Why there is little room for optimism in US-China relations

November 04, 2022 09:08
Photo: Reuters

In past conversations with friends, I’d often joked that I was the ultimate dove when it comes to China’s international standing – and its foreign policy; I’d be the first to call out what I take to be inefficacious, even counterproductive, gestures and rhetoric that are fundamentally at odds with the interests of a large segment of the country’s, or, indeed, the world’s population. I’d consistently made the case for more, not less, amicable engagement with ‘Western’ counterparts – and the embracing of values or tropes that may well be alien or inimical to the values espoused by many who hold more ardently nationalistic views.

My pitch was rather simple: both America and China have a role to play in this increasingly complex world; communication and dialogue are insufficient and we need concrete cooperation; there is an imminent and well-evidenced case that constructive diplomacy had been possible (see the mid-2000s to early 2010s) between Beijing and Washington. The future of bilateral relations was salvageable, I maintained, because fundamentally I held faith that the universalist sentiments and common concerns shared by the peoples across both sides of the Pacific would sufficiently endure such that the voices of opportunists and careerist hacks (in the US), or staunch, trenchant ideology (elsewhere) would not prevail.

Times have changed. I have not, for principled reasons, given up on my conviction that bilateral collaboration and peaceful co-existence remain noble aims and goals to aspire towards; nor, indeed, have I suspended my faith that ultimately humanity shall come around to realising that pointing fingers and tossing daggers at one another are effectively the worst possible means in resolving disagreements, especially when it’s disagreements on such a systemic and large scale.

But suffice to say, I see very little room and grounds for genuine optimism in Beijing-Washington relations in the status quo. Both sides, especially Washington, have increasingly framed the relationship through the Manichean lenses of ideological struggle. Notwithstanding claims that America is willing to ‘cooperate’ with China, Washington has effectively mounted campaign after campaign to stifle China’s growth and ascent in domains ranging from chips technology to geoeconomics. There is a clear sense that China is being dragged by forces keen to ‘band’ Beijing and Moscow together, an effort certainly abetted by the wider international perception that China has been behaving in a most strategically convenient and self-serving manner when it comes to the ongoing war in Ukraine. China’s official stance is that it has no stance. That’s sadly not what comes across to many amongst economically advanced economies in the world.

Then there’s the age-old question of individual citizens and civil society exchanges. The pandemic policies pursued by China have rendered international travel in and out of the country precipitously difficult, indirectly feeding into exaggerated judgments feeding off partial and limited evidence – certainly giving rise to unfair evaluations, that are nevertheless understandable given the barriers in counteracting such allegations. On the other hand, programmes such as the China Initiative and the general witch-hunt against ethnic Chinese individuals who are ‘not sufficiently hawkish on China’ in America, are effectively deterring moderate voices from stepping up and speaking out. The days of the McCarthyist era are making a sharp and glaring comeback – yet no one dares push back against such paranoia and stoked-up fears, for doing so would itself be challenged on grounds of ostensible ulterior motives. Is it not ironic that a motley crew of apologists for anti-democratic speech-acts in America (e.g. folks sympathetic to the Capitol Hill riots) are now championing ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ whilst effectively casting doubts on the loyalty of American Chinese who have spent generations making a home out of the country? Truly pathetic.

Beijing and Washington are leading countries to which many states around the world look to for cues when it comes to geopolitical strategy, economic policies and interests, and even broader approaches to problems of a global scale and existential nature. Leaders of both nations can and should pursue a policy of co-existence and collaboration, with effective guardrails installed to manage grievances and differences. The hope is that with relative political stability in Beijing (as compared to the mid-terms-embroiled Washington), China could step up to more proactively undertaking steps to prevent the undue escalation of the tensions between the two parties. Yet a residual question remains – and this is one that has oft been put to me by my interlocutor: why should it be China that ‘concedes’, as opposed to America? What’s the use of respectability politics on a nation-state level, when the likely response is but a cold shoulder? Good questions, and I have no answers.

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HKEJ contributor