Between the devil and the deep sea

Between the devil and the deep sea

Inscrutable China

Srikanth Kondapalli

China is anxiously waiting for the US election results and to see if there’s a chance to restore strategic stability between the two countries. China has many stakes in who becomes the next President.

All US presidential candidates since the late 1990s have taken shades of anti-China stance in their poll campaigns, only to switch over to full-fledged engagement with Beijing once they are in the White House. This time, it could be different.

In the last four years, the fundamentals of Sino-US engagement policies, assiduously built since Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to Beijing in 1971 and Deng Xiaoping’s visit to the White House in 1979, have been revisited, at the cost of the basic tenets of the bilateral relationship.

This drastic change was caused by the epistemological break brought about by China’s 19th Communist Party Congress in October 2017, which made attempts to “occupy the centre stage” in the global order. It laid out a roadmap to realise “socialist modernisation” by 2050 -- China intends to replace the US without having to fight a war by constantly expanding the envelope of deterrence.

China is also keen to unveil the first centennial of the Communist Party’s establishment and ushering in a “well-off society” next year. It has grand plans for Made in China 2025, of graduating to being a high-tech exporter. It has commenced the 14th Five Year Plan with innovation, dual circulation strategy, and domestic economic restructuring. Strategic stability with the US is crucial for the success of these projects.

President Donald Trump’s “decoupling” from China began with the 18-month tariff war, and extended to a revision of US policies on Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, South China Sea, and 5G. The US specifically targeting China’s Communist Party cadres and leaders has brought about a new low in ties. China’s “wolf warrior diplomacy” has revived Cold War imagery.

Effectively, the Trump administration ended the engagement policies that led to the rise of China. Hence, any coming back of Trump is widely seen in China as a problem, although some Chinese argue that Trumpian structural disruptions, America First and isolationist foreign and security policies, have provided China with opportunities to expand.

The Trump administration’s restrictions on financial flows, technology flows, visas, educational exchanges, 5G telecom contracts -- not only in the US but also in the European markets -- have stifled China, leading to a decline in the growth rate, which is essential for social and political stability for the Communist Party. China is thus looking desperately for the restoration of the engagement policies.

On the other hand, some Chinese argue that while Joe Biden may revive multilateralism, or give a new lease of life to Barrack Obama’s G-2 (a US-China condominium), he may prioritise the Uighur issue or step up engagement with the Dalai Lama.

Chinese policy analysts are aware that there is now a bipartisan consensus on China policy due to Beijing’s assertiveness all around, compounded by the spread of Covid-19, which coincided with over 500,000 people reaching the US before the Wuhan lockdown on January 23. With the US becoming the biggest victim of the pandemic and the high anti-China sentiment there, Covid-19 is going to loom large over US-China ties in the short to medium term.

The stakes for China in these US elections are high, ranging from benefiting out of any revival of engagement policies on trade, investment, technology transfers, working together on proliferation and regional stability issues to strategic competition or even conflict over Taiwan, South China Sea, North Korea, the global commons or other issues.

As such, many Chinese see themselves as being caught between the devil and the deep sea. Both candidates can negatively impact China’s growth in many sectors, just at the time when China is at the cusp of realising “strategic opportunities” that the four-decades-old engagement policies provided in the first place.

Secondly, while it was the US that sought to export democracy and capitalism to the Soviet republics during the Cold War, today, China is being accused of interfering in the US elections. The Cold War, then, has come a long way between China and the US.

(The JNU Prof has been Peking behind the Bamboo Curtain for 30 years)