28.06.2020 Author: Vladimir Terehov

US-China Relations: The Picture Remains Extremely Paradoxical


In general terms, relations between the world’s two leading powers, despite the strain in recent months (which, in the author’s view, is almost exclusively down to the intensifying political climate within the United States), now and then are illuminated by glimmers of positivity. This gives us cause to hope that the situation between both of the main geopolitical players is still under control.

Earlier, a telephone conversation was referenced, occurring on 8 May between the Vice-Premier of the Chinese government, Liu He, and officials from the American President’s administration (Steven Mnuchin and Robert Lighthizer), regarding the state of affairs of the “Phase One Deal”, concluded on 15 January this year. Both sides expressed their intention to “successfully fulfil” the stipulated provisions in this document.

It is worth remembering the central issue in US-China relations, which is not always prominent behind the ever-popular references to the “Thucydides Trap” (according to which, the appearance of a rival leader is perceived by the current “hegemon” as a threat). This, in turn, leads to military engagement to solve the problem. As an aside, to this end, Carl von Clausewitz’s famous theory, to use modern slang, is a “remake” of something written around 2000 years earlier.

However, all seems far more prosaic today than even 100 years ago, let alone 2500 years. Recently, China has been “earning” US$ 350 billion a year from trade with the United States. Ending this “injustice” (which, conversely, is also present in the United States’ relations with its closest allies) is very high up in the current American President’s list of priorities. This is exactly what was kept in mind during the preparation and signing of the “Phase One Deal”, which was the object of verbal attacks (from both sides) during the most recent deterioration of the bilateral relationship. Therefore, the aforementioned telephone conversation is a clear sign that the situation is not completely devoid of hope.

The idea that China is fulfilling (or possibly overfulfilling) its obligations to “correct the issues” is backed up not only by the words of its officials, but also by tangible actions. Data available from the first five months of 2020 show that the volume of soybean imports into China has grown by 6.8% compared to the same period in the previous year. This is seen by Chinese experts as evidence of Beijing’s compliance with the “Phase One Deal”, which provides for the purchasing of agricultural produce in the United States to the tune of US$ 80 billion during 2020-2021.

China and the United States both consider the 17-18 June Hawaii talks between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Yang Jiechi (former Chinese Foreign Minister, now in charge of foreign policy in the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China) to be a major step towards further resolution of bilateral trade disputes (the Bloomberg Agency is a particular proponent of this view).

However, the factor of the United States continuing to make serious political complaints to China has not disappeared, which, as subsequent comments make clear, was also a subject of the discussions in Hawaii. In particular, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the Department of State, David Stilwell, clarifying remarks after the meeting (but without delving into any details), pointed to the situation in Hong Kong, the South China Sea and the Indian Chinese border. In so doing, the United States expressed its wish to see some “changes in Chinese policy” in those regions “within the next two weeks”.

At the same time, President Donald Trump vaguely debated the possibility of a “complete separation” from China. This was followed by a restrained remark from an official representative of the Chinese foreign ministry “regarding the close intertwining of all countries’ interests in the era of globalisation”. As an aside, speaking at the Senate finance committee, the President’s own trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, spoke in similar terms.

It is no accident that the American side referenced the situation at a section of the Indian Chinese border during the Hawaii talks, which NEO has also been paying increasing attention to in recent times. Judging by the continuing information leaks, the scale of the incident occurring on the night of 16 June in the mountainous region of Ladakh was without precedent in recent decades.

It is not surprising that an almost instantaneous deterioration in relations between the two Asian giants, which both have nuclear weapons, has become a general source of concern.

There have been some notable shifts in the nature of the United States’ concern. On 27 May, that is during the period of “smouldering” tension in Ladakh, President Donald Trump offered his services of mediation to Beijing and New Delhi, which both sides politely declined. Immediately after the incident on 16 June, the White House announced that the United States would not engage in any mediation in this issue. Judging by the clarifications made by David Stilwell about the conclusions of the Hawaii talks, the United States has a view to further strengthen its various ties with India.

On one matter though, there can be no doubt: incidents like that which occurred on 16 June in Ladakh severely hamper the ability of the Indian leadership to keep the country in a (relatively) neutral position in the current “Great World Game”. In the field of Indian political expertise, the author has already observed a strengthening in the position of supporters of “counter” movements towards the United States, and, in particular, towards the implementation of the long-standing American project to create a regional military political “Foursome” (between the United States, Japan, India and Australia), which has an obvious anti-Chinese focus.

Beijing turned their attention, with understandable emotions, to the events of 18-19 June this year, the latest in a series of the “Alliance of Democracies” Copenhagen summits, which take place every year under the auspices of the European Union.

This time (through videoconferencing), “patent friends” of China also took part in the event, such as Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a number of other high-ranking officials (representatives of NATO, for example), and also one of the young leaders of the particularly forceful Hong-Kong “Protestants”, Joshua Wong.

Not only was Joshua Wong among the famous world politicians invited to the conference, but he was also the first to speak, under the banner of “The fight for democracy from the battlefields of Hong Kong.” However, after the appearance of an autistic girl at the UN and Davos, the transformation of a drug addict and criminal with the “correct” skin colour into a modern “Pavel” and the 25 year prison sentence handed down to an old senile man, purely for his occasional “molestation” of artists (who were clearly seeking “contact” with him), the time for being surprised by happenings on the world political stage is truly over.

As for the aforementioned smart guy from Hong Kong, he seems to use any convenient situation to shine the spotlight on himself. This was the case, for example, during the most recent visit (in September, 2019) of the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, to China. During the visit, he tried (unsuccessfully) to spoil the general background of an extremely important event for the two countries.

However, of course, he was not the main focus  in the reporting of the latest “Alliance for Democracies” summit in the Chinese newspaper, Global Times, although, he was mentioned in reference to “the anti-Chinese group gathered in Copenhagen”. A similar epithet (as an aside, the author wasn’t originally aware of this) was dedicated first and foremost to Tsai Ing-wen, and also Mike Pompeo.

In addressing the Copenhagen summit, (which took place, as we can see, just two days after the Hawaii talks), Mike Pompeo did not, as they say, let down the Chinese author of the aforementioned epithet. The whole catalogue of foreign-policy clichés used in American rhetoric in recent years towards China were laid out.

This article is ending where it started: namely in saying that the current state of relations between the world’s two leading powers is extremely paradoxical. But it is not devoid of hope. Which, in these extremely difficult times, is not insignificant.

Vladimir Terehov, expert on issues in the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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