United States vs China: can we talk about a new Cold War?

FILE PHOTO: Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (L) inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing December 4, 2013. REUTERS/Lintao Zhang/Pool//File Photo

The first official meeting between representatives of the two governments in the Biden era, held in Alaska in the city of Anchorage on March 18 and 19, clearly demonstrated the limited room that exists for the improvement of relations between China and the United States. On the American side Antony Blinken, U.S. Secretary of State, and Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor were present. On the Chinese side were Yang Jiechi, a member of the CCP summit and China’s top foreign policy leader, and Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister. A meeting that, in principle, should have served to put the bilateral relations back on a new track, more diplomatic and institutional, and try to rebuild the bridges imploded by Trump, served more to reaffirm differences and distill mutual acrimony and recriminations. Even though it frustrated initial expectations, especially for the Chinese side, it cannot be said, however, that the meeting was a complete failure. On the contrary, in the end both sides were keen to stress its positive aspects, namely the agreement to cooperate on the issue of climate change.

The fact that the US government had imposed sanctions on the leaders of China and Hong Kong two days before the meeting already signaled that, at least on the American side, there was no interest in resuming the bilateral dialogue on a new basis. As Elizabeth Economy, a leading China expert in the United States, said: “We are not going back to the days of strategic and economic dialogue. Taking stock of the meeting in Alaska, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post said the two sides are at odds on issues like Hong Kong and Xinjiang, which Beijing insists are none of Washington’s business, but agreed to work together on issues like climate change and regional stability. In giving a more detailed analysis of the event, the newspaper lists the points on which there was agreement, cooperation to combat climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic, and regional issues on which interests are the same (Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, and Myanmar).

The points on which there was no agreement are Hong Kong and Xinjiang, which China considers domestic issues, and Taiwan, for which China demands that the United States stop selling arms and refrain from supporting separatist forces. Regarding the United States’ attacks on the Chinese Communist Party, the Chinese representative said that the party enjoys great support from the population and that the United States should stop interfering in China’s internal affairs since they had nothing to be proud of at a time when black Americans were being murdered. “I don’t think the overwhelming majority of countries in the world would recognize that the universal values espoused by the United States or that the opinion of the United States could represent international public opinion,” Yang Jiechi, China’s most senior diplomat, said in a lengthy statement at the opening of the session. Economic issues were left out of the discussion, as the United States does not intend to withdraw the tariffs imposed by Trump on Chinese exports and neither do the restrictions imposed by the Trump administration on Chinese high-tech companies. Of the six major technology companies in China, Huawei, ZTE, Xiaomi, Alibaba, Baidu and Tecent, the first three, which are active in the production of telecommunications equipment have suffered the biggest impacts.  

But there are no signs that the Chinese economy is being significantly affected. According to OECD forecasts, China is expected to grow 7.8% in 2021 and 4.9% in 2022.    By trying to cut economic ties with China, the United States risks being the biggest loser itself. China is the largest trading partner in goods for 64 countries, compared to only 38 for America. China is large, diverse, and innovative enough to adapt to pressures from abroad. It is testing a digital currency, which may eventually rival the dollar as a way to settle trade.  Moreover, the attraction that China holds is no longer just a matter of size, although, with 18% of the world’s GDP, it has too. The country is also where companies discover consumer trends and innovations. 

Perhaps the aspect that most differentiates the Biden administration’s approach to China from the previous administration is its attempt to build a broad international anti-China coalition. Unlike Trump, who simultaneously opened several fronts of conflict with most of the United States’ trading partners and allies, Biden wants to follow a different path. The movement of US officials, before and after the meeting with the Chinese in Alaska, evidences this new strategy. A few days before the meeting in Anchorage, Secretary of State Antony Blinken paid a visit to Japan, where he accused China of carrying out “coercion and aggression” against its neighbors and warned that the states would not allow it. He secured a joint statement at the end of the visit to Japan, stating that China’s international conduct is unacceptable.

This is, with rare exceptions, the widespread sentiment of the United States’ allies in the world, but whose economies are increasingly dependent on access to the Chinese market. China has overtaken the United States as Germany’s largest trading partner and has become the main market for many of its companies. Mercedes-Benz will sell three times as many cars to China as to the United States by 2020. A re-run of a new version of the Cold War, with now the United States and China as antagonistic poles does not seem feasible. Professor Thomas J. Christensen of Columbia University has published an article in the journal Foreign Affairs in which he points out the three essential conditions in the Cold War between the United States and the USSR that are not present in the current situation. First, the United States and China are not engaged in ideological warfare to win hearts and minds in the world. Second, thanks to globalization it is difficult to divide today’s world into separate economic blocs. Finally, the United States and China are not leading opposing systems of alliances, such as those that led, for example, to the Korean and Vietnam wars or to the nuclear crises in Berlin and Cuba.

Although China is the main concern of the United States, since it is the only country that can challenge them both in the economic, military, and technological fields, we cannot consider it a new “cold war”.

Vocabulaire : et

National Security Advisor : conseiller à la sécurité nationale Taking/ take stock : faire le bilan, faire le point Overwhelming : écrasant, large, important Statement : déclaration Withdraw : retirer Economic ties : liens économiques. Moreover : de plus, en outre Widespread : étendu, répandu, courant, généralisé Overtake : dépasser Field : champ, domaine

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