China and the US must avoid collision course

GP Acharya

GP Acharya

China and the US must avoid collision course

With the novelty in tech and AI, the threat perceptions have also changed. Every tech power considers “tech sovereignty” as one of the key elements of national power capability, while China’s mantra of tech sovereignty lies within its goal of ‘Algorithmic Governance’, ‘Tech Supremacy’ and ‘Global Leadership in AI’ that it has targeted to attain by 2025 and 2030 respectively. China is said to be in the process to initiate the concept of “sovereign” internet, where “China possibly controls key technology supporting critical infrastructure in countries around the world” (VoA News). China’s prospect of ‘Digital Silk Road’—that includes expansion of digital capabilities through big data, IoT, and underwater technology—can also be a part in attaining tech sovereignty. 

To achieve those goals, China has massively invested in AI, information and data security, economic and military edge, and producing engineers and AI experts. China produces more than 600,000 engineers annually (70 percent more than India) and has four times more AI experts and engineers than the US (RAND). Tech sector in China reportedly contributes to nearly 39 percent of GDP, while 80 percent of its GDP growth is determined by the application of technology. 

Reportedly, China consumes about 40 percent of the total chips produced globally and controls more than 50 percent of global lithium ion production capacity, while it dominates nearly 93 percent of EU’s magnesium consumption. China controls more than 55 percent of global rare-earth mining. The rare-earth elements are used in various crucial technologies including manufacturing components in touch screens of smartphones, missile-defense systems, electric cars (and batteries), and renewable energy equipment (The Wall Street Journal). For China, ‘outer space and cyberspace have become new commanding heights of strategic competition’ between states, reads China’s Military Strategy 2015. The US, on the other hand, is an extant tech super power that is dominating the global order.

Great power vs superpower

China has become stronger economically, militarily and diplomatically on the world stage in recent years. China, politically a Marxist country, has been significantly benefiting from economic liberalism for the last 45 years. Chinese GDP is approximately $18.32trn, which is nearly 18.5 percent of the Global GDP (SIPRI Fact Sheet-2021). The second largest economy in the world, China also has a larger GDP than that of the third, fourth, fifth and sixth largest economy combined. It has been a great power for about 60 years, which boasts nearly 2.5m soldiers, which is one of the strongest military forces in the world (Military Direct). China has military expenditures of around $293.35bn, which is nearly 14 percent of the world’s total military spending ($2113bn) per year (Statista-2021). The Chinese defense budget, second only to the US, is again larger than that of the third, fourth, fifth and sixth largest economy combined. Besides its military might, China has also been engaged in soft power diplomacy, international cooperation, economic integration, development and economy under various initiatives including the BRI.

China, however, is running into structural constraints such as “demographic crisis” in the long run, which is why it will be the decelerated-economy over the next two years, according to the projection of the IMF. China’s past “one child policy” has become a huge challenge to its foreign policy of the present. India, on the other hand, is leveraging the demographic constraints and expected to be the world’s fastest-growing economy over the next two years.

The US, a long time “realist” country, has been a great power for more than 100 years and extant superpower for about 75 years. It has nearly 2m soldiers and a military expenditure of $801bn in a year. The US defense budget, which is nearly 38 percent of the world’s total military spending ($2113bn) (Statista-2021), is larger than that of the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh largest economy combined. Its GDP of more than $25.46trn is nearly 21 percent of the Global GDP (the US had dominated more than 35 percent of the global economy in terms of production at the end of WW-II). (IDDS-Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies; World Arms Database; SIPRI Fact Sheet-2021). The American military possesses the world’s most advanced technology whereas its satellites used in military surveillance and mapping, and communications are said to be high enough to trace out even the tiny objects on the road. And, the tech sector in the US is contributing to nearly 12 percent of the US GDP.

Despondently, the US, under the political cover of liberal idealism, is struggling to garner alliance support to counter China that is largely grounded on its long standing realist beliefs of power balance and dominance, argue analysts. History will, however, justify whether the US could have become a responsible global leader.

From the above assessment, it can be estimated that the parallel growth competition between the US and China in all domains—economic, defense, technology and soft potentials—may have similar patterns for the years to come that would help emerge them as a bipolar force of Global politics, economy and technology. Yet, the one with sensible vision, cohesive mission, generous action, and trustful coalition would dominate the global order.

However, we cannot predict the future of global politics and make assertions about China’s grand presence on the world stage or America’s gloomy decline, as world politics is quite complicated. But we can map the possibilities or trace the consequences based on inferences, data and facts. For now, we can say that China is indeed influencing global politics by being deterministically sensitive, conscious and responsible. Yet, “honesty” and “pragmatism” matter.

The US, under the Trump administration, has dispensed with several multilateral associations and threatened to get out of several others, including pulling out of the Iran Nuclear Deal, Paris Climate Agreement and the nuclear missile accord with Russia, which resulted in heavy loss of the US credibility, reputation, reliability and trust from its allies. A few weeks ago, classified intelligence documents revealed that the US is reportedly engaged in spying not just its foes like Russia, North Korea and China, but also its important allies and friendly countries including South Korea, Israel, Ukraine, and the UAE. Numerous western media, including The New York Times, The Guardian and The Washington Post, stated that the disclosure of highly classified documents represents “a massive intelligence breach”, which complicated US relations with the concerned allied countries and raised mistrust on US reliability to maintain secretes, which could even jeopardize diplomatic ties with its allies. This could also make a significant impact on the Ukraine war, while it could be a “hole-in-the-wall” for its adversaries to change their strategies. Yet, the allegations are not verified officially by the concerned partners.

The US has a very disappointing precedent of snooping on its allies, including Germany, in the past. It was revealed that the US has been involved in prying on the then German Chancellors Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande in 2013 and 2015, respectively (TIME). The US is gradually losing trust from its associates and could be isolated in the global political sphere in the long run, while China is sensibly expanding its presence, trust and integrity on the world stage.

Had the US and its allies desperately wanted peace in Ukraine, perhaps, they would have accepted the peace deal proposed by China, and Washington would have begun peace talks along with Beijing. Arguably, the US neither wants “full scale war” nor “absolute peace” in Ukraine because it wants to leverage between the prospects of  “not war” (“no end of war”) and “not peace”. This is why the US has not been directly involved in the Russia-Ukraine war. Essentially, China is the first target for the US and Ukraine the second, while its another vital purpose is to weaken Russia by using Ukraine, argue analysts.

As like the conflict and instability in Ukraine is more a security threat to the EU than Ukraine itself (from the European perspective), so is the security concern in Nepal (from Chinese and Indian perspectives). How India maintains its relations with its immediate neighbors, including China and Nepal, will determine whether India is also willing for parallel global leadership along with the Asian giant, China. At this instance, “Nepal is in a geostrategic chessboard” (author’s previous column), while if any of the three powers—the US, China and India—make a coercive move against Nepal, one or two of them—individually or together—would make a counter-move against the third one. In the foreseeable future, Nepal could be a most preferred player for the superpowers in the global geopolitical chess match.

Yet, the crucial concern for Nepalis is whether Nepal is cautiously prepared to make a sensible move in the global geopolitical chessboard?

Nepal should make a rational move such that it could “hedge” them strategically and heighten its credence in the international sphere by advancing its national interest.

The US-China relations have been at a “historic low” since Nancy Pelosi, the then House Speaker, visited Taiwan on 2 Aug 2022, and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-Wen met House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on 5 April 2023 in the US. On the other hand, China-Russia relations have been at their “highest point” following President Xi Jinping’s visit to the Kremlin.

Since the US is currently dragged down into a tumult of domestic issues, and the chances of getting cooperation from its allies and friends are getting low, it may not directly involve Taiwan next. The US has still not maintained formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan since it broke the relations in 1979, while the US itself does not consider Taiwan as a sovereign country. The EU, after French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent remarks, perceives that “Sovereignty Variance” of Taiwan is dissimilar as that of Ukraine, while China considers Taiwan its inalienable territory. The Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang urged his German counterpart Annalena Baerbock, who recently visited Beijing, to support the reunification process of Taiwan with China. “China once supported Germany’s unification cause and hopes Germany will also support China’s great cause of peaceful reunification,” said top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi. In response to Wang’s remark, Baerbock said, “Germany understands the importance and sensitivity of the Taiwan question to China and reaffirmed that Germany would continue adhering to the one-China principle,” stated CGTN. Arguably, China is in a grand mission to garner international support for peaceful reunification of Taiwan with its mainland, besides its other undertakings.

China could be successful in integrating Taiwan with the mainland, while Hong Kong would be far easier than Taiwan, argue some analysts. Following the integration of Taiwan and Hong Kong, China could be a new superpower on the world stage. Yet, being just a superpower is a hegemonic perception, while China is expected to be an accountable global leader with “amity and cooperation”.

Amity and cooperation

Despite intensified geopolitical friction between the two superpowers—the US and China—they also have deep economic ties; the US-China trade volume was said to be more than $690bn in 2022. They should be conscious regarding their rising and/or declining global credence and should not give any undue space to the others in waiting. They can preserve their greatness only through decent leadership. For this, they have to overcome their belligerent attitude toward each other, and need to be equipped with conviction, knowledge, intelligence, agility and ability to pursue each other instead of exuding coercive measures.

The geopolitical reality of the present world politics is that both the US and China cannot downright contain, confront, or ignore each other, like it happened during the Cold War between the US and Soviet Union. The US-China negotiation should not (and must not) turn into a binary (0 or 1) “either war or capitulation axis”. Washington and Beijing must realize that both of their policies should not be practiced as if it’s an ON/OFF switch. Instead, they must bring the possibility of identifying several fractional possibilities lying between 0 and 1. The world’s two most responsible nations in modern history have to plan for those options with decent, equable, and nimble rationality.  

Most importantly, they should start communication, cooperation and coordination with trust and reverence with a shared vision and pragmatism for a constructive and peaceful world. The great nations like the US and China should explore their greater spirit and bigger generosity for the greater good of society, humankind, and the Universe.

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