The hostile relationship between the People’s Republic of China and the United States isn’t anything new. Profound fear of the adversary has always been a defining characteristic of China-US relations. Though there have been a few moments in the past decades where a possible harmonization of bilateral relations was in sight, particularly in the 80s during the era of Deng Xiaoping’s economic liberalization, the Chinese-American relationship has mostly been characterized by a cold and uncomprehending approach from both sides. This unsatisfying and often dangerous course is rooted in a deep misjudgement and lack of knowledge about the counterpart. But, if the U.S. is interested in improving relations with China in the future and wants to maintain an international balance of power, the American government should stop sharpening its weapons and work to de-escalate the ongoing economic confrontation with the Celestial Empire.
Recently, as President Trump has kept increasing the economic pressure on Beijing, many international observers and experts have started describing this new trade war between the superpowers as a new version of the Cold War. Indeed, the confrontation has become harsher and harsher but Washington doesn’t seem keen on loosening its grip anytime soon. Although the U.S. might be right that the Chinese approach to intellectual property is unfair and that off-shoring is having negative effects on American industry, the U.S. should maintain a certain caution in its policies towards China. Whether President Trump likes it or not, good relations with Beijing are critical for the U.S. because of specific security and political concerns. Additionally, as paradoxical as it may sound, if the U.S. wants to maintain its status as a global hegemon, they will need to cool tensions with China.That said, there are multiple instances where Washington could make a greater effort in order to prevent significant threats to international security.
The North Korean Dossier
Since he took office in January 2017, President Trump has made it clear that one of his foreign policy intentions is to bring the North Korean Leader, Kim Jong Un, to the negotiation table in order to prevent an escalation of the already fragile situation on the Korean peninsula. He has tried to do this by persuading the Chairman to put an end to the nuclear tests, which from a North Korean perspective serve the purpose of scaring off their southern neighbor and getting the regime into international spotlight. The first interactions between the two leaders were quite rough, at least according to their initial tactless tweet exchanges. The tweets immediately made headlines because of the insults and childish accusations issued from both sides; Some may recall the famous “red button policy” that characterized President Trump’s first approach to the North Korean dossier. Luckily enough, right when these tensions were reaching their peak, a reconciliation process between the leaders of North and South Korea began. After several guard posts within the Demilitarized Zone had been destroyed, Kim Jong-Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-In agreed to meet on several occasions. Soon after President Trump and Chairman Kim were the guests of honor at two bilateral summits, held respectively in Singapore and Hanoi, Vietnam, which brought very little progress in the denuclearization process on the Korean peninsula. Though Kim has softened his initial aggressiveness towards the US and reduced the number of missile launches, the summits were mainly useful to Trump as an instrument to strengthen his approval at home, as he was able to sell the (very disappointing) outcome of the two meetings as a major foreign policy achievement. This interpretation, according to which the summits and the now “friendlier” attitude of the North Korean leader were both the fruits of President Trump´s great abilities as a negotiator, was also shared by some American analysts and the media. But those who give Trump credit are neglecting an even more critical source of the success; None of the summits would have taken place without China’s approval.
With a yearly trade volume close to six billion dollars, Beijing represents North Korea’s most important trading partner and has always helped its neighbor and ideological cousin to bypass international sanctions. The origins of the ties between the two countries can be found in the early 1950s, when China decided to intervene in the Korean War (1950-1953) in support of Pyongyang. Since then Beijing has both politically and economically backed all the North Korean leaders, from Kim Il-Sung to the current leader of the Workers’ Party, Kim Jong- Un. However China has shown that it is not above putting pressure on its ally when it showed the potential of threatening the stability of the Korean Peninsula and the broader east Asian region. An example of this “carrot and stick” policy of the Chinese government was the Security Council Resolution 1718. This resolution, which the Chinese government voted in favor of, criticized the nuclear test carried out by North Korea in October 2006. Considering all the aspects mentioned above it is clear how China has kept playing a major role in the security architecture of the region and is still the only country able to both support and “control” Chairman Kim´s intentions. As a consequence, if Washington is interested in keeping Pyongyang on the denuclearization path and hopes to preserve Kim Jong-Un’s willingness to remain open to further dialogue occasions, it should respect China’s hegemonic position in the region and avoid an escalation of the trade war, since the deterioration of the diplomatic channel with North Korea would represent a much bigger risk to regional and international security than the current economic tensions. In summary, the Trump administration should keep the following in mind: no peace with Kim is possible without Xi.
The Risks of an “Asian Bloc”
The North Korean dossier is far from being the only reason why Washington should focus more on Beijing’s real ambitions and put an end to its determined confrontation with the Asian superpower. As reported by the National Bureau of Chinese Research, many experts have already recognized the potential threats of closer cooperation between Moscow and Beijing. That said, the American administration is still doing too little when it comes to resuscitating its almost non-existent relations with Russia and countering the intensification of economic and security ties between Moscow and China.
The history of Sino-Russian relations has always been a troubled one. Despite an initial, mainly ideological partnership, sealed by the Treaty on Friendship, Union and Mutual Assistance signed in 1950, economic and political cooperation, which Beijing was strongly hoping for, didn’t last long. Though in the early 1950s the Soviet Union started contributing to the weak economy of its Asian neighbor by taking part in several industrial projects on Chinese territory, only a few years later relations began to deteriorate gradually. The turning point has been identified by historians in the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist party held in Moscow in 1956 under Nikita Krushev. In fact, in that occasion the party’s Secretary General announced that a plan of “de-Stalinization” of the whole Soviet territory was to be implemented soon. This decision by the Soviet leadership caused great disappointment in Beijing, where Chairman Mao and his associates accused Moscow of “revisionism” and feared that the communist partner would no longer be China’s closest ally, since it was apparently distancing itself from its founding ideology, the Marxist-Leninist doctrine. Only in 1982 did the ties between the two countries experience a revival.
Since then Beijing and Moscow have been gradually increasing their cooperation in many different sectors. In this light, the US should be worrying about the fact that this historical partnership is now being sustained by a strong personal relationship between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping. This gradually growing rapport between the two leaders is rooted in the extremely similar ways in which they lead their respective countries and their vision of both the liberal world order and (declining) western culture. In this regard an interview President Putin recently gave to the Financial Times is paradigmatic of this diffuse idea among autocrats that western liberalism has somehow become an “obsolete” form to organize societies. This particular approach to international affairs shared by Moscow and Beijing has been a cornerstone for much more comprehensive cooperation between the two countries, which could pose a serious threat to international security in the long term, if not countered in time. Indeed, over the past years China and Russia have been increasing their military cooperation exponentially. Notable examples for this new development are the joint military exercises, such as those held in September 2018, which were the biggest of their kind since 1981, the new joint Chinese-Russian air patrol and Beijing’s dependence on Russia’s advanced military technology. At the same time agreements between the Russian and Chinese governments have been made in regard to deeper economic cooperation, especially in the energy sphere as announced at the bilateral energy business forum in St. Petersburg earlier this year. The most prominent amongst the already existing projects in this sector are the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as well as the Eastern Siberia – Pacific Ocean pipeline. Furthermore Russia is playing a crucial role, especially in relation to Central Asia, in the broader framework of the Belt and Road Initiative, which is already bringing massive infrastructural investments to large parts of Russian territory.
The elements mentioned above, which characterize the current state of relations between Moscow and Beijing, show how both countries are strongly interested in building an alternative political and social model to the western one and are ready to use their nuclear arsenal as leverage. In this light, in order to avoid escalation of violence and military confrontation between the “Asian bloc” and the U.S., possibly followed by its NATO allies, a solution could be to introduce a new sort of INF treaty, which would include China in addition to the U.S. and Russia. With this kind of initiative the chance of preserving a multipolar and secure world might be higher than with a new unregulated race to arms. Based on this, the American Administration should put more effort into promoting talks and negotiations both with Moscow and Beijing. Otherwise, without a basic consensus about international security between the major world powers, the United States will be worrying about much more serious problems in the future than just China’s intellectual property theft.