12.03.2024 Author: Vladimir Terehov

US-China relations “after Munich”

US-China relations

We last addressed the topic of exchanging significant signals in the lines of communication between the two leading world powers (the United States and China) in connection with the regular “Davos Forum” and “Munich Security Conference” held at the beginning of this year. However, a number of subsequent events, as well as a certain “trail” left by U.S. Secretary of State Blinken’s speech at the latter event, allow us to return to the same topic once again.

The expression “trail” appeared after the US foreign policy chief used it during a speech in Munich, taking the phrase from American household slang meaning that everyone has a choice: to sit at the table or to be on it as a menu. Note that this phrase reflects the main content of the concept of “the end of history” that appeared at the turn of the 80s-90s of the last century. At least part of the American elite, apparently, does not want to abandon it. Despite its long-established incapacity, as well as its no less obvious counterproductivity for the national interests of the United States itself.

Needless to say, these words were commented on by those to whom they were addressed. In particular, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, during the G20 ministerial meeting in Rio de Janeiro on 21-22 February, speaking as if in outer space (and apparently before the lunch break), advised to consume the same “menu” more carefully so as not to “choke on it”. We should add that the signs of the latter can already be seen in the current main “consumer” of the international political “menu”.

China’s Global Times sees the mere fact that the representative of the world’s leading power has (not for the first time) introduced American everyday slang into the international political lexicon as “an alarming attitude towards a world order in which the strong prey on the weak. It should be noted that this is more characteristic of the hawkish wing of the American establishment, which backs up the vocabulary of “on the edge”, directed at the main geopolitical adversaries, with very concrete military and political measures.

In particular, under the pretext of parrying “Beijing’s threats to Taiwan”, the Seventh Fleet, part of The United States Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM), has recently become increasingly active. This forward strike group’s area of responsibility extends into the waters immediately adjacent to Asia’s east coast.

The PRC, however, has noted the intensification of Indo-Pacific Command in general. In particular, the mid-February report in several U.S. media outlets about plans to deploy five aircraft carrier groups in China’s coastal waters did not go unnoticed. Today, one such group, part of the same Seventh Fleet, is more or less permanently “on duty” here.

The Chinese experts’ comments on this report were limited to a sceptical assessment of the possibility of a long period of time for such an (among other things extremely costly) operation, which (if at all) is more likely to fulfil the role of a political demonstration. Or, to use the language of information flow in a complex system, as another signal sent from one part of the system (the United States) to another (China).

The question then arises as to the content of this signal. Again, China believes that the United States may try to artificially create a crisis situation by increasing tensions in the Asia-Pacific region as a whole and, especially, in the Taiwan Strait. This may be evidenced by the forthcoming appointment of Admiral S. Paparo, who previously commanded the entire maritime forces of the USINDOPACOM, to the post of the head of the USINDOPACOM. S. Paparo has repeatedly sent various kinds of harsh words to both China and the Russian Federation. In the second case, in connection with the conflict in Ukraine, although, it would seem, where is the latter and where is the region of his direct responsibility.

In the author’s opinion, both this designation and the above-mentioned “strike and aircraft carrier” plans represent in the aggregate an element of the general strategy of “controlled competition”, which has been declared by the US leadership in its relations with China for some time now. Although it cannot be ruled out that, contrary to public declarations and taking into account the domestic political situation in the US, there is no unified strategy, but simply different elite groups function in a regime without any unity in their actions.

Which, let us emphasise once again, is not good. And, contrary to the particularly stupid propaganda, it is not good for everyone. Since the loss of (self-)control of the world’s leading (nuclear) power is fraught not only with catastrophe for it, but also with serious negative consequences for the rest of the world.

On the whole, we repeat, the content of the signals sent on behalf of the United States to its main geopolitical opponent in recent months reflects the growing role of the hawkish wing in the American establishment. Perhaps this explains Beijing’s lowering the level of representation at the mentioned ministerial meeting in Rio de Janeiro, which itself became one of the regular events in the G20 format. Their organiser this year is Brazil, which will take over the baton from India in 2024. This time China was represented in Rio de Janeiro not by Foreign Minister Wang Yi (as it was in Munich), but by his deputy Ma Zhaoxu.

The general deterioration of the international situation could not but have a negative impact on this event (as well as on the meeting of finance ministers and central bank governors in São Paulo a week later). Nor, indeed, was this the case at similar events in India. As then, it was not possible to agree on a final document in Rio de Janeiro. Instead, there was a “Press Statement” of neutral and general content on behalf of the host country’s Foreign Minister Mauro Vieira.

The increasing prevalence of political aspects in relations between the two global powers, which are also the world’s major economies, has a negative impact on the state of the entire world economic organism. This is manifested in the actual paralysis of the WTO, which was originally designed to fulfil the role of a regulator of the processes taking place in it.

This organisation is also unable to do due to the obvious protectionist course of the USA, first of all, in relation to China. The latest evidence of this is the measures taken under the pretext of “ensuring security” to restrict access to the US markets for products of the Chinese automotive industry. In this case, the main goal is to create competitive advantages for their own companies in the course of the rapidly developing introduction of electric cars into the markets.

At a time when Brussels is also pushing Washington to take similar measures, the next (13th) meeting of labour ministers of WTO member countries, held in Abu Dhabi at the end of February, was quite expected to be inconclusive.

Nevertheless, despite the obvious recent increase in negative signals flowing through the channels of communication between the two leading world powers, positive signals are also present. Noteworthy in this regard was the recent appearance of such a prominent figure in the American establishment as US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns in the CBS programme “60 Minutes”. Noting the existence of serious problems in bilateral relations in general, he gave a sharply negative assessment of the proposal to completely sever economic ties with the People’s Republic of China being thrown into the American information space.

A very important American expert, such as University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer, in an interview with the Global Times (mainly devoted to the conflict in Ukraine), gave a generally positive assessment of the prospects for US-China relations.

But perhaps the most notable positive signal of the last month was the visit to China by a delegation from the United States Chamber of Commerce led by its current Director General Suzanne Clark. The delegation was received by Chinese Premier Li Qiang. During their conversation, the two sides rejected the prospect of a complete decoupling of their economies and, on the contrary, noted the potential for further development of various kinds of co-operation between them.

Finally, in a sign that things are not all gloomy between the two leading world powers, the sides announced that two Chinese pandas will be sent to the San Diego Zoo.


Vladimir TEREKHOV, an expert on the problems of the Asia-Pacific region, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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