On 21 December of this year, the Chinese official publication Global Times, whose target audience is mainly abroad, published a remarkable article with the positions of representatives of Chinese academic science on the current state and prospects for the development of U.S.-China relations in the coming year.
The extreme urgency of the issues raised in this publication is explained by the obvious fact that we are talking about the relations between the two main participants of the current stage of the “Big World Game”, which significantly determine the nature of the transformation of the situation on the global game table.
The main outcomes of the activities undertaken by the leadership of both countries throughout 2023 are defined by the words “stabilisation” mentioned by the experts, which, however, remains “uneven”. And the same two words formed the basis for the forecast of the nature of the said relations in the next year 2024.
Nevertheless, it seems to be a significant positive. As far as the current game disposition is concerned, the image of a tightrope walker cautiously moving with a pole over the abyss of another global massacre is probably more suitable. Which continues to keep its balance despite the surrounding noisy fireworks of local conflicts of varying intensity: in Ukraine, the Middle East, in Kashmir (and recently also in the area of the Afghan-Pakistani border), Myanmar, in the South China Sea, around Taiwan, on the Korean Peninsula. And also, in spite of particularly exuberant propaganda with its prophecies about the inevitable fall of the “tightrope walker” into the abyss.
Among the various events mentioned above, the main one was undoubtedly caused by the meeting of the leaders of the United States and China on the margins of the next APEC summit held in San Francisco in the second decade of November 2023. Once again, we would like to note that the main positive aspect of this meeting was the very fact that it was held, which testified to the intention of the meeting participants to at least discuss various aspects of the extremely complex system of bilateral relations. At the same time, some of the practical results of the meeting rather illustrated these intentions.
One of them was to “gradually restore co-operation” between those services of both countries that control drug production and trafficking. This was announced by a representative of the Chinese Foreign Ministry on 22 December. The extreme urgency of this problem (first of all for the USA, where it is becoming a national catastrophe) was clearly demonstrated by the preparatory events held in San Francisco on the eve of the APEC summit. It should be noted that over the past few months Washington has accused Beijing of supplying Mexican drug cartels with “precursors” used in the production of fentanyl.
Another practical outcome of the US-China summit was the restoration of bilateral military-to-military contacts, which had been interrupted after the sensational visit to Taiwan (in August 2022) by then Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi. Working out a solution to the problem began even before the San Francisco summit, where it was approved by the leaders of both countries. On 21 December 2023, the current head of the US Chiefs of Staff, General Charles Brown, and his Chinese counterpart, General Liu Zhenli, held online talks.
The Chinese side’s comments highlighted the latter’s words about the importance of the very fact of renewed contacts between the militaries of both countries, which should be developed “on the basis of equality and mutual respect in order to jointly stabilise and improve” the state of bilateral relations. Liu Zhenli identified the escalation of the Taiwan problem in recent months and the situation in the South China Sea as the main challenges to such efforts.
Both of these challenges appeared as the most urgent and dangerous for bilateral relations in the near future at the regular conference, which is usually held at the end of the year by the same Global Times newspaper with the involvement of both civilian and military experts.
Here we should also note that the military departments of any country by definition cannot solve problems of a “deep political” nature. Apparently, that is why China assessed the fact of the video meeting of the representatives of the defence ministries as a “positive, but only the first step” in improving bilateral relations. We would add that this is still very hypothetical.
In Beijing’s view, for example, the next increase in the US (as well as Japan) defence budget is of much greater and negative significance. In Taiwan, on the contrary, the part of the relevant law signed by President Biden that provides for multifaceted measures to improve the island’s defence capability was particularly positively assessed.
Nevertheless, the significance of this “step” should not be underestimated. The maintenance of contacts between representatives of the military departments of the parties that find themselves in a certain “pre-conflict” situation is intended at least to prevent the emergence of some “accidental” occasions that will inevitably turn it into a state of armed conflict. If we are talking about such a conflict between the leading players, then it is clear what consequences it threatens not only for them, but also for the entire world.
The same goals of “stabilising” the situation in US-China relations (however, the US prefers to define the same thing by the term “controlled competition”) were served by the unprecedentedly frequent contacts in the past year between the agencies responsible for foreign policy and diplomacy, as well as trade and economic cooperation. The fact that the first of these “spheres” has not yet seen any noticeable positive results is evidenced by China’s critical assessment of the activities of the US person responsible for it, Anthony Blinken, throughout 2023.
However, the situation in the second of these “spheres” is not much better either. Although the very large volume of bilateral trade, it would seem, should put both sides in a positive mood. However, this is not the case for quite good reasons. Washington’s dissatisfaction is mainly due to the constantly huge negative balance (in the region of $400 billion) in trade with China. Apparently, this is why the US predicted the “imminent economic collapse” of the People’s Republic of China almost all last year. This was caused by the real problems observed in the Chinese economy in the first 2-3 quarters of the year.
China, on the other hand, has a strong negative attitude to the almost continuous stream of restrictive measures against the activities of Chinese companies in international markets in general and in the U.S. market in particular. Especially in the high-tech sector. At the end of December 2023, the U.S. Department of Commerce announced that it had “launched a surveillance process” to monitor the supply of microelements (“chips”) to the country, which are not of the most modern generation, but are still used in some production facilities.
Moreover, if the sharply negative balance of US trade with China is entirely due to objective reasons (higher competitiveness of the latter’s economy), Beijing’s problems in trade relations with Washington are located in the sphere of politics. If by this we mean a set of various kinds of fears of the latter related to the very fact of China’s emergence as a global power.
Against the background of mutual claims in the trade and economic sphere, the fact that Boeing has delivered the first 787-9 Dreamliner aircraft (from 2019) to a Chinese air carrier is a rare positive development. Moreover, back in 2018, Boeing built a plant in China, which was supposed to assemble one of the company’s passenger aircraft models. Everything was spoilt by the very same “policy”, which at the same time contributed to the development of the European Airbus in those parts of the (gigantic) PRC market, where the main competitor of this company was previously present.
In the author’s opinion, the resumption of purchases of Boeing aircraft by China looks like a signal from Beijing to Washington in the style of “not all is lost in our relations”. If this signal is further developed and spreads to other spheres of relations between the two leading world powers, the “stability” mentioned at the beginning will become more and the “unevenness” less.
However, such a prospect still looks very vague. But nevertheless, its probability is not zero, which, we repeat, is already considerable in our troubling times.
Vladimir TEREKHOV, an expert on the problems of the Asia-Pacific region, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.