Analysis by Allawi Ssemanda and Aziz Kalisa.
Vice President Joe Biden talks with Chinese Vice President Xi and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger during a luncheon at the State Department, in Washington, DC, February 14, 2012. Curtesy Photo.
For a number of years, United Sates of America (U.S) and China relations has been worsening. Issues ranging from trade, technology, alleged influence peddling, military activities and human rights have always been cited as catalyst for animosity between Washington and Beijing.
Several analysts contend that whereas the origins of this undoubtedly destructive animosity have been in existence for several years, many argue that under the Trump administration, it has greatly worsened to unprecedented levels, on many occasions involving what some viewed as demonising rhetorics from Washington targeting Beijing, with overly exaggerated and clearly inaccurate assessment(s) of the so-called serious threat Beijing poses to the U.S and allies, giving Trump’s Whitehouse an opportunity to continuously announce sanctions and threats against Beijing. Whether Trump administration’s claims of eminent threats from Beijing are right or otherwise, Trump’s response has always been excessive, political, feckless and largely self-defeating especially his trade traffics against China.
Upon critical analysis of remarks and the known policy position of president elect, Joe Biden, his political associates and those of Democratic Party, as night follows day, one can argue that a Biden presidency is very likely to correct many of Trump’s glaring and egregious mistakes while dealing with Beijing. However, this doesn’t guarantee we will see a total change ending Washington’s bipartisan shift seen in recent years identifying Beijing as U. S’ grand competitor.
However, there is much hope that gone will be the obvious over-the-top ideological rhetoric, endless wee hours tweets and provoking hints suggesting the need for regime change. An argument can be made that the Trump administration’s failure to understand that there is need for the two world’s leading economies to cooperate on key issues such as controlling pandemics, climate change and other crude policy excuses were overly ineffective and costly on key issues like the much-needed trade relations and technology decoupling.
Washington with a more professional and well-coordinated policy processes, a president that is willing to read and absorb briefings of intelligence community and take experts advice, we can predict that gone will be the contradiction and chaos of a Commander in Chief who conducts policy through tweets. Put differently, Biden administration is likely to act more professional, balanced, and arguably, it will try to avoid trade tariffs and decoupling and embrace dialogue.
Yes, all the above really sounds great. However, the real hurdle is seen when we dive into details, and arguably, such clearly called-for redefining and amendments by the new administration to U.S’ China policy will most likely find it hard to redefine and address some other more fundamental realities in regard to bilateral power relations, key being the U.S. leverage Washington hawks may want to see especially America’s position in the entire Asian region.
Presently, the U.S is a deeply divided country as a result of their November 3rd messy presidential elections. History has it that whenever U.S leaders want to unite Americans, leaders always come up with an issue to bring together all Americans under the so-called rally around the flag. Pondering at this, a few questions come up: Will the new Biden Administration follow Trump’s path of demonising and blaming China, referring to Beijing as U.S’ existential threat and the current global order, hence move on justifying worst case assumptions on virtually all China related policies?
Some analysts argue that this is a tact often employed by both Republicans and Democrats in their effort to scare American people so as to get their support for huge defence budgets as well as more unthoughtful and draconian policies toward China. The notion that China is a threat to the U.S and the world order is definitely entirely unjustified. On many occasions, Chinese president Xi Jinping has been clear that China ‘will not seek to dominate’, secondly, at present, analysts believe Beijing is not interested in war since it would disrupt their long plans of economic development. Also, Beijing is not interested in disrupting the current world order as some hawks in Washington contend, this is largely because it is the same order that Beijing has navigated to move to the top. This is evidenced with China’s continued support to the current Global order, such as at the United Nations, World Health Organization, World Trade Organization, World Bank among others.
Upon that background, one can confidently say the fears Washington often talks about that Beijing poses are inaccurate, and grossly exaggerated. This lays a foundation for a second question: Will president Biden appreciate such facts and accurately define where and how China is a threat to Washington as some hawks claim? Such an approach will present Washington in a more sober and pragmatic stance and hence, possibly ease relations and any dealings with Beijing. Other than this, the Biden presidency risks being swallowed with unsubstantiated characterisation at Capitol Hill who believe in Libido dominand concept and back those who don’t believe in a fair competition which will prioritise nothing but a zero-sum game, move with containment methods instead of the much needed constructive forms of engagement which would bring positive results for both.
The other key question is: will Biden administration accept the new bitter reality that gone is the era of Unipolar when the U.S enjoyed military dominance across maritime areas of Asia and such an era will certainly not return in the near future? It is important to note that U.S politicians at Capitol Hill – both republicans and democrats still reflexively boast of America’s military might and the supposed necessity of the U.S to maintain unchanged level of their military dominance in the region of the Asian Pacific while moving to China’s borders as they claim their so-called “freedom of action” in the area. Arguably, one can conclude that it is naïve of Capitol Hill politicians to maintain that poorly conceived notion – that U.S military predominance can help to ensure order, and it is also delusional to imagine that the U.S has that much needed financial muscle of ensuring they retain the kind of military prowess very close to China as they wish to.
The open secret is that the world is headed to a de facto balance of power in Western Pacific between U.S and respective allies on one hand and China on the other. The trouble is that by nature, such balances often are risky – tempting each side to test its strength and leverage. In this case, the issue of Taiwan and Chinese maritime disputes with the United States and her allies may become a reality. However, if the Biden administration approach to the Taiwan question respecting China’s one country policy, arguably, Washington and Beijing will enjoy good relations.
It is upon this background that the new administration in Washington should recognise this strategic shift in the region and the likely negative implications it pauses should Washington politicians insist with their now fruitless efforts of retaining U.S predominance in the region. The most available short- and long-term remedy here is for the Biden administration to ensure Capitol Hill politicians swallow their pride, and transition from defensive and denial-oriented structures, drop the self-given responsibility of policing the region and allow their allies like Japan to own their security, and embrace dialogue with Beijing. Through dialogue, the two sides can initiate a strategic civil-military dialogue through which effective and crisis management mechanism can be established to avoid any future confrontations on issues like South China Sea and the Taiwan Question.
In conclusion, the Biden administration may consider adjusting America’s political alliances in the region, this in the long run will help them realise a positive-sum engagement across the region Beijing inclusive which will help them realise an overall stability and economic growth. When deeply analysed, an uncombative and less military-driven U.S that is willing to cooperate while listening and respecting Beijing’s concern’s in the region will give the above views a chance to thrive and hence the said stable balance, thereby giving the two powers an opportunity of ensuring peace and stable economic development both in the region and beyond compared to the current form of relationship which is a form of contestation for total supremacy. If all the above is considered, the authors believe it will give the Biden administration an opportunity to address the questions we raised earlier and help the U.S to meet some of their interest with regard to China instead of simply trying to right the incompetences left by Trump administration.
Allawi Ssemanda is a senior Research Fellow at Development Watch Centre with focus on Global Governance, Foreign Policy
Aziz Kalisa is a Ugandan Lawyer and Research Fellow at Development Watch Centre.