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Playing with fire

Qasim A. Moini

22nd Nov, 2021. 04:19 pm

US President Joe Biden meets with China’s President Xi Jinping during a virtual summit from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, November 15, 2021. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP)

When the world’s two top economies talk, the global community definitely listens in to the conversation. This is all the more so, because the US and China do not enjoy cordial relations. Therefore, the recent online summit between Xi Jinping and Joe Biden had a wide global audience in order to understand where Sino-American relations are headed.

While there were moments of warmth between the two leaders, who apparently enjoy a personal chemistry, there were also awkward instances where the wide gulf between Washington and Beijing became very obvious. The thorny Taiwan issue was a major sticking point, with Chinese state media quoting President Xi as saying that foreign forces meddling in Taiwan was akin to “playing with fire”. In an ominous sign of what may come unless this key issue is handled carefully, Xi Jinping added that “whoever plays with fire will get burnt”.

Mr. Biden was also quite blunt, criticizing alleged Chinese human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, while blasting the People’s Republic’s “unfair trade and economic practices”. Clearly, both sides have very particular views about certain subjects, and the global community should remain concerned as any deterioration in Sino-American ties will affect the world economy, as well as regional peace in Asia.

Pakistan, in particular, should remain alert and fashion its foreign policy accordingly, considering its long and deep strategic ties with China, as well as its patchy but ultimately important relationship with the US.

Behind the rhetoric of human rights, the fact is that the US fears China as a strategic and economic rival. Moreover, while militarily the US does have an edge, it is not known how long this advantage will prevail. To get an idea about how serious the folks in DC are about China’s growing global power, one must read carefully the comments of CIA chief William Burns. America’s top spymaster is unambiguous about his distrust of the People’s Republic. Speaking at his confirmation hearing earlier this year, he termed China “adversarial, predatory” while adding that it is Beijing’s goal to replace “the United States as the world’s most powerful and influential nation”.

So there you have it. All that nice talk about human rights is really window dressing. What the US fears is China challenging and eventually replacing the Pax Americana with the Pax Sinica. Perhaps it is for this reason that the CIA wants to create a ‘mission center for China’ to keep an eye on the People’s Republic. Of course, under Xi Jinping, China has sought to project its power globally, primarily through the Belt and Road Initiative, of which CPEC is a part. Mind you, a number of senior American officials have spoken about CPEC in unflattering terms.

Unless there is a course correction, a new Cold War between China and the US appears to be brewing. Of course, this has not happened overnight. From Barack Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy, to Donald Trump accusing the Chinese of “ripping off” America, to Mr. Biden’s bittersweet exchange with Mr. Xi, the confrontation has been developing for some time. While the ‘red peril’ was an ideological enemy, the Sino-American rivalry seems economic and strategic.

Instead of pursuing a zero-sum game, both Beijing and Washington must learn to live with each other. A multipolar world is in fact the need of the hour, as hegemony by any one power is not desirable. Indeed the US must learn to live with the fact that China is a serious competitor, and the competition should be healthy.

When it comes to Taiwan, the US should stay away from fiddling with the One China policy, while it should also avoid using India as a cat’s paw in South Asia to confront China. Amongst other things, this highly dangerous game risks upsetting the strategic balance and regional peace in South Asia. The US should also stay away from exploiting territorial disputes between Beijing and South-East Asian states in the South China Sea.

Pakistan and other friends of China must strike a balance. China has stood by this country in difficult times and it would be unwise for it to ditch an old friend. Pakistan must not be made to choose sides, and it should be communicated to the US that the Sino-Pakistani relationship is non-negotiable.

Having said that, nothing is predictable in international relations, and while it would be ideal for China and the US to bury the hatchet and get along, chances of this happening at present are pretty slim. As things stand, it appears that the tension will continue at manageable levels, as long as there are no extreme, unpredictable ‘black swan’ events to rock the boat.

Adventurism from all sides must be discouraged, as it can have unpredictable consequences in the international theatre. The repercussions of a Sino-American conflict would not be pretty, which is why the international community must also act as a bridge between both sides and insist on the fact that the confrontation remains within manageable levels.

Already the world is confronted with multiple crises — political, economic, ecological, security etc. A Sino-American confrontation, particularly with a military angle, is definitely something the global community can do without.


The writer is City Editor, Bol News

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