US and China: On dangerous path to collision

  • Asian Editors Circle
  • Sunday, 10 May 2020

WHAT would happen if the unstoppable American urge to cling on to global dominance runs smack into the immovable Chinese resolve not to be bullied into submission?

Well, a continuation of the existing tense but still non-violent stand-off is probably the best one can hope for. However, there is at least an even chance that sparks will fly and thus ignite a firestorm that some observers say is just waiting to happen. The next few months before the American presidential election in early November will be especially dangerous.

Even American commentators are in no doubt that President Donald Trump, whose incompetence in handling the Covid-19 outbreak in the United States is threatening his chances of re-election, is scratching around for a distraction. Starting a crisis elsewhere is what the standard political playbook recommends. China fits the bill. Hence the concerted campaign to paint it as the villain behind the pandemic – and the demands to make it pay.

He has laid the groundwork by telling Reuters in an interview last week that the Chinese would do anything they could to make him lose his re-election bid as they believe a president Joe Biden would ease the pressures on China over trade and other issues. Asked whether he would impose more tariffs or even debt write-offs on China, he said: "There are many things I can do. We're looking for what happened."

Arguably, what has been going on between the US and China over the past few years would point to there being a new Cold War in all but name. Those who claim to be prescient will say they saw the first stirrings of it when the Obama administration announced to the world in 2011 that the US would "pivot" to Asia.

To many observers, that was diplomatic-speak for wanting to contain China. Beijing knew it, and America knew Beijing knew. By then, many in the American establishment, and not just the political class, had emerged from their triumphalist euphoria after winning the previous Cold War against the former Soviet Union to notice that another competitor, China, had surfaced.

As Elbridge Colby, deputy assistant secretary of defence (2017-18), and A. Wess Mitchell, assistant secretary of state (2017-19), argued in an essay for the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs, with that change in strategic outlook, the age of great power competition is back.

And the new rivals are China aided by a vengeful Russia. They did not elaborate but it is clear they were alluding to a Russia that is still bitter at its betrayal by a Western alliance that had reneged on its assurance to then President Mikhail Gorbachev that Nato would not push its way into countries formerly in the Soviet sphere. Moscow has said openly that the advance constitutes a threat to Russia's security.

According to the two former American senior officials, that the US is no longer sanguine about the rise of China comes through loud and clear in its 2017 National Security Strategy and 2018 National Defence Strategy. In gist, these carefully crafted documents say the US will not allow any power to challenge its superiority/dominance.

Colby and Mitchell said the idea was not to be "blindly confrontational" but to preserve America's central foreign policy objective since World War II: the freedom of states, particularly US allies, to chart their own courses without interference from a domineering regional hegemon. No prizes for guessing how the bit about non-interference by a hegemon would go down in Venezuela, Syria or Iran.

It should surprise no one that the US will resort to the use of force to keep any would-be competitor at bay. With a defence spending of US$732bil (RM3.2 tril) last year, which is larger than the total of the next 10 countries, it has overwhelming military superiority and no qualms about using that to bend others to its will.

Indeed it was an American, former president Jimmy Carter, who called the US the "most warlike nation in the history of the world", noting in his remarks last year that there were only 16 years of peace in the entire 242 years of US history.

To be fair, some might argue that it is in the nature of man to use force to settle any dispute or contest, especially if he is the stronger one. Did not Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, write: "Polemos pater panton" (War is the father of all things)?

To which Beijing, not exactly weak compared with its neighbours, could well reply that since the beginning of the 20th century, Chinese troops have fought only three wars outside their borders – in Korea in 1950, the Sino-Indian war of 1962, and Vietnam in 1979.

In today's volatile situation, two points raised by historians Will and Ariel Durant in an essay entitled "History And War" come to mind. The first is that a state will not feel any restraint when it feels it is strong enough to defy any interference with its will and not bow to any international law or moral code that is likely to censure its resort to war.

The second is that if a state foresees conflict with another country, it will foment in its people, hatred of that country and formulate catchwords to bring that hatred to a lethal point, while proclaiming its love for peace all that while.

The Durants, who wrote that in 1968, could not have been more prophetic if one looks today at Trump's America. Think of his unilateral moves to tear up treaties and inflict gross suffering on innocent civilians through sanctions against countries that defied America's will. And think "Wuhan virus"!

So the much-dreaded collision may come, spurred by widespread American anger at the devastation caused by the pandemic, which lends itself readily to manipulation.

It gets scarier still if one weighs the possibility that the present occupant of the Oval Office, who is on record as saying he knows more about war than any general, may think he has bipartisan support in acting tough against a China that has also refused to buckle in the face of tariffs and other measures aimed at scuttling its relentless build-up of high-tech capabilities such as artificial intelligence and Big Data applications, quantum computing and global 5G networks. He will concoct an excuse if necessary.

In this regard, he and the American hawks itching to put China down when they feel the US has still a window of opportunity to do it, might look to President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan to give them that excuse. Let's hope she has the political wisdom not to allow the US Seventh Fleet to dock at her ports or do something similarly reckless that China will see as an intolerable crossing of a red line.

Beijing will doubtless hate to be put to that test. But it defies belief that China's leaders have not prepared themselves for that eventuality. Or that they have not worked to batten down all hatches.

And it is almost certain that one of those hatches is Hong Kong, where anti-government protesters have been waving the Stars and Stripes and openly calling on the US to intervene and support their "struggle for democracy". – The Straits Times/Asia News Network

The Asian Editors Circle is a series of commentaries by Asia News Network editors and contributors. Leslie Fong is a former editor of The Straits Times. The views here are his own.

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