The reason is China. It’s like no other challenge that the US has ever faced. And even as late as last year, the idea of a nuanced approach towards Beijing found some voice in Washington. Not today. And much of that has been exacerbated by China’s own behaviour on Covid-19, followed by aggressive muscle-flexing within Asia, from Ladakh and Taiwan to the South China Sea.
How to secure Taiwan will, in fact, be one of the first challenges for the new US president. That will straightaway stoke sensitivities in Beijing, which is already incensed at Washington’s move to sell highend defence equipment to the Taiwanese. Chinese President Xi Jinping has asked his marines to be prepared for military conflict.
The posturing aside, US assurance to not provide high-end military support to Taiwan against China has been at the heart of Beijing’s military calculus. Will the US change that approach in the light of active Chinese threats and violations of Taiwanese airspace? As of now, Washington is signalling that it could. But the onus will be on the new US president to take a call whether to firmly end all US strategic ambiguity on Taiwan. Similarly, the clampdown in Hong Kong is getting worse. If Taipei is going to test Washington’s military resolve, Hong Kong will challenge its political resolve on democracy, which may come at an economic cost, given the financial importance of the place.
If these are immediate China-related issues on the White House desk, the more medium- to longterm China challenges will come from three key factors — Chinese economic coercion, political aggression on other countries, and future technology issues like 5G. The direction in which the US moves on these issues will, in effect, tell us the extent to which the new president is willing to change the existing order of things to counter China.
The problem really is that even if there’s intent, the execution is not just challenging but also hugely complex. China actually poses an extraordinary challenge to the US. It’s not like the erstwhile Soviet Union, trying to build an alternate system to the West, guided by a different ideology and economic philosophy. China may be a communist country. But it is ideologically malleable, and a rich market economy fully integrated into the liberal global economic system. In fact, Beijing’s rulers have played the system quite successfully to the point that they are now in a position to usurp it. It’s quite an irony that today China cites World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules when countries, out of security reasons, are taking strong economic measures to counteract Beijing.
So, unlike the Soviet Union, cutting off China is going to come with an economic cost. For the US, the picture gets further complicated when seen from the prism of its strategic allies and partners. Many of them have economies hugely reliant on China, which, if decoupled, could spell trouble for them. However, the coronavirus pandemic may just have made that cost worth it.
European countries like Germany, France and Italy have realised that even if they can’t fully decouple from China, they surely must reduce dependency. The real answer, therefore, to Chinese military and economic assertion is to rework the system; if necessary, create new structures of cooperation like the Quad or the India-Japan-Australia supply chain resilience initiative. To do so on a larger scale will require the global leadership of the US, which still guarantees the global commons as we know it. The world, in any which way, is bracing for new order after the pandemic.
For years now, Washington has looked the other way on China, even as the latter has flouted and undermined every US-led global treaty or institution. China joined the NonProliferation Treaty (NPT), but still became the biggest proliferator of nuclear technologies, assisting illegal programmes to flourish in North Korea and Pakistan. It’s a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), but continues to undermine the fight against terrorism by using its veto to shield Pakistan-sponsored terror groups. China is now part of WTO, but it is yet to satisfactorily implement the body’s transparency and fair trade standards.
Each time, the argument that engaging with China, rather than containing it, won the day. But it appears, from the events of the last few months, that China has thrown the argument right back at the US. It will engage, yes, but on Chinese terms. Which is what makes the term of the next US president historically pivotal.
The new president will have to repurpose American power to contain China in a world still reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic. This involves not just ensuring Chinese compliance to global rules but changing the nature of play itself.
Views expressed are author’s own