Author: Editorial Board, ANU
The world’s two largest powers are on a collision course. Strategic competition between the United States and China is ratcheting up, driven by both countries’ nationalism and psychologies of exceptionalism and righteousness which make it difficult to show weakness or back down in the face of perceived affronts to their dignity or interests.
Guardrails that protect against deterioration of bilateral relations, and even armed conflict, are being dismantled. Earlier hopes of cooperation, at least on global collective action problems like pandemic management and recovery and climate change, have all but disappeared. The inflationary and other economic costs of trade and technology decoupling are being disregarded.
There’s plenty of blame to go around. President Xi Jinping doing away with term limits and taking China down a path of illiberalism is no longer a matter for China alone given its share of the global economy and integration into it. The global market has never had to manage an economy of the size of China with a political system that’s daily becoming more opaque. China is no longer hiding and biding its time and its assertive behaviour and attempts to influence other countries have shown a nasty side of power.
For its part, the United States has traded leadership of the global commons for a policy of undermining the system, which it thinks it may favour China. The trade war has been escalated into full economic warfare with extraterritorial unilateral sanctions on what are said to be strategically important semiconductors that have the goal of crimping China’s technological rise.
Everything is now cast in zero-sum terms, even what one would think are obvious collective action problems like mitigating and managing the existential risks from climate change. There used to be offramps to strategic competition: even after the start of the Trump trade war, both the United States and China were willing to do deals like the Phase One trade agreement (as damaging as that was to other countries, including dependable US allies like Australia). Amazingly, the potential for cooperation and positive-sum competition seems to have deteriorated even further after Trump.
Neither Washington nor Beijing appears to recognise each other’s clear reaction function to the other. Either that or they do, and are deliberately trying to raise the temperature to induce the other into provocation that might justify a showdown.
The exercise of sovereign agency for its own sake — without respect for the wishes of the other party — might feel good. But it makes the world a more dangerous place. Positive outcomes are what matter, not conformance to the equivalence of some non-existent self-idealisation.
US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and former Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s call for an investigation with ‘weapons inspector-like’ powers into the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak are both prime examples of achieving the opposite of a policy’s ostensible goal. Taiwan’s democracy is no safer after Pelosi’s visit. After Australia’s investigation proposal China predictably became defensive and Australia made it harder to secure Western involvement in investigations into the origins of COVID-19.
Chinese officials may believe they are aggrieved and need to better assert their position to the world. But wolf warrior diplomacy has been a disaster for China’s standing in the global community. China has managed to unite elites and ordinary people in the West and even much of the non-aligned world into hardening positions against it.
As Jia Qingguo argues in this week’s lead essay, ‘the kind of role China will play in regional security cooperation … does not depend on China alone’. There’s a reaction function in both directions that’s not difficult to see. ‘How China approaches regional security cooperation depends not just on China’s own actions, but on how the United States and its allies address China’s legitimate security concerns’. This does not mean, he quickly adds, that ‘what China says and does do not matter. It does’.
This suggests a role for US allies like Australia, Japan, South Korea and Singapore that are stuck in the middle of strategic competition across the Pacific.
Australia and Japan in particular have a fear of abandonment from their US ally that leads some of their leaders to egg on their American security guarantor as it intensifies strategic competition with China. It’s a dangerous game: in…