring nations such as Cambodia and Myanmar.       

Especially since its accession into the World Trade Organisation and under the continuing impetus of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, China has become the world’s new workshop, with its factories now an essential element of global supply chain networks, thereby weaving Chinese industry into almost every manufacturing sector globally. This, in turn, gives further impetus and incentives for Chinese industry to expand more effectively into newly emerging hi-tech areas. 

Such expansion is an explicit element of Chinese-style national industrial policy. As Oxford University’s Rana Mitter described it in his recent article in Foreign Affairs, “The World China Wants: How Power Will — and Won’t — Reshape Chinese Ambitions”, “Chinese power today is a protean, dynamic force formed by the nexus of authoritarianism, consumerism, global ambitions, and technology. Call it the ACGT model: with the same initials as the nucleotides in DNA, these strands of Chinese power combine and recombine to form China’s modern political identity and approach to the rest of the world. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) wants to firm up its grip on Chinese society, encourage consumerism at home and abroad, expand its global influence, and develop and export China’s own advanced technology. China’s current standing and future prospects cannot be understood without seeing all four of these goals together.” 

By Mitter’s analysis, the Chinese state is now even reshaping the narrative by which its history is being recalled, proffering a view that its current circumstances are effectively a continuation of the efforts of its earlier nemesis, the Kuomintang government, in their victorious fighting against the Japanese during World War 2, thus playing up China’s centrality in world affairs. 

In much the same vein, several days ago, New York Times global affairs columnist Tom Friedman, honing in on the goals of the Chinese government in carrying out this forward movement vis-a-vis the US, wrote, “The competition that we [the US] really need to focus on winning is not the 2022 Olympics but the 2025 Olympics. Oh, you haven’t heard of the 2025 Olympics? They are not on your NBC calendar? Well, they are on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s calendar. Xi unilaterally declared the 2025 Olympics in 2015 and suggested that there would be only two competitors: China and America. It was an initiative that Xi’s government called ‘Made in China 2025’.

“It was a 10-year plan to modernise China’s manufacturing base by massively investing government resources to dominate what Xi defined as the 10 key high-tech industries of the 21st century, and he was implicitly daring America to go head-to-head.

“The industries include artificial intelligence; electric cars and other new energy vehicles; 5G telecommunications; robotics; new agricultural technologies; aerospace and maritime engineering; synthetic materials; and biomedicine.

“And just a few weeks ago, when China issued its 14th five-year plan, to run through 2025, Xi basically doubled down on his government’s investment in ‘innovation-driven development’. Message to America: We will try to beat you at your own game so we will never, ever again be dependent on you for high-tech goods.” 

That final point, of course, is a not very subtle reference that reaches back, among other references, to an enduring Chinese desire to erase the effects and bitter national memories of that earlier “century of humiliation” that began with the Opium Wars of the early 19th century and ran on to the victory of the Communist Party in China in 1949. 

More thoroughly alarming to many in the West, there have been those heavy-handed efforts by China to degrade the remaining democratic institutions in Hong Kong, thereby abrogating the terms of the agreement with Britain for the colony’s 1997 recession. Then there have been the increasingly harsh measures against the Muslim population of Xinjiang, and the growing bellicosity of language towards Taiwan, together with some not-so-veiled threats that time is going to expire for the island’s defiant, de facto independence. 

Moreover, in dealing with the US as part of this equation, as The Economist reported recently, “For years American commanders have watched the military balance in Asia shifting against them. In 2008 a commission warned that, in a war with China, ‘Americans could face a decisive military defeat’. On 4 March Admiral Philip Davidson, head of America’s Indo-Pacific  Command (Indopacom), said China would achieve “overmatch” within five years. This kind of concern has helped energise American efforts to gin up “The Quad”, an informal quasi-alliance — obviously meant to outflank and constrain China — that brings together the US, Japan, Australia, and India. 

Given the foregoing, it is becoming increasingly clear China, as competitor, challenger, and rival, is occupying major headspace for American policy makers — and for that nation’s public as well. Typical of this, perhaps, has been the topic of the way China, and whether or not America can recover (or retain) primacy, is appearing regularly on the print covers of staid policy journals such as Foreign Affairs, along with a growing flood of articles, notes, and think tank newsletter briefs and blogs. As the Pew Research Center noted in its March 2021 report, the vast majority of Americans are now seeing China as their nation’s prime rival, competitor, and potential antagonist. 

While some part of the responsibility for this reappraisal clearly falls on the head and shoulders of the former president from his public rants, a significant part of it also derives from the American public’s growing realisation China is a competitor/rival. Participation in the growing globalisation of economies and business that has so blessed China over the past two decades thus has not been an unalloyed blessing for Americans — unless your society’s ultimate goal is to own inexpensive consumer electronics and the newest fashions. 

Part of this realisation is bound up in Americans’ realisation that some share of the earlier embrace of China evolved from the business sector’s interest in finding new markets and new and cheaper sources of manufacturing locations and thus not everything is always a win-win moment. In a way, critics of US trade policy with China from both the protectionist left and the anti-globalisation right have now left a deep impression on Americans that is unfavourable towards China. 

David Sanger, writing in The New York Times following President Joe Biden’s first full press conference, describing the president’s approach towards China, “President Biden offered up a revealing assessment of one of America’s most pressing challenges”.

“‘This is a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies’,” Mr Biden told reporters at his first news conference as president. ‘We’ve got to prove democracy works.’

“‘China’s president, Mr Xi,’ Mr Biden said bluntly, was ‘a smart, smart guy’ who shared with President Vladimir Putin of Russia a belief that ‘autocracy is the wave of the future and democracy can’t function” in the complexities of the modern world.

“‘Among the biggest tasks of his presidency, Mr Biden seemed to be arguing, is to prove anew to a skeptical world that both American democracy and its model of democratic capitalism still works — and that it is superior to the very different system Mr Xi is ruthlessly enforcing at home as he tries to extend China’s influence around the world’.” 

Not surprisingly, the Chinese are now responding with their own proposed boycott countermeasures against a range of western businesses. And most recently, they have banned a number of British MPs from travelling to China, in response to their criticisms of Chinese behaviour in Xinjiang.

Biden’s views would seem to comport with a broader change among Americans more generally. Specifically, as that Pew survey reported, “President Joe Biden has inherited a complicated US-China relationship that includes a trade war, mutually imposed sanctions on high-ranking officials, tensions flaring over human rights issues, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and an American public with deeply negative feelings toward China.

“Roughly nine-in-ten US adults [89%] consider China a competitor or enemy, rather than a partner, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. Many also support taking a firmer approach to the bilateral relationship, whether by promoting human rights in China, getting tougher on China economically or limiting Chinese students studying abroad in the United States. More broadly, 48% think limiting China’s power and influence should be a top foreign policy priority for the US, up from 32% in 2018.

“Today, 67% of Americans have ‘cold’ feelings toward China on a ‘feeling thermometer’, giving the country a rating of less than 50 on a 0 to 100 scale. This is up from just 46% who said the same in 2018. The intensity of these negative feelings has also increased: The share who say they have ‘very cold’ feelings toward China (0-24 on the same scale) has roughly doubled from 23% to 47%.”

The previous president’s ham-fisted approach — one often expressed in terms that verged on xenophobia or worse, especially after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic — was that he could just bluster his way to a trade deal more favourable to the US, using a few craftily uttered threats, proved to be a very hollow boast. Surprisingly, though, it is also true the prior administration’s often-inchoately phrased view the balance/relationship/ competition between the US and China would be more important over the long haul for America than the relationship between the US and Russia was not wrong, even if there were and remain suspicions about the former president’s real motivations on that latter point. 

Accordingly, the surprisingly acrimonious exchanges between the incumbent president, his secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan on the one side, with their Chinese counterparts on the other in recent days has further focused attention on the sharpening of what some are already calling a new Cold War. This has come so strongly that there is a sense among some otherwise sober thinkers that this is a bilateral relationship that could sour so badly actual (limited) hostilities might not be entirely put out of mind. 

There is, in fact, a growing debate among commentators and analysts about how badly out of kilter the US-China relationship just might go. (Retired Admiral James Stavridis and Elliot Ackerman have already written a much-talked-about novel — 2034: A Novel of the Next War — about a disastrous US-China conflict just 15 years into the future.) Some commentators are calling the Biden administration’s stance “Truman-esque”, in approving reference to President Harry Truman’s resolute policies in facing the Soviet Union during the early post-World War 2 years in Europe. 

The other day, the AP reported on the increasingly frosty bilateral temperature after these seriously starchy exchanges and following close consultations between the US and its allies in Europe and East Asia. (In their remarks, the Chinese brusquely told their American counterparts that their country no longer had a monopoly on the moral high plateau or a sole claim to national exceptionalism, following comments by American government leaders about Chinese treatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang). The AP reported, “The United States and European countries are closing ranks to respond to what the US calls ‘aggressive and coercive’ behaviour by China, days after the US and its allies launched coordinated sanctions against Chinese officials accused of rights abuses in the far-western Xinjiang region.

“Secretary of State Antony Blinken said [on] Wednesday that he wants to work with the US’s partners on ‘how to advance our shared economic interests and to counter some of China’s aggressive and coercive actions, as well as its failures, at least in the past, to uphold its international commitments.’” 

Not surprisingly, the Chinese are now responding with their own proposed boycott countermeasures against a range of western businesses. And most recently, they have banned a number of British MPs from travelling to China, in response to their criticisms of Chinese behaviour in Xinjiang.

Trying to get a handle on this emerging dynamic, Harvard Senior Research Fellow William Overholt, in a just-issued study written for the US’s National Defense University, has argued, “China and the United States are in a different game than the rising power/established power conflicts of the past. Most analyses of such rivalries are based on pre-World War 2 history and fail to notice that the game changed radically after World War 2…

“Leading scholars and strategists tend to misread the lessons of the past for Sino-American conflict because they fail to recognise that these radical changes constitute a new game… I will begin and end with the problems of understanding and playing the right game, while addressing other crucial issues in the relationship. The key messages are; military conflict is far from inevitable; we have serious conflicts with China, but also enormous common interests that are currently being neglected; China is not a demon and our allies are not angels; we need to live in the world as it is, not as we wish it to be; and, above all, to continue as a world leader, Americans must play the new game.”

Meanwhile, Columbia University’s Thomas Christensen looked at this relationship somewhat differently in his own, just-published Foreign Affairs article, writing, “For the past few decades, Chinese scholars, pundits, and diplomats have often falsely accused the United States of adopting a ‘Cold War mentality’ toward China. They usually level these accusations when Washington enhances the US military’s position in Asia or bolsters the military capabilities of its allies and partners in East Asia.

“It is true that in the post-Cold War era, the United States and its allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific have been engaged in a strategic competition in the military sphere with China, which has been modernising its forces and increasing their power projection capabilities. Thus far, the United States has successfully deterred mainland China from settling its many sovereignty disputes… It is also true that the United States and its closest allies have banned the sale of weapons and have tried to limit the transfer of certain military technologies to China. 

“Until very recently, that is as far as a Cold War analogy could fly… All this may now be changing as Washington’s political circles grow more hawkish. Especially since President Donald Trump took office in 2017, many US commentators have been predicting a new Cold War between the United States and China. They cite as evidence not only the intensifying military competition in the Indo-Pacific [which is not really new] but also more novel phenomena: the US-Chinese trade war and calls for broad-scale economic decoupling; Washington’s placement of Huawei and many other Chinese companies and institutions on the Commerce Department’s so-called export control entities list and the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control list, which together prevent US firms and institutions from engaging in business activities with those Chinese entities without a license… Rather than cooperating to tackle a common problem, the United States and China have battled over who is to blame for the pandemic and which political system is more capable of responding to it.”

In sum, the American-Chinese relationship is clearly entering a new and much more troubling phase, much more difficult, complex, and tangled than in previous years and in comparison to the key rivalry of the Cold War. There is much more at stake because of the importance of those economic, trade, and security aspects to this relationship. It must take into cognisance the new, much more assertive confidence and even some new hubris on the part of Chinese leadership, as well as the changing tenor of American public opinion noted earlier, that China and America are entering into something of a more sustained international shoving match. 

While few are predicting the inevitable outbreak of actual hostilities, this new dynamic may well set the table for the rest of the century, given predictions of yet sharper things that may well come to pass between the establishment power, the US, and the rising power, China. This is what Harvard political scientist-historian Graham Allison had meant when he christened such an unbalanced power relationship, “The Thucydides Trap”. It is the fatal dynamic, first described by the classical Greek historian Thucydides, about how Athens and Sparta sleepwalked into a prolonged, bitter conflict — the Peloponnesian War — that ultimately ruined both states. The possibilities of an analogous fate is something senior figures in both Beijing and Washington should be contemplating deeply as they plan their next moves in their growing competition. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Scott Gordon says:

    Verbose springs to mind . You may not like DT , he can climb steps , no need for cue cards . So many words and saying what ? Submit to the CCP or feel our wrath !
    Just like old gum under the shoe in Australia , CCP oil ? !

  • Scott Gordon says:

    Hmm 50 cent army here !
    All pro China , so misunderstood !
    Just want all to be happy with Xi , praise him and his thoughts ! Taught in all class rooms !

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options