‘Many proclaim that America has already lost the war and that whereas she may win a battle here or there, the long-term outcome is a foregone conclusion’
By Anil Madan
Donald Trump’s signature battle cries from 2016, ‘Build the wall!’ and ‘America first!’ resonated during his campaign four years ago portending a discordant and dissonant American introversion from longstanding engagements with the rest of the world. The discord and dissonance felt strange because America’s retrenchment was not expected given Trump’s belligerent personality. Certainly, his interactions with NATO and other European allies were far more aggressive than his muted interactions with Putin, Kim Jong Un, and Xi Jinping. In all cases, his foreign policy was marked by sloppy execution.
President-elect Biden’s greatest challenge to reset and redefine America’s relationship with China has deep economic, strategic, and societal overtones. Photo – deccanherald.com
Even though Trump deserves credit for making an issue of China’s unfair exploitation of the US, his actual China policy has been disastrous. A trade agreement of minor proportions has done little to reduce the trade imbalance that favours China. Worse, Trump’s policies have led to incalculable losses to America’s detriment: loss of prestige, diminution of trust among allies and friendly nations that no longer see America as reliable in dealing with a more aggressive and overreaching China, and lessened influence over world affairs. Whereas Trump correctly recognized that great disruptions stemming from globalization needed to be corrected, his blunderbuss approach of isolationism over engagement has further upset the prospect of cooperative action with the Asia-Pacific nations that might have reset the balance.
The irony is that China has been able to take advantage of the vacuum in leadership created by Trump’s ‘America First’ approach that was unwelcome around the world. Trump might as well have declared a “China-first” policy. An emboldened Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has doubled down, disregarding human and civil rights at home, erasing democracy in Hong Kong, continuing and escalating its threats to Taiwanese sovereignty, escalating belligerence against India, bullying Australia with economic and diplomatic pressure, and enabling Iran’s Ayatollahs who continue to promote hatred and support terrorism.
On top of that, China has expanded its predatory infrastructure lending — financed by its stash of American Treasury bonds no less — around the world and blithely disregarded maritime boundaries in its quest to control the South China Sea. Indeed, the CCP has even presented a revisionist disclaimer of responsibility for the origin of the Covid-19 virus from within its borders. America is no longer a restraining hand on the reins, and certainly not brake slowing down a runaway China.
It will now be one of President-elect Biden’s greatest challenges to reset and redefine America’s relationship with China. This challenge has deep economic, strategic, and societal overtones, perhaps even taking on existential overtones in terms of America’s future as the dominant world power.
It has been observed and indeed is an article of faith among analysts that China’s leaders are patient and take a long-term view on matters of policy, strategy, and tactics whereas the US and other western countries are more short-term oriented, indeed shortsighted. What is equally true but not as often acknowledged is that successive American administrations, cheered on by corporate leaders looking for greater profits from cheap Chinese labour have been complicit in enabling China to forge ahead with little fear of restraint.
The dramatic changes we have experienced over the past decade give new urgency to establishing a more informed and realistic American policy toward China. It is no longer enough to think of restoring the status quo ante but rather we must hear the clarion call for a more enlightened and outcome-oriented engagement with China going forward. Time is short, the stakes are huge.
Consider that in 2011 Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner issued an extraordinary public warning1: “They [China] have made possible systematic stealing of intellectual property of American companies and have not been very aggressive to put in place the basic protections for property rights that every serious economy needs over time. We’re seeing China continue to be very, very aggressive in a strategy they started several decades ago, which goes like this: You want to sell to our country, we want you to come produce here … If you want to come produce here, you need to transfer your technology to us.”
Yet, little has changed in the years since, and America’ dependence on China for critical supplies of manufactured goods, drugs, rare earth minerals, and even supplies affecting strategic and security issues, reflect a vulnerability that has been ignored and allowed to get almost to the point of no return.
History reveals that successive American presidents from Nixon to Obama underestimate the challenges and threats that China poses and have often engaged in pie-in-sky thinking about their ability to influence the course that China should take. The truth is that China has not had to work too hard to deploy a strategy that is likely to prevail over the long haul. America is doing the leg work on China’s behalf and to ensure its success.
As Joe Biden steps into this foreign policy landscape that is in turmoil many proclaim that America has already lost the war and that whereas she may win a battle here or there, the long-term outcome is a foregone conclusion: China will be the world’s biggest economy and the most powerful nation on earth. That view may be closer to the truth than Americans have been willing to admit.
But consider betting on a horse race between China and the U.S. starting today. Undoubtedly one would choose to start with America’s resources, wealth, and technological capabilities over those of China. But one might not choose the jockey riding the American steed over China’s jockey. If Joe Biden can be the jockey willing to take on the challenge, or if he can find the right person to take charge, we have more than a fighting chance.
America’s approach to China does not have to be an all-out economic war or a new arms race. Quite the contrary, enlightened engagement with China means convincing the CCP that America welcomes China as a competitor and partner on the world stage but insists on fair competition, mutual respect, responsible behaviour towards all countries, respect for human rights, intellectual property, and international norms.
American companies understandingly want their goods produced by low-paid workers and will be reluctant to support any disruptions on that front. But realistically, short of bringing manufacturing back to America which is unlikely, or shifting production to other Asian countries, for the short-term, the only tool available to an American president is shutting off trade with China when it fails to meet these basic requirements. The pain for American companies and American consumers will be strong but even greater for China. The U.S. can withstand a $2.2 trillion hit to its economy much more easily than China can take such a hit to its economy.
It is abundantly clear that America cannot face down China by itself and transmuting the America-alone approach that was devolved from Trump’s America-first approach will take a lot of skill, luck, and cooperation from allies. India, Japan, Australia, Britain, the European Union, and other Asia-Pacific countries, will play a critical and pivotal role.
Economic and military bullying
Along with the US, India as well as Australia also need to reset their relations with China and establish the principle that economic and military bullying must stop. Obviously, India faces greater security and strategic challenges from China than does Australia.
Today Australia is the subject of retaliatory and punitive actions simply for trying to call China to account for its mistreatment of Uighurs, trampling of democracy in Hong Kong, and for its irresponsible unleashing of the coronavirus upon the world.
India, on the other hand, faces threats to its water supply from the Indo-Gangetic and Tibeto-Gangetic plains as China encroaches more and more. China’s Defense Chief promises military support for Nepal in its dispute with India and pledges that China will safeguard Nepal’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity2. China’s history with Tibet and its recent incursions into the Doklam area would make such promises and pledges laughable if they were not so ominous.
India and the US come to this juncture after missteps dating back decades. Each has picked an unreliable partner in the past. For the US, it was Pakistan, and for India, the Soviet Union and its successor Russia. Jawaharlal Nehru’s ill-fated dalliance with the idea of non-alignment and Indira Gandhi’s tilt to the Soviets drove the US away and to an embrace of Pakistan.
Recently the Afghan war only served to increase American reliance on Pakistan. As American troops are withdrawn from Afghanistan, Pakistan’s importance and indeed, its relevance, are diminished. At the same time, to whatever extent American engagement with Pakistan acts as a restraining influence on its nuclear arsenal and the threat of proliferation, the US must remain committed on that front.
As China builds bases in a ring around the subcontinent, threatens India’s water supply, and chokes ocean routes, India needs a strong ally and partner to help it withstand the stress. India has much to offer in terms of labour, technical expertise, software excellence, and a robust military. Additionally, India can be the replacement low-cost manufacturing base that America so desperately needs to establish.
A US-India alliance to create an interface with China that is shaped in a constructive way to the benefit of all is a Herculean task with no promise of success. China has often talked in the dialect of cooperation while behaving in the language of a new imperial order of dominance and dominion. One can hardly blame China. American presidents from Nixon to Trump have not given China cause to fear the consequences of its aggressive and belligerent approach. And there is often a certain naivete as when Joe Biden in 2019 said3: “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man, I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us.”
America needs to get past its naivete and find new partners and alliances. Cooperation between America and India on a mutually shared goal presents one important opportunity. The time to get going is upon us.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s public warning: