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A US-China clash is not unthinkable

US foreign policy updates

The most worrying aspect about talk of a new cold war is that it breeds complacency. The first one ended peacefully in 1991 when the Soviet Union folded its tent. The US-USSR ideological contest implied that one side could triumph if the other’s system failed, which is what happened. Cold war 2.0 offers a different spectre — escalating geopolitical rivalry between the world’s two largest powers with no clear exit ramp.

It is possible that the “relentless diplomacy” Joe Biden promised at the UN this week could work on China. He has yet to secure a meaningful dialogue with an increasingly paranoid Beijing. By contrast, Biden is making rapid progress on coalitions that could further stoke China’s wolf warrior instincts. Last week’s Aukus deal with Australia and the UK, followed by this Friday’s Quad summit with Australia, India and Japan are tangible ripostes to China’s growing military reach.

Biden’s stance is to work with China where America’s goals overlap — such as fighting global warming and stopping the next pandemic — and confront where they diverge, such as on human rights, Taiwan, freedom of navigation and technological rivalry. The strongest winds, however, are towards confrontation. Two stand out. The most important is the hawkish domestic US consensus on China.

Much has been said about Washington DC’s so-called blob. In reality, the US foreign policy community has been split for years over the wisdom of US wars of choice and necessity, including in Afghanistan. On China, Washington is largely of one mind. Biden will win no brownie points by getting to the left of it. Leading realist dissenters from America’s post-9/11 adventurism applauded last week’s Aukus pact.

The second is America’s allergy to trade and investment deals. It is no coincidence that China last week applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership — the world’s largest trading group, originally an American idea — just after Aukus was announced. It is highly unlikely China will be admitted to the club in the near future in spite of America’s absence. It takes just one CPTPP member, such as Japan or Australia, to block its application.

The medium term is a different matter. Beijing’s economic ability to punish or reward its neighbours is greater than America’s, given the far larger volume of regional trade with China. The US could counter that by joining the CPTPP, or by opening talks on data standards and digital services. That would meet Asia’s strong demand for US commercial engagement. Unfortunately, US politics — particularly the left of the Democratic party — is nearly as averse to digital deals as it is to ones on trade. Suspicions of Silicon Valley hinder Biden’s scope even to make such overtures.

This is another contrast with cold war 1.0 — today’s America lacks the appetite to take the lead on global integration that it did in the post-war decades. The fact that Washington is happy to wield its Pentagon stick but leave its commercial tools to one side is pushing US-China rivalry in a more antagonistic direction.

For all of China’s missteps on its Belt and Road project, neither America nor its allies are willing to match what China is spending on other countries’ infrastructure. All of which dulls the biggest silver lining of today’s cold war — the interdependence of the US and Chinese economies. The Soviets and Americans operated in separate trading blocks. Today’s Washington wants to decouple from China.

There is nothing in Biden’s worldview that implies he would want to risk conflict with China. His priorities are domestic. Moreover, he has deep faith that the American idea will always win. Aukus came in response to a request from Australia, enthusiastically sponsored by a post-Brexit UK. Biden did not intend to snub France and will doubtless try to mend relations. But that is ultimately a sideshow. The biggest shaper of our futures will be the trajectory of US-China rivalry.

Several near-misses during the first cold war taught America that it was wise to get inside Soviet heads and see the world from their perspective. There is less such knowledge of China in today’s DC. Sinologists are thinner on the ground. Efforts to set up a hotline between Beijing and Washington have yet to bear fruit. The margin for error is not great. The more Biden could acknowledge the possibility of a US-China collision — by accident or ignorance — the more he can reduce the risk. 

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