Power politics have entangled China and the United States in a web of acrimony.
Relations between the world’s two leading economies are now decidedly frosty after two years of bickering. At times, the rhetoric has even bordered on New Cold War dogma.
A thaw seems unlikely even if Democratic Party contender Joe Biden beats President Donald Trump in next month’s US Election.
“An ongoing US-China geopolitical rift has collided with the coronavirus pandemic and a Presidential Election that has candidates racing to brandish their anti-China bona fides,” Cheng Li and Ryan McElveen, of the Brookings Institution, said.
“Clearly, early objectives for changing China’s political system through cultural diplomacy and ‘peaceful evolution’ have not worked out the way Washington had hoped,” they wrote earlier this month in a commentary for China-US Focus, which specializes in academic debate.
Is this a case of ‘two political systems, one almighty row’?
In a word, yes. The ruling Communist Party has never been elected by the Chinese people and has no democratic mandate to govern the country. Its appalling human rights record is coupled with an economic model that blurs the line between private, public and state-owned companies.
As China flexes its military muscles in the Indo-Pacific region, human rights have also been trampled on at home.
A draconian national security law was imposed on Hong Kong during the summer, shredding the “One Country, Two Systems” agreement between London and Beijing after the United Kingdom handed back the former colony in 1997.
Violent crackdowns have also taken place in Inner Mongolia and the closed province of Xinjiang, where more than one million Muslim Uighurs were sent to internment camps.
Other flashpoint issues include a major independent investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, which officially surfaced in the Chinese city of Wuhan in January.
Predatory trading practices have also been raised by the US and the European Union, while Washington has launched a full-blown technology war against Beijing.
How has this affected China’s standing on the world stage?
It depends on who you talk to. But what is certain is that Washington’s “America First” policy has opened the door for President Xi Jinping’s government.
Under Trump, the US has pulled out of the Paris climate accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the United Nations Human Rights Council and ditched the Iran nuclear deal.
The White House has also announced that it will withdraw from the World Health Organization next year after crippling the World Trade Organization’s juridical system.
“China has been trying its best to take advantage of the US retreat to advance its own goals,” Paul Haenle, the director of the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing, told the Reuters news agency.
“Nevertheless, China has had difficulty translating its growing influence into foreign policy success,” he added.
If Biden gets into the Oval Office, he will roll back Trump’s isolationist foreign policy, building a coalition of the willing to tackle Xi’s aggressive “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy.
But surely this is all about the economy?
China might officially be classified as a developing or emerging economy by the World Trade Organization, but it is a manufacturing and consumer juggernaut.
Beijing’s state-sponsored program has helped it dominate the production of wind turbines and solar panels in renewable energy. The policy has also turned China into a high-tech and digital giant, powered by Huawei, ZTE, Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu.
But it has left the most populous nation on the planet reliant on the building blocks of technology, such as semiconductors or chips, from democracies around the world. And, in particular, the US.
Where does this leave foreign companies?
Most of the leading global brands are now prepared to check-in whatever principals they have at the arrival desk. Money, not morals, has been their mantra.
“Doing business in China can be politically risky. Negotiations with the Communist-led government can be difficult; it has a political system with a reputation for a lack of transparency and intolerance for dissent,” Amitrajeet A Batabyal an economics professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, told The Conversation, an academic website.
Corporations have quickly learned the art of kowtowing as they discard democratic values to boost their bottom line. Indeed, this is known as the ethics of greed.
But what do consumers think of this?
The Covid-19 crisis has had a profound effect on shoppers in the European Union. In a survey released earlier this year, 61.9% of those polled said they “would support a boycott of Chinese-made products.”
Ouch, that would hurt as China is the EU’s second-biggest trading partner behind the US.
“[Annually,] the bloc imports industrial and consumer goods, including machinery and equipment, footwear and clothing, and many other items, valued at €362 billion (US$428 billion), and is currently running a staggering €164 billion trade deficit,” EUToday, an independent media website, stated.
“This theoretically gives the EU significant leverage over Beijing,” it added. But, perhaps, not the political will.