China-US Relations: The Need to Look Beyond Simplistic Prisms

There is not an iota of doubt, that the Washington-Beijing relationship has witnessed a downward spiral in recent years – especially in the aftermath of the trade wars between both countries which began in 2018 – after then US President Donald Trump’s decision to impose tariffs. The covid19 pandemic and tough economic policies of the Biden Administration vis-à-vis China – especially in the realm of technology — and several other geopolitical changes in other parts of the world, have sent out a clear message that the Washington-Beijing relationship is unlikely to go back to what it was a decade ago. 

 Here it would be pertinent to point out, that policies of successive US presidents  — beginning with President Richard Nixon — who believed that greater economic linkages with China will result in the latter integrating into the global system has also  faced scathing criticism from several strategic commentators who argue that only China has benefitted from US policies vis-à-vis China over the past four decades.

Even in the midst of US-China strains, it is important to bear in mind a few points:

First, both the US and China realize that having differences is one thing, but they cannot afford conflict. That is why despite no tangible improvement in the bilateral relationship, both Beijing and Washington in recent months have been engaging pro-actively. US President, Joe Biden has repeatedly stated that it is important to ensure that competition doesn’t turn into conflict.

For China, it is important to have a working economic relationship with the US – especially as its economy slows down. US decoupling and even diversification of supply chains is likely to impact the Chinese economy.  While speaking at the Belt and Road Initiative Forum (BRI) in October 2023, Chinese President Xi Jinping had said: “We stand against unilateral sanctions, economic coercion, decoupling, and supply chain disruption.”

For the US, a working relationship with China is important since there is a realization that both countries need to work together to resolve global geopolitical and economic challenges.

Second, as the US has been to look inward over the past decade – though this process accelerated during the Trump presidency – Washington has lost its leverage in certain parts of the world. While the US may be sceptical of growing Chinese leverage, it is not averse to Beijing’s clout vis-à-vis Afghanistan – after the Taliban seized power in Kabul 2021. 

China while engaging with the Taliban has stopped short of giving ‘full diplomatic recognition’. Recently, Afghanistan’s Ambassador to China, Asadullah Bilal Karimi, presented his credentials to Chinese President, Xi Jinping but the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson when asked a question about whether China had granted diplomatic recognition to Afghanistan or not said that he did not want Afghanistan to be excluded from the “international community”. 

Said Wang Wenbin: “We hope that the international community will step up engagement and exchange with the Afghan interim government, encourage it to actively respond to international concerns, jointly help with Afghanistan’s reconstruction and development, and support Afghanistan’s effort to combat violent terrorist forces and contribute to regional peace, stability and prosperity,”

Taliban Chief Spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said that other countries should also grant diplomatic recognition to the Taliban Dispensation.

The US while commenting on the China-Afghanistan relationship and the presentation of credentials by Afghanistan’s envoy to China to Xi Jinping was cautious.

Beijing while advocating the unfreezing of Afghanistan assets, has also been prevailing upon the Taliban dispensation to carry out the necessary political and social reforms which the international community expects outfit. 

The US also seems to have accepted China’s growing influence in the Middle East – especially Iran. Ever since the exit of the US from the Iran nuclear deal/Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action/JCPOA, Tehran has moved closer to Beijing and Moscow. Iran’s expansion of its nuclear program, and Iran’s military support to Russia have only worsened Iran-US ties. 

Significantly, US welcomed the resumption of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia-Iran via an agreement signed in March 2023 (this deal was brokered by China). 

In the aftermath of the attack on the Red Sea, by Iran backed Houthis, Washington DC has asked Beijing to prevail upon Iran to prevent any further attacks by the Houthis  .China is supposed to have asked Tehran to prevail upon the Houthis – else economic ties between both countries will get impacted.

Third, countries in South-East Asia – including Singapore and Malaysia — and Gulf nations — like UAE and Saudi Arabia — have made it abundantly clear, that they would not like to choose between US and China, since they have close economic ties with both. 

In the current global economic and geopolitical environment while there are serious differences between China and US on several issues, both countries seem to have realized that they need to not just keep their channels of communication open, but even work closely to deal with serious economic and geopolitical issues. Apart from this, Washington does not view Beijing’s close ties with certain countries from a zero-sum prism. It remains to be seen if a change of guard in Washington will impact the current attempts towards promoting engagement between US and China.

[Photo by the White House, Public Domain]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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