From Eye-to-Eye to Toe-to-Toe with China

China, is increasingly occupying the centre-stage in today’s geopolitical scenario. Along with its sharp rise, scepticism and apprehension of most of the world towards it have also risen at an equal, if not larger, pace. The ambiguity and tension thus created warrants a deeper understanding of China’s rise and the antagonistic sentiment towards it. This article looks at recent events that mark China’s rise while analysing the approach and reasons behind the growing ‘anti-China’ sentiment amongst states. This paper peruses realist theories of international relations to understand whether China brought this acrimony upon itself and if it was inevitable. Simultaneously, it investigates whether a rising China could pose a threat to international stability. To do so, the paper first looks at key instances marking friendship and animosity between China and the world, especially the US. It is followed by a succinct commentary, analysing the reasons behind the transition from seeing eye-to-eye to being toe-to-toe with China. The need for exploring this topic lies in the increasingly central and manipulative role that China is assuming in the world. Moreover, the article will make sense of certain actions taken by states and provide an objective lens to look at them. 

China – US’ Fidus Achates?

The development of the Sino-US relations can be dated back to Nixon’s surprise visit to Beijing in 1972. Thereafter, the bilateral relations grew significantly under the Carter administration. Deng Xiaoping’s shrewd focus on economic reforms in China also fostered a rapid expansion of the Sino-US bilateral ties. This was despite the lingering political chill in lieu of Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989 or the controversial US-Taiwan relations. Since then, the US viewed China as its economic partner. The ‘9/11 attacks’ opened new roads for strategic cooperation between the two powers. China’s ‘four modernisations’ started off by Deng Xiaoping, rebuilt the Chinese economy which was ravaged post the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s. Thus, an environment for rapid growth and improved Chinese relations with the US, Europe, Japan, ASEAN and others was created. 

China’s economic reorganisation to a more transparent socialist market, coupled with its enormous growth, enabled it to enter the WTO in November 2001. By cutting tariffs, import quotas, developing free markets to enter the WTO, China took on a huge gamble. This was because the survival of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was dependent on China’s economic growth. Entry into the WTO and being given the most favoured nation status by the US, beefed up Chinese exports, capital flows, trade surplus, forex reserves but most importantly the US and other’s confidence in China. The US and China saw eye-to-eye on several issues. The US found several opportunities in China for its own development and was not insecure of the rapid Chinese growth at the moment.

In addition to that, charisma and policy mindset of individual Chinese and American leaders significantly influenced state behaviour. Deng Xiaoping’s principle of tao guang yang hui, meaning “keep a low profile” is a primary example of this. For long, China operated under his principle of ‘hide our capacities and bide our time’. It directed the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to show humility, secure their position, cope with issues calmly and never outrightly claim leadership. During the Chinese modernisation phase, the CCP knew exactly that it was in their best interest to do so and build their country silently. Projection of a calm policy-front by Deng Xiaoping and his protégé Jiang Zemin paved way for growing friendship between China and the world, helping China gain the mammoth strength it possesses today. On the other hand, the Obama administration also welcomed the rise of China, showing a positive attitude towards China at least in the earlier part of its eight-year term. Sino-US mutual cooperation, growth and stable diplomatic ties not only benefitted the world, but also reified their role as each other’s faithful companion.

China – US’ Bête Noire?

The US-China friendship took a drastic turn post the 2008 crisis. The severe impact of the recession weakened the US making it heavily indebted to China. With its huge market and forex reserves, China jumped at the opportunity of replacing the weakened US in Southeast Asia. China extensively invested in many states, providing economic aid and rescue packages which were better than that of the IMF. Many scholars perceived China’s move as a threat to regional security, calling it the China Threat theory. Nevertheless, China discredited it citing its policy of zhongguo heping jueqi meaning ‘China’s peaceful rise’. Under the façade of this ‘peaceful rise’, the Chinese economy grew, overtaking Japan, to be the second largest in the world by 2010. In 2009, it submitted its 9-dash-line map to the UN, controversially claiming sovereignty over about 90% of the South China Sea. Later, it was involved in a lot of maritime confrontations with the US, Japan, Philippines and Vietnam in the region. It started flexing its muscle in front of its neighbours. By using its ‘salami slicing’ technique, China illegitimately keeps pushing far into its neighbouring territory, claiming sovereignty over it piece by piece. Chinese aggressiveness becomes clearer with Xi Jinping’s call for fenfa youwei or ‘striving for excellence’. The launch of the Belt and Road Initiative in 2012 is yet another Chinese attempt at consolidating its claim at global hegemony and realising the ‘China Dream’. These developments seem to have torn asunder the positivity in Sino-US relations that had been brewing for over forty years.

A series of distasteful events recently have made the world more apprehensive of the rising China. The COVID-19 pandemic is what Trump had vehemently blamed China for, calling it the ‘China Virus’. Furthermore, endorsement of the Chinese vaccine (by a Chinese SOE Sinopharm) by UAE has opened another front for competition between the US and China. The India-China standoff in the Galwan valley is another event that has put China in bad light. Recently, Indian Minister of External Affairs S Jaishankar also snubbed China for not honouring the signed agreements aimed at maintaining peace and tranquillity at the border. Lastly, by harassing Australia by issuing the ‘fourteen points of contentions’, China is clearly trying to employ its principle of shā jī xià hóu, meaning ‘kill the chicken to scare the monkey’. The objective is to reinforce Chinese superiority and send a message to states to fall in line with the Chinese, else bear ill consequences. It is a clear show the Chinese ‘wolf warrior diplomacy’, where it takes the verbal offensive to flexes its muscle and project itself as the supreme power. Interestingly, all of the above states are close American allies. More specifically, the members of ‘the Quad’. This clearly illustrates the Chinese attempt at challenging the US for global hegemony. It is clear as day how Sino-US relations have gone morbid, making China US’ bête noir.

Tracing the Path from Friend to Foe 

There are two key factors responsible for the vicissitudes in Chinese foreign relation with the US and rest of the world, namely material interests and ideology. Lord Palmerston said that nations don’t have permanent friends, they only have permanent interests. This can be easily applied to understand the course of above events. China had huge material interests in having amicable relations with the US and so did the US. While the US got access to the huge Chinese and Asian markets, China benefitted from the exposure to big investment opportunities and positive trade balances which boosted its economic growth rate. As a result, the US and Chinese economies have become greatly intertwined. Obama had earlier portrayed his confidence in coaxing China to become more democratic through economic reforms. However, this began to change with the Chinese becoming increasingly aggressive. He started looking at securing US’ own interests, soon launching the ‘pivot to Asia’ policy to maintain the US military and economic military in Asia-Pacific. Despite Xi’s comment sharing the vast Pacific with the US, there were constant maritime confrontations between the PLA and US Navy. Diplomatic tussle was also on between the two powers to champion Asia and the world.

The US-China policy metamorphosis as seen in the 21st century was catalysed by their contesting ideologies. China emphasised its communal identity against west’s individualism. Moreover, Xi’s realisation of the ‘China Dream’ and the determination to achieve it can also explain the sudden aggressiveness in the Chinese policy. The Chinese ideology considers the CCP to be supreme and all actions are taken in its interest. On the other hand, the western liberal democracies preach a free world, with the western (often utopian) ideas of human rights. The Chinese party state operates by differential norms, believe in having a Confucianist world order and rebuff the western liberal order. Hence, material interests and ideological differences together provide a nuanced understanding of the US-China policy responses and riposte.

Thus, it appears that China by challenging the status quo, has itself generated feelings of resentment against its rise. However, to say that its rise would destabilise world peace and security would be unfair. China’s rise cannot be viewed monochromatically. Unipolarity is the least durable international configuration as described by Kenneth Waltz. This justifies China’s rise as an opposition to the US, necessary to ensure global peace. This makes China’s rise important rather than threatening. Moreover, the extent to which the US and Chinese economies are interdependent drastically reduces the chances of any kinetic engagement or a ‘Cold War’ type situation of complete cut-off from each other. Nevertheless, this leaves room for a new kind of contestation – often known as a ‘Cool War’. Yet, the friction between the two powers is quite explicit. It is also clear that the transition in their relations from being friends to foe was almost inevitable. The world’s apprehension towards China’s rise is justified in its own place. However, vilifying and completely disregarding its significance is rather illogical.

Conclusion

The US-China relationship status carries the label ‘it’s complicated’ beyond doubt. China’s rise makes up for a check and balance system, against the current hegemon, which the world lacked. A strong opposition is as necessary as a strong leader for the welfare of any system. World history shows that relations between large states has played a decisive role in maintaining global peace. The manner in which the US and China handle their relations will play a huge role in shaping the future of the world. Recent events and China’s aggressive turn have most definitely put US and China toe-to-toe on most issues. Nevertheless, China’s rise can’t be termed completely unnecessary or wrong. The rising China wishes to dominate the global system and make states accept it gratefully. Whether that is achievable, is a different question altogether. In conclusion, while the contestation to China’s rise and aggressiveness is legitimate, the future will show what its power struggle manifests into.

Deepanshu Singal is an undergraduate student at Ashoka University with a keen interest in Economics and International Relations.

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