The United States and China represent the most important – and potentially the most perilous – bilateral relationship in human history. Given this reality, neither side is managing its growing tensions with the right skills or a sustainable strategy.
That’s how Stephen Heintz of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund put it in a conversation with me a few days ago. It’s also the subtext of conversations I’ve had with world leaders visiting Washington, DC this week for IMF and World Bank meetings.
US-Soviet relations defined the Cold War, with both sides building an unprecedented nuclear capability to devastate each other, and much more. Before that, the Anglo-American relationship was decisive, from intense American-British competition to the 19e century to an alliance that prevented fascist victory during WWII in the 20e century.
Yet Heintz’s argument is compelling that the US-China relationship has unique historical significance, based on their multidimensional nature that touches just about every aspect of world affairs now and for the foreseeable future.
It is true whether you are concerned about the world war, the world economy, climate change, human rights, the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, the future of space or the accelerated race to the summits. of technology. Never has the world relied so heavily on the ability of two countries to manage their relations in a dizzying array of fields.
Accuracy of data relating to the Chinese economy, which for many years was the main engine of global growth, took center stage at IMF and World Bank meetings this week. The controversy revolved around allegations that IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva asked her colleagues, when she was a senior World Bank official, to find a way to strengthen China’s position in her flagship Doing report. Business 2018.
Georgieva has denied any wrongdoing. The IMF’s executive board, which has met eight times to review his plight, concluded that its review of the allegations “did not conclusively demonstrate that the managing director played an inappropriate role.” The board reaffirmed its confidence in Georgieva’s leadership, but the controversy is expected to continue.
The subtext is that any leader of an international institution must deal with the reality that China will increasingly act to influence, lead, or replace the world’s most important multilateral bodies, in this case the global lender of last resort.
Meanwhile, senior government officials in Washington this week, representing the world’s largest economies, had many other reasons for concern: an ongoing energy crisis, rising inflation, slowing growth and growing climate concerns ahead of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26, which begins October 31 in Glasgow, Scotland.
A senior official from one of the United States’ most important allies, speaking anonymously, said all of this had become more difficult to deal with due to the increasing volatility in the US-China relationship, generated by both their differences and their national realities.
China is moving towards more authoritarian leadership at home and more confrontational policies abroad as it flexes its regional and global muscles. Amidst the disorderly and polarizing US policy, following a poorly executed Afghan withdrawal and the lack of clarity on the US strategy towards Beijing, the partners question the US commitment, competence and capacity for a global common cause.
The senior Allied official said his country’s biggest medium to long-term economic risk is for growing tensions between the United States and China to turn into a conflict that engulfs his country. “Few of us can afford to make a decision between the United States and China,” he said. “So please don’t ask us to do this. “
It’s not that America’s allies are naive about the unfortunate path President Xi Jinping is giving his country. It’s just that a lot of them have China as their number one trading partner – including the European Union as a whole, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. United Arab Emirates. China accounted for nearly 30% of global growth between 2013 and 2018, double that of the United States
Much of the most recent analysis regarding China has revolved around two immediate issues: the growing signs of China’s economic fragility, after decades of double-digit growth, and the increase in saber-rattling and threats to Taiwan,
The two could be linked.
A growing number of analysts argue that it could be China’s weaknesses rather than its strengths that pose the greatest dangers. Logic dictates that President Xi, if his economic woes worsen, might choose to stoke nationalism by stepping up confrontations with the United States, with Taiwan being the most tempting target. The most immediate source of economic concern, aside from further power shortages, has been the collapse of Chinese real estate giant Evergrande amid missed bond payments and under the weight of $ 300 billion in loans.
“If Chinese policymakers manage to pivot their economy to become more productive and dynamic, the risk for Washington is real,” writes Michael Schuman, a new member of the Atlantic Council. “If, however, it turns out that China is more like Evergrande – a brilliant growth story with a rotten core – then Beijing’s ambitions will crumble, much like the real estate company’s.”
Bonny Lin and David Sacks argue this week in Foreign Affairs that “China’s increasingly aggressive behavior” towards Taiwan “makes a cross-Strait emergency more likely. But the risk of a crisis arises less from the possibility of a crisis. ‘an immediate Chinese invasion as an accident or miscalculation that becomes fatal – a mid-air collision between Chinese and Taiwanese jets. “
It all feels like the perilous start of an uncertain era that lacks established rules or patterns of behavior. The United States is not used to such questioning of its role, and China is not used to dealing with global tensions.
It should be remembered that the US-Soviet relationship was probably the most dangerous from 1945 to 1962. In the 17 years following World War II, both sides went through a series of crises, culminating in the Cuban Missile Crisis. in 1962, before the relationship evolved into more predictable contours.
Two senior officials in the Biden administration, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Senior Coordinator for Asia, Kurt Campbell, impressively set out their 2019 thinking in Foreign Affairs on how to navigate US relations. -Chinese.
That was before they knew they would own the challenge inside the White House. They are now working on a virtual US-China summit before the end of the year, and the two sides have moved towards working talks on several key issues.
Under the title Competition without Disaster, Sullivan and Campbell wrote in 2019, “The starting point of the right American approach must be humility in the ability of decisions made in Washington to determine the direction of long-term developments in Beijing… (the United States) should seek to reach not a final decision. end state similar to the ultimate conclusion of the Cold War, but a stable state of lucid coexistence on terms favorable to US interests and values. “
Whether they succeed will shape the global future.