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Editorial Analysis: What does the US-China rift mean for the world?

US-China rift

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US-China rift
US-China rift

The US-China rift:

  • The war of words between the world’s two largest political powers — the US and China — has heated up.
  • The trend began several years ago, during Barack Obama’s presidency of the US but it grew under the current US President Donald Trump’s tenure.
  • This has now further intensified in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Chinese diplomats have adopted a more strident tone, described as “wolf warrior” diplomacy after a popular Chinese action film. US officials have shot back at China.

Leads to intensifying geopolitical competition:

  • The US and China governments blaming each other helps impress their domestic constituencies.
  • However, it also complements the intensifying geopolitical competition between Washington and Beijing.
  • The hardening language and policies by the US and China have worried observers elsewhere, including in Southeast Asia, Europe, and indeed in India.

Countries could earlier enjoy good relations with both China and the US:

  • For the last two decades or more, many countries were used to a comfortable arrangement that involved bolstering economic relations with China, and preserving a stable defense partnership with the US.
  • They could enjoy cordial political and diplomatic relations with both.
  • For some countries, defense cooperation with Washington facilitated a beneficial economic partnership with Beijing by mitigating the perceived risks and justifying lower defense expenditures.

Now countries are worried about the prospect of having to choose one of US or China:

  • Countries across the world have been appealing to Washington and Beijing to not force them to choose.
  • However, their appeals are unlikely to be heard.
  • Beyond a point, the US and China will do what they want, without much thought for other countries’ concerns.
  • However, it might also serve various countries’ purpose to simultaneously benefit economically from China and security-wise from the US.

But we should not create a false equivalence between the US and China–

China is more of a forceful and exclusionary power:

  • China has compelled countries to overlook its island building and militarization in the South China Sea, and asked them to sign on to a unilateral Chinese political project in the Belt and Road Initiative.
  • Beijing also promoted trade groupings like- Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and multilateral lending agencies such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) that deliberately excluded the US.

US is generally a more open and inclusionary power:

  • In contrast to China, the US has argued that it has promoted a more open international order, one that is less exclusionary.
  • For example, it was the US that advocated for China’s entry into the UNSC, World Bank, and WTO between 1971 and 2001.
  • Exceptions: While the US did not generally compel others into adopting exclusionary practices directed at China, there have been some notable exceptions.
  • In 2004 and 2005, when the European Union (EU) considered lifting its arms embargo on China, US forced the EU to not do so.
  • In 2015, US mounted pressure on European allies to not join the China-led AIIB but this attempt proved an embarrassment for Washington as many US allies ignored American warnings and joined AIIB anyway.
  • Even currently, the US is trying to draw a red line in its competition with China over allowing Chinese companies to compete for 5G telecommunications contracts.
  • This saw some success as US allies such as Japan and Australia disqualified Chinese companies, while on the other side, the UK has openly considered breaking with Washington on the issue.

Way ahead:

  • In the earlier years, US and China’s difference forcing others to pick sides were rare aberrations in what was generally a more cooperative international environment.
  • However, the current tussle over 5G, especially post the covid pandemic, may signal the beginning of a new trend.
  • While China was more than happy to draw strict lines for other countries not to cross like in the South China Sea and at international institutions, the US has also been in the recent times doing it selectively but more increasingly than before.
  • The world may never revert to the kinds of blocs that characterised the Cold War, where nations had to choose a side between US and USSR.
  • But in today’s more interdependent era, some tough choices will have to be made the countries across the world.

Also Read: Editorial Analysis: It’s now or never: States are driving bold reforms

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