USA or China?

Christiana Carvalho's photo


Don't make us choose, say Asian countries.

It took fifteen years to negotiate the terms of China's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO), a sign of the challenges of reconciling the Chinese economy with the liberal rules of international trade. US officials were betting that these terms would force China to submit to the rules of the market and integrate into the global economic order. “But those hopes,” said Yeling Tan, a professor of political science at the University of Oregon, “now sound like an illusion.” Text from her – an award-winning essay entitled “How the WTO changed China” –, published in the March-April issue of the magazine Foreign Affairs, sets the tone of disappointment that predominates on the North American side, seeing its hopes frustrated.

Perhaps the same tone that President Joe Biden adopted in the first telephone conversation with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jiping, last Wednesday, February 10th. The list of grievances is familiar: Beijing's economic practices, which Washington considers unfair and contrary to WTO rules; human rights, which he says are violated in Hong Kong and Xinjiang; tensions in the South China Sea. And relations with Taiwan, a problem of territorial integrity for Beijing, which warned against any attempt to ignore the essential principle of its international policy: the existence of “one China”. Although the Trump administration has not ignored it, it has increased the level of official contact with Taiwan, in a dangerous path of slowly testing how far the fragile rope of relations with Beijing will hold.

Combining containment and collaboration seems to be the option facing the Biden administration in its relations with China, suggested Linda Thomas-Greenfield, appointed by Biden to assume the US representation at the UN. The designated ambassador used a tone considered "combative" during the confirmation session of her nomination in the US Congress last month. She described China as a "strategic adversary" whose disregard for human rights and democracy "threatens our way of life".

balance of power

“The global rise of China and the relative decline of the United States are generating fundamental changes in the international balance of power”, estimated three experts in international politics: Li Xing, director of the Center for Research on Development and International Relations at the University of Aalborg (Denmark ); Javier Vadell, coordinator of the doctorate in International Relations at the Catholic University of Minas Gerais (Brazil) and Gonzalo Fiore Viani, Argentine lawyer and political analyst. In an article published last week on the portal Public Agenda, two questions are asked. The first is whether the change of president in the United States will in any way alter the international balance of power, whether it will restore the pre-Trump order. The other is who will pay the costs of maintaining such an alliance if the United States is to regain its leadership role in the world.

The redefinition of these relations will be a central aspect of the policies of the new US administration, as was clear in the first conversation between Biden and Xi, or in the confirmation session of the new US ambassador to the UN. Some aspects of this shift in the balance of power on the international stage were highlighted by the three cited authors, including the recently approved Sino-European investment agreement; China's role as the main trading partner of the European Union (EU); the formation, in the Asia-Pacific region, of the Partnership Regional Economy Comprehensive (RCEP, which includes American allies such as Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea), in contrast to the failure of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), promoted by the United States; or China's role as “the world's largest financier, surpassing the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, and the most important player in infrastructure investments for developing countries”. The closure of negotiations, on December 30 last year, on the association agreement between the EU and China (which began in 2013) was announced in a videoconference, with the participation of President Xi Jinping, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

According to EU data, European investments in China exceed 140 billion euros, while Chinese investments in the EU reach 120 billion. The RCEP is a free trade agreement between member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN, comprising Myanmar, Cambodia, Philippines, Laos, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, Brunei and Malaysia), and five states in Asia and Oceania with which the Association has free trade agreements: Australia, China, South Korea, Japan and New Zealand.

A treaty that Chinese Premier Li Keqiang described as “a victory for multilateralism and free trade”, of “great importance for China for what it represents for the extension and consolidation of its influence in countries in its geographic orbit nearest". There are other approaches that highlight the weaknesses of the Chinese position, such as, for example, the article by Richard Aboulafia, adviser to several aerospace companies, published in Foreign Affairs, in which he points out the possible catastrophic effects for the Chinese aeronautical industry of a last-minute resolution by the Trump administration, banning the export of technologies that may have military use. A decision that threatens – in Aboulafia's opinion – to leave Chinese planes on the ground. Currently – he said – “the Chinese aeronautical industry only works if foreign companies sell it the necessary equipment for their planes to take off”. This highlights the complexity of these relationships and highlights particularly important details that do not always receive public attention.

Don't make us choose!

With almost all countries in East and Southeast Asia committed to the United States on security issues, but with China as its main trading partner, each step in these relations ends up moving the whole scenario. Australia's recent economic loss as a result of its political and trade clash with China is a lesson in what can happen if it decides to align itself with one of the two powers. “Nowhere in the world are the economic, strategic, and military rivalries between the United States and China at greater risk than in the eleven nations of Southeast Asia. A rivalry that will intensify in 2021,” observed columnist Dominic Ziegler, in an article for the The Economist,.

The confrontation with China, the path chosen by the Australian government in the case of Covid-19, "was a crazy decision and an avoidable mistake, the result of which represents an unnecessary risk to Australia's economic interests", according to Dr. Iain Henry, professor at the Center for Strategic and Defense Studies at Australian National University. With the confrontation in full swing, there is a growing number of analyzes in Australia that return to old lessons, forcing the country to balance itself between two powers. Since the Korean War, when the United States invaded the North and China deployed its troops to contain them. Then, given the seriousness of the situation on the ground, the Truman administration even discussed the possibility of stopping the Chinese offensive with the atomic bomb, already used in the war against Japan.

The Australian government of Robert Menzies remained “on the fence”, discouraging an escalation of the conflict, but without criticizing a superpower whose protection it sought, recalled Frank Yuan, a doctoral candidate at the University of Sydney, in an article published by Lowy Institute. But, added Yuan, in addition to remembering the battles we fight, we must also remember the ones we avoid. China is the source of more than a third of the dollars that Australia earns for its exports. A trade war with China could cost you 6% of your Gross Domestic Product. Will the United States be able to compensate for these losses? Thus, it is not surprising to see the predominant position in the region, from Singapore to South Korea, demanding that the powers not force them to choose, as South Korean President Moon Jae-in stated in his first press conference of 2021.

How were things before

“America is back!” So began President Joe Biden's message to NATO allies in his speech at the Munich Virtual Security Conference on Saturday, February 20. "We are in the midst of a fundamental debate about the future and direction of our world." In the president's opinion, we are at a turning point between two worlds: those who argue “that autocracy is the best way forward” and those who understand that “democracy is essential to face these challenges”. "We must avoid economic abuses and coercion by the Chinese government that undermine the foundations of the international economic system." “We must prepare together for long-term strategic competition with China,” Biden said, calling on his allies in Europe and Asia to “uphold our common values ​​and boost our prosperity in the Pacific.” This will be, he said, "one of the most important efforts we will undertake."

The United States must renew its advantages to meet today's challenges from a position of strength, modernize its military capabilities and revitalize its network of alliances and partnerships around the world, Biden said. It is not, however, about “pitting East against West”. We cannot and must not revert to the rigid opposition blocs of the Cold War, he said. But Russia is still seen by Washington as a threat. The Kremlin attacks our democracies, uses corruption "to undermine our system of government", said the US president, for whom "the defense of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity remains a vital concern".

move your ass

Goals have been set, but capabilities to achieve them seem to have deteriorated. To effectively contain China, the United States must first resolve its internal problems, rebuild its domestic economy and heal the deep social divisions that have recently emerged in the country, argued an article published in the Boston Globe on the eve of Biden's speech in Munich.

The crisis caused by low temperatures in Texas had taken on a catastrophic dimension. The images of people lining up in freezing temperatures to buy a gas cylinder, with homes without electricity for days, were heartbreaking. The crisis continues, with nearly two million people still without power, frozen pipes bursting in homes, roofs collapsing and streets flooding, while seven million Texans were told to boil their water before drinking it, says Heather Cox Richardson, a teacher. of history in Boston College, in his column of February 17th.

In the article, she reports how neoconservative theories were imposed in the United States, how during the Reagan administration (1981-89) regulations on public services were abolished; how, little by little, the theory spread that the federal government was a threat to liberty. Heather Cox reproduces what, in the midst of the crisis, the mayor of the city of Colorado, Tim Boyd, posted on Facebook, addressing his citizens: “The city and county, along with energy providers or any other utility , you owe them NOTHING! I'm fed up, tired of people who live waiting for a damn handout”.

In his opinion, the crisis was the sad result of socialist governments that fed the idea that some should work while others wait for handouts. “Move your asses and look after your own family,” he posted. "Only the strong will survive". With people freezing, with electricity services collapsing, protests erupted. Boyd resigned. In addition to putting his house in order, Biden faces another problem: dealing with the costs that a confrontation with China could have for his allies. The case of Australia, which took on charges that China was responsible for the spread of Covid-19, has made clear the risks – and costs – of such a confrontation, which Washington is hardly in a position to offset.

On NATO's radar

It's not just Southeast Asia that is being affected by tensions between the United States and China. China is gradually entering NATO's radar. “We recognize that China's growing influence and international policies present both opportunities and challenges that we must face together in the Alliance,” said the NATO statement released in London in December 2019, which places China at NATO's strategic focus.

For the Political Committee of NATO, in a document dated 20 November last year, the emergence of China since the end of the last century represents a change in the international scenario “comparable to the collapse of the Soviet Union”. And it regrets that many NATO members continue to view China more through the lens of economic opportunity than a security challenge.

China no longer plays just a central role in Indo-Pacific security affairs, but is emerging as an actor on Europe's periphery, indicates a document published last December by the The International Institute for Strategic Studies and by Mercator Institute for China Studies. "Beijing's ambitions to transform itself into a global power and reform the global order challenge European and American interests and security," they say. For its secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, in this confrontation, the freedom, the common heritage and the civilization of its peoples are at stake, based on the principles of democracy, individual freedom and the rule of law, principles that can be threatened if the NATO continues not to face them.

Latin America

Looking to the East, Latin America does not appear in the debate. But the region is not entirely out of sight. For Benjamin N. Gedan, former director of the National Security Council for Latin America, if the United States faces difficulties in its relations with China, or in the Asian and European scenarios, its situation is much better in Latin America, where its popularity is on the rise. The ability of the United States to recover its image in Latin America is almost miraculous, in Gedan's opinion. Today “66% of Mexicans and 60% of Brazilians have a favorable opinion of President Biden”.

The region's chronic failure to coordinate its interests, or its ideological divisions, renews Latin America's gaze to US leadership and cooperation. He cites as an example the invasion of Iraq, which was very unpopular in Latin America. But, in his opinion, it was enough for Obama to assume power for “support for the United States to recover practically overnight” in the region.

In his view, the Trump administration's decision to relinquish its global leadership only demonstrated the importance of the United States, not its irrelevance. "Latin America's penchant for forgetting reflects its dependence on Washington." For Latin America, “the United States is simply too big to ignore”. Today, he says, the region is turning its gaze once again to Washington for support for civil society groups fighting corruption, human rights and democracy. New scenarios of disasters caused by the political instrumentalization of the fight against corruption and the abuse of the devalued Macau currency with which human rights are negotiated.

*Gilberto Lopes is a journalist, PhD in Society and Cultural Studies from the Universidad de Costa Rica (UCR).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.



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