US-China relations: Confrontation or Cooperation?

US-China relations: Confrontation or Cooperation?

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Relations between the US and China seem set to enter uncharted waters. Ties show no sign of stabilising into a predictable ‘new normal’. Instead, confrontation between the world’s two superpowers continues unabated marked by the exchange of toughly worded statements. Last month President Joe Biden spoke by telephone to President Xi Jinping – their first conversation in seven months. This raised expectations that tensions would ease. But the Chinese leader is reported to have turned down Biden’s suggestion for a summit meeting and insisted that the US first improve the atmosphere for such high-level engagement.
Recent moves by the US have reinforced in Beijing’s mind that Biden is embarked on a strategy of containing China. A new trilateral security pact forged with the UK and Australia, AUKUS, aims at enhancing Australia’s naval power by nuclear powered submarines to counter China’s military ascendancy in the western Pacific. The summit hosted at the White House of Quad leaders – US, Australia, Japan and India – also represented an effort to cement an anti-China coalition among regional states. These moves were denounced by Beijing as a threat to regional peace and security. Beijing is also annoyed over statements by American officials that policy toward China will simultaneously involve competition and engagement as well as an adversarial dimension. This is seen as as a dysfunctional approach.
The world’s most consequential relationship is now the subject of scores of articles in the international media. Many books have been published recently on what is seen as a contest for global pre-eminence between the US and China. They include ‘The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order’ by Rush Doshi, Avoiding the ‘Thucydides Trap’ edited by Dong Wang and Travis Tanner, ‘How China loses’ by Luke Patey, and Kishore Mahbubani’s ‘Has China Won?’
Singaporean scholar Mahbubani’s book takes a fundamentally different approach from the other works. It urges both sides to step back, review their stance and consider areas of convergence that can lead to cooperation.

Beijing is also annoyed over statements by American officials that policy toward China will simultaneously involve competition and engagement as well as an adversarial dimension. 

Maleeha Lodhi

The most recently published book offering similarly sensible advice is by a former British MP, Oliver Letwin. Titled ‘China vs America: A Warning’, the author calls for a policy of engagement with Beijing because as a superpower, China’s cooperation is indispensable to deal with the many shared challenges the world faces. At the outset, he states that mutual suspicion is deeply embedded in the political culture of both countries. Added to this are conflicting interests, which Letwin describes in the following way. There is an “incompatibility between Washington’s desire to maintain its sole global hegemony and the increasingly strident demands of Beijing to share that global hegemony.”
Letwin asks what is the most prudent course to follow in dealing with China. Ignore China and wish it away? Adopt a hostile approach? Or engage with Beijing? He comes down firmly on the side of dealing peacefully with China through “quiet, patient, constructive diplomacy” in order to turn away from a cold war and avert a hot one, which would be exceedingly detrimental to the world.
He examines what he calls the rhetoric of conflict following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and the trade war that former US President Donald Trump launched against China. As relations began to deteriorate, the war of words intensified. Their geopolitical rivalry reached a new level. Hawkish views in the US became even more pronounced which Letwin casts as aimed at preserving US global primacy. But he tries to show that this hawkish stance is mirrored by hard-line views in China.
A chapter that will be of much interest to Pakistani readers is ‘Arc of Danger’. This considers South Asia’s four-way alignments – between US-India and China-Pakistan – and argues that this tangled web of alliances holds much danger given disputes over Kashmir and other issues. His conclusion is that “A false move here or there could lead to a chain reaction that gradually draws in all four powers into an encounter which in the context of heightened mutual mistrust between Washington and Beijing ultimately becomes a risk-laden conflict between the US and China.”
After surveying other regions and arenas of Sino-US competition he argues that the international rules-based system is incapable of preventing the risk of conflict between them. In a thoughtful chapter on the deficiencies of the international system he demonstrates how its present configuration and “deep malaise” prevent the management of power relationships.
So, what should be done? Letwin’s answer is ‘peaceful competition’. For him the global welfare including of the West lies not in feeling threatened by China’s rise but accepting that its increasing prosperity will be to the benefit of all, the West included. This well researched book concludes with this advice. The question is whether hard-liners in the West are now too invested in a ‘contain China’ strategy to listen to such rational counsel.

- Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha

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