Think Tank
The Shift in US-China Relations and the Dream of ‘Asian Century’

For two decades, the US-China conflict has been simmering, under a shell of diversified and productive cooperation, as if it insured both parties against serious troubles. Now, however, we see how this shell is bursting at the seams and torn under the pressure of conflict factors that have reached a critical mass, writes Valdai Club expert Viktor Sumsky.

It would be no exaggeration to say that in 2020 we have witnessed a shift in ties between Beijing and Washington, and that we have yet to comprehend its multifaceted, long-term consequences, which affect not only Russia but also Asia and the rest of the world. The worsening of Sino-American relations (partly influenced by COVID-19 and election fever in the United States, but not only because of them) took place so rapidly at some point in the middle of the past summer, that Washington and Beijing literally slipped past the “point of no return”. For two decades, their conflict has been simmering, under a shell of productive cooperation and interdependence, as if it insured both parties against serious troubles. Now, however, we see how this shell is bursting at the seams and torn under the pressure of conflict factors that have reached a critical mass. Many signs suggest that the new dominant feature of relations is precisely conflict, while the remaining elements of cooperation look like a relic of the past. There has been, as the Marxists say, an abrupt transition from quantity to quality.

In June-July 2020, this fact was personally confirmed by the highest officials of the Republican administration — Trump’s National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, FBI Director Christopher Wray, Attorney General William Barr and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. One after another, these leaders unleashed the crudest verbal attacks on China and demonised its party and state leadership. Especially “insulting” in this sense were the statements of Pompeo, made on July 24 this year in Yorba Linda, California from the podium of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library. In the United States itself, and in the PRC, and in the rest of the world they were regarded — in my opinion, quite rightly — as a declaration of a cold war with China. The only victory sought in such a struggle would be regime change in the Celestial Empire.

Some may treat this, on one hand, as purely propagandistic excesses and a by-product of the electoral race, and on the other, as a purely bilateral affair, concerning only the quarrelling parties. However, at least two interrelated moments blur this perception.

First, the verbal assaults against China are not simply hot air. On the contrary, they reflect interrelated, systemic measures of economic and military-political pressure, and on the reshaping of the regional space in the spirit of the well-known Indo-Pacific strategy of the United States.

Second, due to the ties between modern China and its closest neighbours, these measures cannot but affect their economic and political well-being.

For a long time, a relatively predictable US-China relationship was perceived in Asia, in particular, by the ASEAN member states, as a sure guarantee of their continued economic recovery, while maintaining, if not expanding, their strategic autonomy. Now, against the backdrop of the well-known consequences of the pandemic, when two of the world’s leading economies are at loggerheads, the prospects for restarting economic and entrepreneurial activities in Asia look less and less encouraging.

Is it legitimate to count, for example, on a trouble-free restart of the old “growth engines”? It is doubtful — if only because in the past, their fantastic efficiency was supported by two powerful and coordinated “power sources” — the US and China.

Even if their decoupling is incomplete, it will not be painless for both of them, nor for their many Asian partners — with corresponding consequences for the economic dynamics of the entire region.

It is impossible to ignore the now-popular Indo-Pacific conceptual framework. Its inextricable link to the American-led quadripartite military-naval alliance, or Quad, is a compelling argument that it is not a framework for inclusive regional cooperation and economic integration, no matter who or what tries to argue otherwise. This is a framework built to counterbalance the inclusive Asia-Pacific cooperation format with the prospect of its de facto abolition. Wasn’t it the older format that contributed much to the rise of China, the consolidation of a special, central role for ASEAN in the processes of regional construction, and the inclusion of the Russian Federation in these processes?

The direction in which the Quad participants intend to lead Asia is also evidenced by the emergence in 2020 of the Quad+ format, in which a multilateral dialogue — initially on the topic of combating COVID-19, but then on a wider range of issues — that New Zealand, South Korea and Vietnam were invited. At the very end of the year, after the presidential elections in the United States, in the expert circles who are frankly not indifferent to the Indo-Pacific idea, exchanges of views are struck not only about the future of Quad, but about whether it is time to rebuild this grouping in a new way, taking the North Atlantic Alliance as a template (with idea that in the process of such a transformation it would be nice to expand its membership). The priorities of the future “Asian NATO” are already being written quite substantively. This list includes increasing the operational interoperability of fleets and troops, the interaction of “friendly armies” in the fields of communications and logistics, the fight against terrorism, exchanges of intelligence data, ensuring cyber security, use of artificial intelligence technology by the military, etc.

The general impression is that projects are being worked out in this way to create exclusive — and in this sense, alternative platforms, for example, to the East Asia Summit for discussing regional and global security problems. The platforms on which dialogues will go “among the allies”, without the participation of China or Russia — with an eye to contain them, to force countries that will allow themselves to be drawn into this game, to reject proposals for cooperation from China and Russia, and to comply with sanctions against them. With this development of events, the threat of marginalisation, up to the practical loss of the central role in regional affairs, would hang over ASEAN.

Is it likely that, having assumed the presidency, Biden would support the line regarding China and Asia and Russia which took shape under Trump? It seems that the likelihood of such a scenario is quite high. In the end, during the pre-election period, Biden outlined his anti-Chinese sentiments more than definitely (although, as we know, he attacked Russia even more severely). More important, however, is that the qualitative shift in US-China relations in 2020 expressed the general logic of the evolution of these relations in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. It is unlikely that Biden does not understand that resisting this implacable logic is counterproductive from the Grand Strategy perspective. Another matter is all sorts of tactical ploys, including deception. I would be extremely surprised if the new administration is not preparing such surprises.

One way or another, the question arises: will the 21st century really be the “century of Asia”, as has been confidently predicted many times (including at the Valdai Club meetings)?

Considering how much Asia has already achieved in matters of social modernisation and state-building, I would never rule it out. But I have to stress: judging by the current trends, much more serious obstacles may arise on the way towards the “Asian Century” than it seemed recently.

These obstacles will not disappear by themselves. It will take a lot of energy and resources to overcome them along with ability to come to terms on joint actions and the endless, truly Asian, patience. If history is any guide, you cannot achieve great goals by following short, straight and even paths.

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