Worsening US-China relations and South Asia


By Salman Bashir

In recent weeks, US-China relations appear to have deteriorated sharply. The immediate reason is the devastation wreaked by COVID-19. In an election year, President Trump is compelled by reasons of domestic politics to blame China for the pandemic– it is convenient to divert attention from his government’s own inept handling of the crisis.

This also amplifies an established US strategy to contain the rise of China that the US strategic community sees as threatening US primacy in the world. Yet, behind the blaring headlines and accusatory rhetoric against China, the trend lines of national interest that rationally and normally inform policy should not be lost sight of. Essentially, national power is a function of composite capacities- economic, military, technology, demography, governance, societal cohesion etc.

The US has been known for its pragmatism and that pragmatism may eventually dictate a more prudent course towards China. President Trump recognizes well the need to rebuild and enhance US capacity along a range of areas to ‘make America great again.’ This warrants cooperation, not confrontation. The pandemic has vividly illustrated national weaknesses and deficiencies. It has also demonstrated interdependence and the imperatives of international cooperation.

 To build requisite capacities, the US needs China as much as China values its cooperation with the US. The rhetoric about economic decoupling, deglobalization, economic punitive measures against China may serve a limited political purpose for the time being but certainly will not serve the long-term interests of the US. Instead of providing global leadership, the US has strangely chosen to retreat further into its shell, much to the consternation of its friends and allies.

A file picture shows US President Donald Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping attend a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 29, 2019.

America is a superpower and will remain predominant on the global stage for years to come. The stridency of anti-China rhetoric does not help in maintaining a perception of poise and calm that are  usually the hallmarks of a major power. China on the other hand, has refrained from getting itself into polemical exchanges with the US. Instead, it has continued to signal its desire to have a good working relationship– it will not be ensnared or entrapped in the Cold War 2.0 mentality.

The Chinese have a deep insight on human history and appropriate well into policy the lessons learned from it. They also take a long- term view and avoid knee-jerk reactions. China has in fact been a major beneficiary of the international system and has emerged as the strongest defender of the existing international order (as signified by the UN).

Strange that the ones who erected the global edifice of international cooperation after two devastating world wars are now inclined to reverse the arrow of time to the dark age of power politics. In short, real interests of the US and China actually converge and will continue to converge in many important domains and the best course for them is to revert to mutual cooperation.

The dangers of a US-China strategic rivalry being transferred across the globe would ruin global peace and prosperity for a century or more. South Asia is particularly vulnerable. The proclivity to over-read into the state of great power rivalry needs to be resisted and the region must not fall prey to a mentality of bloc-politics. Cold War 2.0, if imposed on the already fraying politics of South Asia, would mean a loss of hope of escaping the poverty and misery trap that has haunted billions of people in this region.

India has with fervor and great enthusiasm been inclined to join the US anti-China strategy. It does so primarily out of animus for Pakistan. Strategically, India is no match for China but its obsession with Pakistan impels it to get the support of the West to break out of the Pakistan-India hyphenation. This is extremely shortsighted.

Pakistan has historically been a US ally for half a century. It played a critical role in the 1970’s in making rapprochement between the US and China possible. Pakistan has also enjoyed close cooperative relations with China for 70 plus years. Chinese advice to Pakistan has always been to maintain good relations with the US and India- this is a sound suggestion, indeed.

The grand partnership scenario in terms of economic and trade cooperation between Euro-Asian states has been laid out in various cooperative arrangements notably the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

The magic of these partnerships holds great potential for regional cooperation for development. India should rethink and not wreck these projects from within. But if it gambles and plays the card of global geopolitics, it may find itself in perpetual isolation in its immediate region.

On the grander scale, it would be best if the US, in its own best interests, chooses to adopt a cooperative approach towards China and all Asian states. This would be a win-win situation and contribute immensely to ‘keeping America great.’ 

Is another Nixon moment at all possible? Only time will tell.

(Salman Bashir is a Pakistani diplomat who served as Foreign Secretary of Pakistan and as High Commissioner of Pakistan to India. Twitter: @SalmanB_Isb)