US v China: the final verdict

By Eryk Bagshaw and Matthew Knott

The two great rivals Credit:Matthew Absalom-Wong

I t seems highly unlikely that when Richard Nixon famously announced his visit to China 50 years ago he had much of an inkling of where relations between the US and the world’s most populous nation would lie today.

His diplomatic olive branch was firmly aimed at levering China away from the sphere of influence of its enormous northern neighbour and fellow traveller, the Soviet Union.

US President Donald Trump with Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2019. Credit:AP

America is an increasingly fractious and fragmented country that regularly swings between Democratic and Republican administrations. As a one-party state, China can plan further into the future with initiatives such as Belt and Road without worries that a future administration will tear it up.

Then came Donald Trump. He did not initiate America’s decline but he accelerated it with his aversion to multilateral institutions and disdain for many traditional US allies. Then came his chaotic response to the coronavirus and attempts to overturn the result of last year’s election. All this harmed America’s standing on the world stage.

How has China, in contrast, emerged from the pandemic? Has its superpower status been strengthened or weakened over the past year?

For a country that covered up the initial Wuhan outbreak of COVID-19, China has done remarkably well emerging from a virus that has since killed almost 4 million people. The economy grew by around 2 per cent last year, the only major economy to do so, after its aggressive lockdowns were followed by government stimulus and a rebound in consumer demand.

Medical workers treat patients in the isolated intensive care unit at a hospital in Wuhan in February 2020. Credit:AP

Has the US recovered from its disastrous 2020 this year?

Recovered is a strong word, but it does feel like a remarkably different country. The vaccine rollout has been a big success and COVID-19 cases and deaths are currently at their lowest levels since the pandemic began. Life feels almost entirely back to normal here for most people, except occasionally having to wear a mask.

America is now in a position to donate hundreds of millions of vaccines to other countries. The Biden administration is far more conventional and predictable than Trump’s White House: the new administration gets things wrong but it is not straining America’s institutions (the courts, the press, the electoral system) in the way that Trump did. The big question is whether the chaos we saw after last year’s election – Trump refusing to accept defeat, and a riot at the Capitol – was an unfortunate blip or a preview of worse things to come. The lack of national unity undermines America’s ability to get things done and assert itself in the world.

What’s the relationship like between Biden and Xi? Why do you think there’s been no summit between these two leaders?

Timing mostly. Summits between heads of states take months of planning so that when they actually meet only the top-level details need to be signed off. The order in which new presidents meet their counterparts also signifies the importance of the relationship. Significantly, Biden’s first two visits to the White House were from Japan’s Yoshihide Suga and South Korea’s Moon Jae-in. Both are key Indopacific US allies and the latter only landed in Washington on May 21. Biden has been in office since January and the domestic response to the coronavirus pandemic was always going to be his top priority.

So what did we learn from the diplomatic meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, in March, where officials from China and the US ended up trading barbs on camera?

In the US there was a lot of debate following the meeting about which side “won” the very dramatic war of words between the officials. I think the most important takeaway, though, was that the shift from Biden to Trump will not lead to a substantial thaw in the US-China relationship any time soon. If anything, the problems may grow deeper, even if the rhetoric from the new administration is less confrontational than before. While Trump was surrounded by China hawks like Mike Pompeo and Peter Navarro, he was personally almost entirely focused on trade policy (specifically the idea that China was ripping the US off and stealing American jobs). Biden is more interested in human rights issues and promoting the idea of a global alliance between democracies.

Chinese Communist Party foreign affairs chief Yang Jiechi and the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken square off during the opening remarks of the Alaska bilateral talks, March 18, 2021.Credit:Fair dealing

That’s right, there’s a much more palatable shift in the framing from the Biden administration away from self-interest to global co-ordination. There was also an element of China playing to a domestic audience in Alaska. The whole thing was so over the top from China’s foreign affairs chief Yang Jiechi (who is usually more erudite than other wolf warriors) that it had the distinct look of China standing up to the US on its own turf.

Beijing’s targeting of human rights abuses in other countries is a telltale sign of when it is feeling vulnerable and is appealing to nationalists back home. The Black Lives Matter movement is a critical issue in the United States, but it is not on the same scale as the allegations of genocide taking place against the Uighurs in Xinjiang.

Will China try to take over Taiwan by force? Could the US stop them?

China is using intimidation as its main tactic, sending fighter jets over the Taiwan Strait, launching cyber attacks and escalating its military rhetoric. Ideally, China would hope that Taiwan would become part of the mainland through the threat of invasion without actually acting on it. This could involve missile strikes but no ground troops.

What do US analysts say about the risk of war between these nations?

It’s been interesting to see a difference of opinion between top American military leaders on this question. In March, Admiral Phil Davidson, the outgoing US Indo-Pacific Command commander, said he believed China could try to invade Taiwan within the next six years. General Mark Milley, the head of the Joint Chief of Staff, applied a different emphasis when he testified before Congress in June. Milley said that, while China wants to develop the military capacity to invade Taiwan, he does not believe Beijing intends to do so in the near term.

Another thing worth bearing in mind from a US perspective is that there is little appetite among the public to be involved in overseas military conflicts, including with China. Military interventionism is out of fashion in US politics right now, as most Americans focus on issues closer to home. Donald Trump spoke for many here when he said the US should not act as the “policeman of the world”.

Where is the competition between the US and China most heated?

Technology. It is where both are relatively evenly matched and have comparative advantages. China has speed and scale and America has a legacy of innovation. But China is pouring vast amounts of resources into developing the next generation of Huaweis and TikToks.

Robotics are a high priority in Beijing’s ‘Made in China’ policy.Credit:AP

Critically, it has the advantage of being able to road test cutting-edge hardware and software among its 1.4 billion-strong population. The question is can it innovate without giving its creators the freedom to challenge authority?

I agree with Eryk that the competition for tech dominance is especially fierce. But I was surprised by how evenly matched the contest for global diplomatic clout is, especially trying to compare China’s influence with low-income, non-democratic countries to America’s close alliances with wealthier democratic nations.

Something the Lowy Institute’s Herve Lemahieu told me was that the US has to do a better job reaching out to “hedging” countries such as Vietnam that may not be democratic but don’t want to be vassal states for China either. That’s something Joe Biden should keep in mind given the huge emphasis he has placed on democracies working together to solve global challenges.

Is it possible for these two great rivals to truly co-operate on climate change reform?

Climate change could become the vector through which the two superpowers may look to try and normalise broader relations, but it’s also fraught with long, murky objectives. China is not known for its transparency so holding it to its international targets is going to be tricky, but it also has some vested interests.

The pollution from coal-fired power plants got so bad in its tier one cities, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen from the 2000s, that smog became a part of daily existence. Blue sky days have, over the past few years for the first time, become a part of the public’s expectations. A policy that the public can see, taste and feel is a powerful incentive for China to collaborate internationally on. It also gives China some of the international diplomatic credibility that it craves.

Visitors to Tiannanmen Square in Beijing wear face masks against smog, not COVID-19. With strong public demand to continue battling China’s choking air pollution, some green policies also are likely to be popular at home and reduce social pressure the government sees as a threat.Credit:Getty

I think it is possible as long as a US president who is committed to climate action is in the White House. Biden and his top advisers have stressed that while they see China as a strategic competitor and rival, they want to co-operate with Beijing on climate action.

So, who do you think is the dominant nation right now?

The US still has the upper hand. It has spent decades building up its global networks as the undisputed superpower since the end of the Cold War. But China is catching up quickly because of its ability to plunge resources into areas it feels it needs to be more competitive in. A state-controlled economy does not need to ask voters if they want to spend billions more on semiconductors, mining projects or warships.

There has been plenty of evidence of America’s seemingly inevitable decline over recent years. But the US still retains significant military, economic and diplomatic advantages that keep it in first place.

The US remains the dominant power for now.Credit:AP

Who will be winning it in 10 years’ time?

The US will remain globally stronger than China in a decade but China will become the dominant power in its region. China’s priorities remain primarily domestic – it still has decades before it reaches the living standards of the US. But by 2049, when it has declared it will unify with Taiwan, it will be ready to challenge the US as the world’s dominant superpower. It is not going to enter a war it thinks it can lose. It will plunge resources into those objectives.

The US situation is more volatile, making it harder to predict how the nation will look in 10 years. If political polarisation continues to deepen and the nation’s electoral system begins to buckle (for example if state legislatures try to overturn election results in the 2024 presidential election) then that bodes ill for America’s global dominance.

In this worst-case scenario, the US will become increasingly inward-looking and focused on its own divisions, leaving the playing field open for China to run world affairs. But America is a resilient and dynamic country that has overcome past crises. Given China’s rapid rise in recent years it has a good chance to overtake the US, but this is far from inevitable.

China’s rise is fast and they will be the dominant power in the region within the decade. Credit:Getty

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