In the course of a few months, relations between China and the United States deteriorated sharply. Accusations about the spread of Covid-19, the complex issues related to Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang, US sanctions imposed on Huawei, the tech competition and the trade war, and diplomatic tensions: These are the salient features of a geopolitical dispute that has worried – and continues to worry – the international community.
The reality is very complex. The ideological differences between China and the United States have led to divergent positions in both the political and economic fields, within which diatribes between Beijing and Washington are escalating. In such an uncertain framework, experts wonder if it is really too late to hope for a change in the paradigms that are defining the relationship between these two world superpowers.
In November, the US presidential elections will be held, and millions of American citizens will be called on to write a new chapter in the political landscape of their country by choosing between incumbent President Donald Trump and his adversary Joe Biden. The results will certainly determine a shift in the dynamics that are currently shaping the international-relations chessboard; however, to what extent these changes could eventually determine a revolution in Sino-American ties remains to be seen.
Indeed, even if Trump and Biden appear to have different approaches to critical issues, it should not be taken for granted that a victory of the latter will result in a significant turning point in favor of Beijing.
First, Trump’s successor will have to face a complicated picture at home – the repercussions of the Covid-19 emergency and its mismanagement, discontent and fractures within the American societal fabric, and the economic crisis bring to light the need for the US to handle internal problems as an absolute priority.
To show his political strength, the new president will likely maintain a tough position to protect national interests and to boost people’s confidence in the government, including in how he deals with foreign actors – and especially China.
Second, Biden has condemned China’s internal security law, claiming that it is undermining the principles of freedom and democracy in Hong Kong. But he has used equally severe words to talk about China when issues related to technology and intellectual property were analyzed.
Finally, Biden and Trump are on the same page when the idea of a Western alliance to engage with China is considered. More specifically, the Democratic candidate endorses the construction of a united front to confront China on a number of issues with the support of trusted US allies.
But does it really make sense for these two major international players to pursue this path? What leaders decide implies costs – whether evaluated in political, economic, or social terms – whose repercussions have a significant impact in the long term.
In the political sphere, for example, Donald Trump’s tough line has led the US to step away from its traditional role as a leader. Recently, for instance, the Trump administration ordered the closure of the Chinese Consulate in Houston, Texas, claiming that it was an espionage hub. China reacted to the move and ordered the closure of the US Consulate in the city of Chengdu.
Such unprecedented measures put in place by Washington, along with the harsh tone used in official speeches to picture China as a major threat to the world, reversed decades of diplomacy and made the US appear to be an irrational actor.
In economic terms, a decoupling could be costly and undesirable because of the high level of interconnection between the US and Chinese economies. Since the very beginning, the pandemic has emphasized how the disruption of supply chains in China could be translated into severe repercussions for US companies. China is, in fact, integrated in the supply chains that involve American and other foreign companies.
In social terms, the current administration’s policy feeds a narrative that is divisive. More specifically, there is widespread anti-Chinese sentiment among US citizens, making it hard to believe that the newly elected president would distance himself from these voices, taking the risk of losing consensus.
Furthermore, the bilateral tensions between China and the United States do not involve only Beijing and Washington. They rather affect the international community, putting pressure on other countries to choose sides, and consequently creating a fractured global context that recalls tones and policies that were typical during the Cold War.
History taught the lesson, but a few are showing the will to learn it by understanding the importance of cooperating by focusing on common interests instead of confrontation. If the United States aims to restore its leading role and reputation on the international stage, it needs to modify such an unproductive modus operandi.
At home and abroad, Washington has created a political vacuum, appearing less credible in its actions, but the path to reaffirming its influence cannot be found in a protracted geopolitical confrontation with China. In the aftermath of the US elections, it should be hoped that the two countries will find new ways to co-exist.