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What are the stakes?
President Biden’s departure today for the G20 summit in India offers a reminder that, although much of the news cycle in the United States is dominated by political and legal narratives — and the interplay between the two with a certain famous defendant — the world keeps spinning. And events in other nations continue to move as well, along with their global implications.
For many Americans, Russia dominates the international stage, and for good reason. It has sparked Europe’s biggest conflict since World War II. But there are also stories on other continents that demand our attention. Such as growing instability in Africa, including a brutal war in Sudan and coups elsewhere. The danger in Asia of a nuclear-armed North Korea. And the widespread devastation of the Amazon rainforest amid a worsening climate crisis.
Each of these stories is defined by its singular factors. But they are also being shaped substantially by a common denominator, an opposite pole of power to the U.S. that is shifting multiple axes of influence on the world stage: The People’s Republic of China.
China’s relationship with Russia has an effect on the war in Ukraine. Its expanding interventions in Africa are changing the political and economic dynamics on that continent. China’s long-standing support for the regime in Pyongyang puts stress on the peace of Asia and beyond. The Chinese population’s demand for food is leading to land use changes in South America.
The story of China’s rise as a global power is well known. The communist revolution after World War II. Its role in the Korean War. The famous trip by President Nixon to open relations with the U.S. Rapid industrialization and economic growth. Burgeoning leadership in technology and science. Expanding military capabilities. The lessening of poverty at an incredible pace.
Gone are the days of kids being told to eat their broccoli because people are starving in China. Now the fear is that China will eat our lunch with a skilled workforce, potent armed forces, and an economic engine of runaway success.
There was a time back in the 1980s when Japan seemed to be the economic power that would overtake the U.S. But even at the height of a national panic over the “Rising Sun,” there was no fear of military adventurism, let alone armed conflict. In contrast, China’s stature is defined by weapon systems as well as wealth.
Despite all of this, and the rhetoric of some in Washington, it is too simplistic and misguided to call China an enemy. But it is certainly no ally. Rather, the nation occupies a complicated middle ground that demands we approach it with strength, nuance, and creativity. This is especially true because perhaps the biggest threat this world faces — the climate crisis — can’t be addressed without the U.S. and China somehow working together.
In recent years, however, our relationship with China has become more fraught and dangerous. This trend is in large part due to the autocratic and nationalistic rule of China’s president, Xi Jinping, who has cracked down on freedoms at home and sought to bolster his nation’s status as a bulwark against the U.S. and the West. From the islands of the Pacific and Asia more broadly to Africa and South America, China’s so-called Belt and Road Initiative has poured billions of dollars into infrastructure projects with hopes of leveraging its economic power to expand its influence with governments wavering on the West.
Xi has been flexing military power, as well, particularly in the South China Sea and around Taiwan, which mainland China treats as a renegade territory that must be unified by force if necessary. The pressure on the island nation and the threat of war are higher than they have been in years, with China engaging in provocative military exercises that show off its modernized and formidable armed forces.
And yet lately, a wave of news reports out of China suggests that Xi’s cultivated image of a fearsome edifice of power may be showing some cracks. The once-vaunted economic growth that defined the nation for decades seems to be slowing, rapidly. Economists say the nation could be in for a rocky road, especially as its real estate market begins to collapse.
Another important factor is movement from businesses to diversify their supply lines, as a result of increasing uncertainty around China. Some of these changes have arisen due to the shocks of the pandemic. But the trends were brewing long before, and in the U.S., fears over China as a rising and potentially dangerous power have yielded a rare instance of bipartisan agreement.
The Biden administration has picked up where the previous administration left off in framing China to our allies and others as a force that needs to be contained. Biden’s trip to the G20 summit will take him to India, which just so happens to be a nation that the U.S. would like to see align more with its interests than China’s. The president will then head to Vietnam, in China’s backyard. The U.S. has improved economic ties with the communist country — a sign of the wariness many Asian nations feel about the intentions of their bellicose neighbor.
World affairs are never simple. They require compromises and weighing of interests. It would be foolish just to walk away from China and put up walls of defiance. At least at this point. We are not at war, and we should try to keep it that way. We also could find areas of agreement, and maybe as conditions continue to evolve on the world stage, the relationship between the U.S. and China could improve.
At the same time, there is no denying that China’s autocratic government and robust military pose a strategic threat to our interests — and to global stability. So too does its support for regimes like Russia and North Korea, which are clearly enemies to the U.S. From our military posture, to our economic strategies, to our protection of technological assets, we need to be prepared. And we need to stay engaged.
China is a lot older than the U.S. Its people can see in their own history how empires and dynasties rise and fall. They are in it for the long game. The U.S. must be, as well. But we should also realize that the battles, real or figurative, of the 21st century and beyond will be different from those in the past.
We are a small world. There is no isolation. Cooperation, resilience, and an ability to think globally — in terms of the economy, the environment, and the military — will be required to survive.
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