In a championship match, the stakes are always higher for the reigning champion trying to defend the title, compared to the contender, who has less to lose and more to gain with an upset win. Even when the match is a draw, there is more to lose for the champion in terms of status and position. In the U.S.-China great power tussle, it needs no explanation as to who is the defending champion and who is the contender for the top spot in the international system.
The United States has much to uphold to save the foundations of the post-war security and financial order that it engineered, the so-called liberal international order. From its old alliances and new partners in the Indo-Pacific to its long-running transatlantic alliances, from its hemispheric influence in the Americas to saving its assets in an uncertain Middle East and maintaining its diminishing returns in Africa, Washington has its hands full. Compared to trying to become the hegemon, being the hegemon and maintaining that status is a more difficult spot to be in.
China, on the other hand, has shown the ability and the intention to increasingly close its power gap with the United States, economically around the world, and militarily in its strategic backyard, the western Pacific. In the geopolitical hotspots of the South and East China Seas, Beijing seems to be putting into practice Sun Tzu’s stratagem of subduing the enemy without fighting. Without becoming involved a kinetic form of war, where U.S. military firepower would be currently hard to match, Beijing has attempted to militarize the geopolitical space in the western Pacific and make it costlier for the United States to stay the course.
The primary theater for power projection and tensions, essentially China’s regional perimeter, conjures up what offensive realists like John Mearsheimer have spoken of: the threat of a peer competitor, another regional hegemon, to U.S. primacy. China can play a longer game of gradually chipping off the United States’ patience, and undermining the durability of the U.S. alliance system in the region. While U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America First” sloganeering and his maverick behavior with allies and partners did send stress signals related to American commitments and reliability as a security guarantor in the region, the power game is more structural and precedes the Trump era.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic struck China, before spreading fast and furiously across the world, affecting the United States severely, and bringing U.S.-China relations to a new low, the two countries were fighting a vicious trade war that remains largely unresolved. At a time when the U.S. is still reeling from the pandemic and the challenges of reopening its economy, China is projecting itself as a country that has put the pandemic behind and is moving its economy ahead.
China has now become the subject of a reinvigorated and coordinated attack from the United States. The U.S. has accused China of covering up the origin and seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic and manipulating multilateral bodies like the World Health Organization to defend its botched handling of the outbreak. Washington has also criticized the way in which Beijing has utilized “mask diplomacy” across the world to, the critics allege, exploit the crisis and advance its interests. The United States is heading an effort to affix blame on China.
The history of the U.S.-People’s Republic of China relationship has been fraught with twist and turns. It started on a sour note, with Washington’s distaste for Communist China and the outbreak of the Korean War. Early in the Cold War, China under Mao Zedong’s leadership was far more antagonistic toward the United States than the Soviet Union. The great split in the Communist camp following the Sino-Soviet border conflict in the late 1960s paved the way for Sino-American rapprochement. From the Shanghai Communique signed in 1972, in which the U.S. and China together sought to counter hegemony in the Asia-Pacific, to the present day, wherein the U.S. sees China as a strategic threat, and a “near peer competitor” in the Indo-Pacific, the relationship has come full circle.
The end of the Cold War brought about a phase of economic accommodation between the two, and China’s integration into the global multilateral trading system. However, issues including the third Taiwan Strait Crisis, American criticism of human rights in China, the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, as well as the unilateral military interventions by the United States and its support for “color revolutions,” created discord between the two countries. As long as the U.S. was occupied by the concerns of terrorism in the years after the 9/11 attacks, China found it easy to cultivate its stakes across the world without raising too many alarms in the West. In the beginning of the 21st century, China began to emerge as a strategic threat in U.S. grand strategy. However, the War on Terror distracted U.S. resources and attention, allowing a more open field for Beijing to increase its material capabilities and influence.
The Global Financial Crisis in 2008 brought a point of departure in the international system that dented U.S. influence and gave more space for China. Developments including the new Sino-Russian strategic alliance, China’s approach to countries like Iran and Venezuela that have their own animosities with the U.S., and Beijing’s spearheading of multilateral organizations representing the Global South are all signs of a shifting balance of power in China’s favor. China also started to demand equal treatment from the United States, codified in Xi Jinping’s “new type of major power relations” during the final years of the Barack Obama administration. With the rise of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency, the stage was set for a more animated rivalry to play out between the two countries. China reacted with unparalleled assertiveness against Trump’s increasingly vocal attacks on China on economic, technological, and strategic fronts.
Washington has put forth what it calls a whole of government approach to counter the multiple domain challenge posed by a rising and increasingly aggressive China. The times to come will be trying for Washington — it is becoming less attractive for its allies and partners, who may one day need to choose between the U.S. and China. For Beijing, the very fact that U.S. allies and partners are increasingly finding it hard to side with Washington is already a win. The question is: how can Beijing and Washington compel each other to change their respective routes to global primacy? A few months is nothing in the timeline of the U.S.-China bilateral dynamics, but these past few months has been unlike any in recent history. A global pandemic has, in a matter of months, changed the discourse on global order and U.S.-China great power competition. These past few months in hindsight will be instrumental in how this great power tussle pans out.
Monish Tourangbam is a Senior Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education.
Anand V. is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education.