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19 May 2024

Where is the mutual distrust between the United States and China taking us? 

Shahidul Alam Swapan

Published: 08:29, 21 April 2024

Where is the mutual distrust between the United States and China taking us? 

Photo : Messenger

Biden and Xi Jinping, it is unclear whether momentum has been created for a substantial easing of bilateral tensions in the year ahead. Although the summit resulted in agreement on a number of tactical bilateral issues, the fundamental sources of friction and mistrust between the two sides were not substantially addressed. As a result, the relationship is not well protected against unforeseen events such as the Chinese spy balloon episode of February 2023, which derailed the supposed positive momentum of the previous summit between Mr Biden and Mr Xi (in Bali in November 2022). Given the multiple sources of volatility in relationships, a similar dynamic is likely in 2024.

The previous fault lines reappeared a few weeks after the Californian summit. In a telephone conversation in early December 2023 between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Blinken reaffirmed "the importance of building on the progress" made at the meeting. Wang stressed the need to "give concrete form to the consensus reached by the two heads of state". But the content of this consensus is not very clear.

Also in early December 2023, US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo told a conference that "China is not our friend" and that, on the contrary, she represents "the greatest threat we have ever had". This statement essentially reverted to the rhetoric of the Biden administration prior to the summit, which emphasised the competitive challenge posed by Beijing rather than the opportunities for cooperation it offers. Even last month, US Commerce Secretary emphasised that the US is constantly assessing the need to tighten export controls to prevent China from acquiring advanced computer chips and manufacturing equipment that could be used to strengthen its military capabilities. The United States is asking South Korea to adopt restrictions on exports of semiconductor technology to China similar to those Washington has already implemented, in another sign that the Biden administration is stepping up its efforts to thwart Beijing's chip ambitions. Moreover, US officials want South Korea to restrict the flow of equipment and technology destined for the manufacture of high-end logic chips and memories to China, according to people familiar with the matter.

The domestic politics of both countries are also likely to hamper any easing of bilateral tensions. Xi's domination of the decision-making process in a strongly nationalist China is unlikely to encourage Beijing to accept the terms of engagement favoured by Washington. In addition, Joe Biden, who is seeking re-election, is likely to be seen as "soft" on China and is therefore unlikely to advocate any substantial accommodation with Beijing's terms.

A new report by the US House of Representatives Select Committee on China, which outlines a "strategy to fundamentally reset US economic and technological competition" with China, highlights the domestic pressure that Mr. Biden will face to adopt a policy that will "fundamentally reset US economic and technological competition" with China. Beyond the domestic political drivers of US-China tensions, structural and historical forces have fuelled the strategic rivalry between the two countries and the conflictual pathology of their interactions. China's efforts to capitalise on its "rise" and the United States' attempts to resist or deny its relative decline have reinforced the presumptions of a zero-sum existential struggle between two competing ideological systems.

These conditions have undermined confidence in the possibility of peaceful coexistence. Both sides have inflated their perception of the other's threats while expanding their definition of "national security" to justify policies aimed at minimising economic and technological interdependence. Paradoxically, Beijing and Washington seem to calculate that they have the upper hand—perhaps because they overestimate their own influence and underestimate that of the other. This dynamic leads the two sides to adopt antagonistic and retributive policies towards each other, contradicting their declared desire for détente and undermining the success and sustainability of diplomatic efforts to advance it. Both sides also accuse the other of being insincere in seeking constructive engagement. This is probably in part an attempt to shift the blame onto the refusal to assume the domestic political risks of promoting compromise or accommodation. Given these underlying strategic trends, it is difficult to see how Beijing and Washington will "build on the progress" of the California summit and "realise the consensus" reached there - especially as the meeting produced only limited progress and no real consensus.

Instead, tensions between the US and China are likely to persist, if not intensify, until 2024, with both sides redoubling their efforts in their strategic competition and efforts to score points against each other globally while protecting themselves from each other's vulnerability. Beijing and Washington will probably continue to accuse each other of being responsible for the current situation, and both will have enough reason to justify their resistance to any major change in their own behaviour. Taiwan and the South China Sea are the two main candidates for a crisis between the United States and China in 2024. No substantial progress was made on the Taiwan issue at the California summit, beyond an exchange of predictable and mutually incriminating talking points. Whatever the outcome of Taiwan's presidential election on January 13, 2024, Beijing will try to hold Washington responsible for Taipei's resistance to the elements of the "One China" framework.
China has been Iran's biggest trading partner for the past decade and buys 90% of Iran's oil exports, providing a lifeline to Tehran against US sanctions. Chinese companies also provide Iran with security and surveillance equipment.

At the same time, China has increased its coercive pressure on the Philippines over competing claims in the South China Sea and Washington has asserted that its defence pact with Manila applies in the disputed area. The deterioration in US-China relations could be avoided if Washington and Beijing recognised the need for mutual accommodation, devoted as much energy and attention to the need for cooperation as to competition, and more accurately assessed each other's strategic intentions and relative influence. Suppressing China's electric vehicle industries will not help the United States to develop its own industries. Chinese overcapacity in the clean energy sector has been used as a pretext for protectionist policies to protect American companies.

Mutual mistrust continues to stand in the way of mutual understanding. As the world's two largest economies, both the US and China owe it to their own countries and to the world to manage their complex relationships responsibly, to cooperate and to show leadership in tackling the world's most pressing challenges.

The writer is a Geneva-based private banking compliance security expert, columnist and poet.