US, China step back from risky face-off : The Tribune India

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US, China step back from risky face-off

Relations between the two will significantly influence India’s geopolitical prospects

US, China step back from risky face-off

Ambition: China wants to become the most powerful country in the world, displacing the US. Reuters

Shyam Saran

Former Foreign Secretary and Honorary Fellow, CPR

FOR some years now, the US has perceived the rise of China as an existential threat to its global primacy. The asymmetry of power between the two countries has continued to shrink. This is so in virtually every metric of power — economic, military and technological. China is the second most powerful country in the world and is not shy in its ambition to become the number one country, displacing the US from its perch. Confrontation between the two is, therefore, structural. China is convinced about the inevitability of its emergence at the centre of a transformed geopolitical order. The US is determined to halt, if not reverse, this likely denouement. It is not clear who will prevail, but the consequences of the outcome will impact countries around the world, in particular those in Asia. For this reason, developments in the US-China relations must be carefully watched because they will significantly influence India’s geopolitical prospects.

The US seems keen to establish channels of communication with the political dispensation in Beijing.

Let me offer a perspective from India. Across the spectrum between all-out confrontation and collusion, one would prefer to see US-China relations closer to the confrontation end, but an all-out confrontation would reduce India’s room for manoeuvring. It would be pressed to make a choice, having to confront the “either you are with us or against us” pressure from both friend and adversary alike. Collusion between the US and China, even for tactical reasons, could result from a decision by both parties to moderate their rivalry by drawing up respective spheres of influence. This is what happened during the Cold War between the US and the then Soviet Union. In any such eventuality, China would obviously assert its primacy in the east while conceding the western hemisphere to the US. Chinese strategists have often spelt out this division of spoils explicitly, drawing a line in the middle of the Western Pacific, with the Indian Ocean tacitly falling within the Chinese zone of influence. This would be anathema to India. While this contingency appears unlikely, one should not rule it out entirely.

Against this backdrop, what is the significance of certain recent developments in the US-China relations? On May 10 and 11, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met the Chinese state councillor and former Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Vienna. The White House reported that “the two sides had candid, substantive and constructive discussions on key issues in US-China bilateral relationship, global and regional security issues, Russia’s war against Ukraine and cross-strait issues, among other topics.”

China’s Xinhua news agency used similar terms to describe the talks, reporting that the two sides held “candid, in-depth, substantive and constructive discussions on removing obstacles and stabilising China-US relations.”

This clears the way for resuming the US-China engagement and dialogue in various components of bilateral relations and at various levels. It has been reported that US special presidential envoy for climate John Kerry has been invited to visit China. The US trade representative, Katherine Tai, is scheduled to hold talks with Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao at the APEC trade ministers’ meeting in Detroit on May 25-26. And at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in June, the US Secretary of Defence, Lloyd Austin, is likely to meet his Chinese counterpart, Gen Li Shangfu. The US seems keen to establish channels of communication with the new political dispensation in China. There is a new leadership line-up in Beijing with several unfamiliar faces. The Chinese side appears to be forthcoming in this respect.

This new phase in the US-China ties was signalled by US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen in a carefully crafted speech she delivered at the John Hopkins University on April 20. Yellen conveyed that the US did not regard China’s growing prosperity as a threat since a prosperous China would be good for the US and the world. She also conveyed that the US “did not seek to decouple our economy from China” and that “a full separation of our economies would be disastrous for both countries. It would be destabilising for the rest of the world.” In order to reinforce this point, she said US-China trade was currently worth $750 billion.

As would be apparent, both the tone and substance of these remarks mark a significant departure from the generally hostile narrative that has been emanating from Washington in the recent past. Yellen did not hold out any possibility of rescinding some of the restrictions on high-tech exports to China. She said these were justified on national security concerns and were limited and narrow in scope.

What does this add up to? One should note that China’s tacit support to Russia in its war against Ukraine has not inhibited this significant US initiative to ‘stabilise’, if not improve, the US-China relations. The Taiwan issue, which sparked off the recent phase of confrontation, appears to have a reduced salience. There has also been some commentary on the Chinese side, arguing that though Taiwan’s status represents a ‘bottom line’ that must not be crossed, it did not define the entirety of the US-China relations. Clearly, both sides have decided to walk back from a potentially dangerous conflict in the Taiwan Strait.

The US initiative follows a successful visit to China by French President Emmanuel Macron last month, which was regarded as ‘appeasement’ of China, despite the latter’s stand on Ukraine. Both France and Germany have stressed the importance of remaining engaged with China, even though it is described as a ‘systemic’ rival. The US seems to be veering to that point of view.

Should India be concerned? Perhaps not at this stage, since it is not clear what trajectory these developments will follow and whether they would not be derailed by renewed confrontation on this or that contentious issue. But how they evolve will impact India’s interests and should be carefully watched and properly assessed. Coincidentally, there has been renewed commentary in the US that India cannot be relied upon to stand by the US in the eventuality of a potential clash of arms with China. This suggests that the US need not pay much attention to India’s likely reactions to a winding down of tensions between the US and China.

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