C Gopinath

Cold Alaska, frosty US-China relations

C Gopinath | Updated on April 07, 2021

US President Biden’s approach to China is more in sync with Trump’s than Obama’s

Senior officials from China and the US met in Alaska in mid-March. This meeting, coming after the Trump-era’s contentious relationship, was expected to set the tone of US-China relations in the years ahead. The meeting’s outcome was quite clear — the relationship will continue to be contentious. In opening remarks, usually for the benefit of the media, such meetings are usually full of platitudes. Not this one. Both sides voiced comments on how the other bothered them and this theme reportedly continued through the rest of the meeting.

That is a problem since we are talking about the top two GDP economies of the world having different visions of how they want the world to behave and what they want to do about it. Few countries will get by without feeling the effects of this dispute.

In Pew Research Center surveys in the US in March, despite China being the largest trading partner, US nationals’ opinion about China has been taking a dive. As many as 89 per cent looked at China as a competitor or an enemy. Those who felt that the US should work to limit China’s power and influence rose from 32 per cent in 2018 to 48 per cent in 2021.

Areas of contentions are many. They include China’s actions in Hong Kong in violation of its agreement with the UK, human rights policy as exemplified by the treatment of Uighurs and Tibetans, non-cooperation on investigating the origins of Covid-19, cyber attacks on the US, US treatment of Chinese technology companies, and so on.

Tit-for-tat sanctions

Tit-for-tat responses, the next stage to general grumbling, have begun. When the US capped the number of Chinese citizens who could be employed by Chinese media outlets, China sent home some US journalists by not renewing their visas. When the US started targeting Huawei and raised national security concerns about use of its telecom equipment, China responded by targeting Tesla and prohibited the use of its vehicles by Chinese government officials on national security grounds. There have been tit-for-tat sanctions on high-ranking officials too.

China’s goal to be a global technology power and shift its focus on the domestic economy is often seen as a response to US’s positioning, but the reasons run deep. When China insisted on joint ventures rather than subsidiaries and nominated the Chinese partner, US companies willingly agreed. After all, the US companies wanted cheap manufacturing in the short term and hoped for local market access in the long term. They were ready to sacrifice their technological know-how in the process. Credit China for making its firms learn in the process and then grow out of the shell. Study the GM collaboration with Shanghai Automotive Investment Corporation, a Chinese government company, as an illustration.

The push for technology superiority is not just restricted to building manufacturing skills but extends into setting technology standards. Study China’s development of 5G as an illustrative case. And all this fits in nicely with China’s desire, as frequently touted by opinion columns in the party’s paper Global Times, of a ‘peaceful rise’ as a global power.

Contrary to the previous Democrat administration of Obama, Biden’s view of China is more akin to that of former Republican President Trump. In this, Biden is supported by a tough bi-partisan view of both houses of Congress. Countries wanting good relations with both have to make tough choices.

If US-China relations plunge into the kind of cold war that existed between the US and Russia, global growth will take a hit. However, American penchant to buy stuff is driven by consumerism and not coloured by nationalism. A Chinese businessperson is reported, in a recent article in the New Yorker, as saying that his sales jumped immediately after the US distributed stimulus cheques to its people!

The writer is an emeritus professor at Suffolk University, Boston

Published on April 07, 2021

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