The relationship with China is probably the most important one, not only for the U.S. but for the whole system. Because the two are the planet’s biggest economies. And, recently, China’s president declared that in three decades his country pulled 700 million people out of poverty, which is significant for the dynamism of the Chinese economy. Because the future of the system – whether the global economy will register growth or not, whether international tensions will grow worse or not, whether there will be a hegemonic war or not etc. – is dependent on the China-U.S. relationship, and there are numerous arguments in this sense. Because the intensely circulated political science concept of “Thucydides’s trap” represents a sword of Damocles hanging above the system’s future, the hegemon (U.S.) and the challenger (China), as they mutually perceive each other, inexorably moving toward hegemonic clash, just like Athens and Sparta did almost 2,500 years ago.
While before D. Trump’s rise to the presidency the American political elite debated the cooperation/competition alternative in the relationship with China, with the paths taken in recent years favouring a postponement of the decision (the amplification of trade which presumes future cooperation, but also the triggering of the “Asian pivot,” hence the concentration of its own power in Asia, launched by Obama in 2011 in preparation of the emergence of the signs of hegemonic conflict), things changed on 21 January 2017. Has the decision been already taken, in other words has Washington decided that the only path available is that of competition/confrontation?
Based at least on the first statements made and measures taken not just by the new U.S. president but also by members of his cabinet, it seems the answer to this question is affirmative. The president started the volley before his inauguration, announcing the abandonment of the “One China” principle which has guided Washington’s policy since the 1970s, so since Richard Nixon’s famous openness toward Beijing. Let’s note that this reorientation announced by Trump came almost half a century after the adoption of the previous strategy in which Henri Kissinger had a preeminent role.
In November-December 2016, China expressed its dissatisfaction both through official statements as well as through the press, and hoped that the tumult of the U.S. elections campaign was still inertial and the responsibility of governance would soon calm things. However, what followed was the new administration opening a new competition dossier, one concerning what the media calls the orientation toward protectionism and the ‘renationalisation’ of American industries previously relocated to China in most part. This is what is being intensely debated now, whether the phenomenon of globalisation, which has profoundly influenced humanity’s evolution in the last two decades, has given way to protectionism/isolationism under the slogan “Make America Great Again” (MAGA). While it seems that the U.S., under Trump, will build the walls of protectionism and real walls in the path of migrants, two weekends ago, at the prestigious summit of global personalities in Davos, Chinese President Xi positioned himself as America’s substitute in leading the globalisation it gave up on. The comments on the Chinese President’s globalist speech in Davos matched Xi’s performance:
“Carl Bildt @carlbildt Jan 17
There is a vacuum when it comes to global economic leadership, and Xi Jinping is clearly aiming to fill it. With some success. #wef17”
Or the same Carl Bildt, commenting on China Daily’s front-page photo and “Xi: bust open economies” headline:
“Carl Bildt @carlbildt Jan 18
Well, things are somewhat upside down these days. Lenin and Mao look unusually dead.”
Or from the Financial Times: „The defence of globalization offered in Davos by the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, was warmly received. One senior EU official says that, with Mr. Trump threatening to renege on the Paris accords on climate change‚ it will be up to the EU and China to take the lead on climate change”.
Hence, a significant change in the global geopolitical landscape, an overturning of alliances that those less trained in history’s twists and turns find difficult to understand.
The third issue that intervened in recent weeks in the bilateral relationship has to do with the artificial islands and China’s actions in the South China Sea. On January 11, during the Congress hearings for his confirmation as U.S. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson stated that the U.S. will not allow China access to the artificial islands where weapons systems have been installed and military-grade airstrips have been built. Some American experts downplayed these statements, but in Beijing Chinese diplomacy reacted calmly, refusing to elaborate on its reaction to a hypothetical situation but reaffirming its “non-negotiable sovereignty” over the Spratly Islands and the territorial waters around them. Moreover, insisting on the negotiation of the issues disputed with regional states, Beijing suggested that this is an issue that does not concern the U.S. A Chinese newspaper did not hesitate to write that any American blockade of China’s access to the aforementioned islands could trigger “a full-scale war.” Just two days after the inauguration of the 45th American President, the White House spokesperson reiterated the issue, his statements being unequivocal, besides representing an official endorsement. In a press conference on 23 January 2017, answering a question on whether the president agrees with Tillerson’s statements, the White House spokesperson said that “the U.S. is going to make sure that we protect our interests there,” and that “it’s a question of if those islands are in fact in international waters and not part of China proper, then yeah, we’re going to make sure that we defend international territories from being taken over by one country.”
This time, the Chinese diplomacy’s response was prompt: “China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and their adjacent waters,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson said, adding that “the United States is not a party to the South China Sea issue.” The latter is in reference to the fact that the U.S. is not involved in the litigation in this maritime area, so Beijing considers that the solution to the problem lies in negotiation with the riparian states, America being invited not to interfere. China points out it will allow free passage to commercial ships, but considers that the American navy should not take specific actions, the underwater drone that the Chinese captured last month being mentioned. On the other hand, Washington states that its navy has the mission to maintain sea lines of communication open.
Any way one looks at this – one should not underestimate the fact that there are numerous analyses which state that President Trump will change his opinions under the influence of his advisors, leaving behind him the elections campaign or post-elections campaign discourse –, China considers itself threatened and does not hesitate saying it. In a very recent comment made by a high-level Chinese military official, war with the U.S. is entering the domain of the real during President Trump’s term in office.
Thus, in a comment made last Friday, January 27, a member of China’s Central Military Committee, the body that directly deals with national security issues, pointed out that the U.S. armed forces’ rebalancing toward Asia, the deployment of U.S. military assets in the seas around China and the deployment of the ballistic missile defence shield in South Korea shows that war has become “more real,” that these “flash points” are “getting closer to ignition.” It is no secret that if, back in October, China announced it was holding joint exercises with Russia in the cyber-defence domain and on countering the U.S. ballistic missile defence system, its interest in the EU and its security and defence dimension has become very obvious lately.
In other words, against the backdrop of American statements deemed threatening for its security, China is geopolitically repositioning itself, while concurrently carrying out military preparations.