The US-China rivalry and its fallout

The United States has the most well-equipped and technologically superior military in the world

Talat Masood January 25, 2023
The writer is a retired lieutenant general of the Pakistan Army and a former federal secretary. He has also served as chairman of the Pakistan Ordnance Factories Board

For the past two decades, the United States has been the global leading country with no challenger in sight. It was the leading light and the champion of the free world, forming policies independently and acting as a mediator among nations when the situation so arose. Its economic, political, military and cultural influence spans across the world. In the past Pakistan has been a major beneficiary of its military aid and also had to face sanctions when it was not conforming to its policies. The United States has the most well-equipped and technologically superior military in the world. It can project its military power in the remotest corner of the world through its modern and large air force and Navy. Its space programme is also cutting edge. Its defence budget is the world’s top most surpassing that of several nations combined budget. Economically it has the highest GDP and US dollar is the most powerful and widely used currency, as well as world’s reserve currency.

The prospects of the US retaining its global dominance are now under serious challenge. In the last four decades China’s rise has been phenomenal from poverty and overall backwardness to becoming the second largest economy with the potential of overtaking the US in the next three to five years. China is already a superpower except that it is not rich. In view of its large population, it would take time before the average income of Chinese people would be close to that in the West.

However, the extensive spread of Covid in China has slowed down its growth. Prospects of reviving the economy would depend on how successful China is in the pursuit of eliminating Covid.

The US — taking a long-term view, seeing the rapid rise of China — is adopting several measures, strategic and economic, to thwart and slow down its economy in concert with its NATO and other allies. For example, the US-Taiwan military cooperation is in essence a part of US policy of containing China. From Washington’s perspective it is also to ensure democratic countries are not subjected to coercion by authoritarian regimes and Taiwan exemplifies these concerns. Taiwan is a unique case as for most purposes it operates as an independent state but China rightfully claims it to be a part of it. The majority of countries endorse China’s claim and have not recognised it. Despite that political wisdom demands that both China and the US should allow Taiwan to retain its autonomy. Reduced tension across the Taiwan Straits will lessen pressure on Chinese leadership to hasten reunification.

China has been avoiding a military confrontation as it could trigger internal dissent and revolt within Taiwan as majority are inclined to and prefer a democratic culture and freedom rather than being a part of a communist and authoritarian regime. Interestingly, there are a few major contradictions in the China-Taiwan relations. Whereas there are political differences of a fundamental nature but trade and commerce between the two countries has been flourishing for long for the benefit of people — a lesson India and Pakistan could have drawn for long.

Taiwan was initially ruled by military juntas then followed capitalism and liberal democracy and the rule of law preceding full fledge democracy. Experience of other countries that have graduated to mature democracy reminds us that there are two forces, prosperity and liberal democracy, that will produce a legitimate government. Here too there are lessons for half-baked democracies like ours: how to achieve a higher level of political maturity and economic self-sustainability.

There has been close cooperation between the US and Taiwan for over 70 years, starting from the time when Chang Kia-shek was in power. It is mostly in the last ten years that Taiwan has taken a hostile posture toward China. Former President Trump gave a boost to the anti-China policy and encouraged Taiwan to take a hardline.

The Indo-Pacific Quadrilateral Dialogue, a multilateral dialogue between Australia, India, Japan and the US, is another grouping that aims at countering the growing influence of China. All these countries have a vested interest in aligning with the US to oppose China’s emergence as they feel that their strategic and economic interests will be compromised.

China as expected is taking counter measures to protect its interest and the China-Russia cooperation and strategic alliance is a key element of this strategy. Last summer they engaged in joint exercises in which 10,000 Russian and Chinese troops participated on the pattern of NATO exercises. It is clear that President Xi Jinping has opted for a more forceful national security policy. And the alliance with Russia has increased China’s military and strategic weight that the US and its allies have to counter in future.

Another important factor would be how Europe, especially Germany and France, position themselves in this rivalry. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s support to it did initially strain relations with Germany and France. But the German Chancellor’s visit to China did ease tensions. Moreover, having taken a strong business delegation with him, was a clear indication that Germany would maintain strong economic relations. As reported in the press, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has shown her desire to deepen trade with China.

French President Emanual Macron is expected to visit China too. The economic interests of Europe are closely linked with China. It is not surprising that Germany has been taking positions at variance with the US where its interests differ. China’s exports to Europe are critical for the Chinese economy and are nearly equal to that of the US.

European countries have shown their deep concern on the human rights policies being pursued in China. According to the United Nations report of August 2022, Chinese government has committed abuses that amount to crimes against humanity targeting Uyghurs and other Turkic communities in the Xinjiang region.

Despite contradictions in the US-China relations, with economies so intertwined and Russia now solidly in the Chinese camp and Europe interested in expanding economic ties with China, status quo is likely to prevail.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 25th, 2023.

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