Is there a way to manage US-China relations? The Statesman

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NEW DELHI (THE STATESMAN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) – Rising to the China challenge has been exercising the minds of US policymakers over the past decade but never more so than now, as U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration attempts to reset the Sino-American relationship after the Donald Trump disruption and the perception that the US troop pull-out from Afghanistan has allowed Beijing to expand its strategic footprint.

In a major, and somewhat rare, intervention, John R. Allen – President of the Brookings Institution well-plugged into the Democratic establishment – and his colleagues Ryan Hass and Bruce Jones last week published a paper outlining recommendations to navigate competition, avoid crises, and advance US interests in relations with China.

The policy calibrations suggested by Allen, Hass and Jones have evoked significant interest in Washington and, coming as they do against the backdrop of the current framework for managing bilateral relations having frayed, may well form the basis on which the USA pursues its strategic rivalry with China in the foreseeable future.

The management of US-China relations has been susceptible to two schools of thought with incoming US administrations going with one or the other.

The first is a strategy of what the authors term “omnidirectional containment” which seeks to confront and constrain China, thereby limiting Beijing’s expanding capacity in the military, technological, economic, developmental, normative, and multilateral spheres.

It also seeks to undermine the legitimacy of its governance and economic models and blunt China’s diplomatic gains. There is a coherence to this approach but it also carries greater costs and risks as it limits the ability of American allies to buy into it given that they are more susceptible to a blowback from China, especially economically.

Obviously, US-China coordination on issues of global concern is severely inhibited under this maximalist framework, as is the countries’ ability to defuse tensions as there is no give.

The alternative strategy is a variation of the pre-Trump status quo, where an effort to secure cooperation from Beijing on global issues like climate change is prioritised along with efforts to expand access to the Chinese market.

But for this dovish attitude to have a chance of producing the desired results would require not just a shift in American policy but a fundamental change in Chinese behaviour, both external and domestic.

That looks increasingly unrealistic, as even the left-liberal US establishment now admits.

The Brookings’ intervention aims to maximise America’s ability to influence how a belligerent Beijing pursues its interests even as Washington secures the participation of allies, support of the US public, and acquiescence of key political constituencies in America.

Characterised as a concept of “persistent competition leavened with calibrated cooperation”, it recognises strategic competition as the baseline of the relationship which avoids disappointment by aiming for amity but also resists fatalistic assumptions that conflict between the two nations is historically inevitable.

Concurrent American investments in the capacity to deter and to deal with differences diplomatically backed by a “force posture” is vital in this scheme of things. As is the need to inoculate critical global systems from debilitating US-China competition. This will need to happen mostly under the aegis of multinational groupings so neither side is seen aiding an initiative led by the other.

  • The Statesman is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 regional media titles.

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