One of the consequences of the ongoing US-China rivalry is an increasingly divided global community today. Though both powers have reiterated that they do not seek confrontation, they are still struggling to discover how to manage this complex and competitive relationship that also requires cooperation in many areas. Meanwhile, they have pushed their rivalry onto the global stage, and the world is becoming more fractured and polarised as a result of recent moves by the two great powers.
President Joe Biden’s criticism of China and Chinese leader Xi Jinping has become more direct and public. First, he called Xi a “dictator”. Then at a Democratic Party fundraiser in Utah in early August, Biden told donors that “China is in trouble” and called China’s economy “a ticking time bomb”. “They have got some problems — that’s not good, because when bad folks have problems, they do bad things,” stated Biden.
Consistent with his approach to rally allies and partners to address the China challenge together, Biden invited South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to Camp David on 18 August. It was the first time Biden had invited foreign leaders to this country retreat for US presidents near Washington DC. The three leaders announced a host of military, diplomatic, education and technology measures at the historic summit to build trilateral cooperation and promote security in the Asia Pacific.
... as China and North Korea are expected to respond accordingly to the new Washington-Tokyo-Seoul bonhomie, the security situation in East Asia will further deteriorate.
Though US officials have claimed that the three-way cooperation mechanism is not aimed at China, many still believe that it is designed to counter China and constrain North Korea. The agreement reached at Camp David includes sharing an early-warning missile launch detection system; annual trilateral military exercises across air, land, sea, undersea, cyber and other domains; a new initiative to expand three-way intelligence sharing; a “state of the art” hotline; “Camp David principles” outlining their shared vision and priorities; and economic programmes to bolster supply-chain security for semiconductors and other critical technologies.
This is a classic case of security dilemma, a situation in which actions taken by a state or states to increase their own security cause reactions from other states, which in turn lead to a decrease rather than an increase in the original states’ security. In this case, as China and North Korea are expected to respond accordingly to the new Washington-Tokyo-Seoul bonhomie, the security situation in East Asia will further deteriorate. As Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin has said, China is opposed to “bringing confrontation and military blocs into the Asia-Pacific region” and that “no country should seek its own security at the expense of the security interests of others”.
Notably, it is unusual for South Korea to join the US and Japan in explicitly expressing concerns about the situation in Taiwan and the South China Sea. South Korea, which trades more with China than with the US and Japan combined, has always been cautious in dealing with China and has tried to strike a balance in maintaining good relations with both Beijing and Washington. President Yoon’s dramatic tilting towards Washington is disappointing to Beijing but good news for Washington.
Unsurprisingly, Beijing criticised the trilateral summit and said the three leaders’ joint statement on Taiwan and the South China Sea was an “act of gross interference in China’s internal affairs”.
He [Xi] only made two trips abroad so far in 2023. Both are significant and can be interpreted as his way to counter Biden’s high-profile approach.
China fights back
Not to be outdone, China is also seeking global solidarity, with a focus on the global south. Xi Jinping travelled to South Africa for the 15th BRICS summit, held on 22-24 August.
Beset by Covid and economic challenges at home, Xi in recent years has not been the globetrotter he used to be. He only made two trips abroad so far in 2023. Both are significant and can be interpreted as his way to counter Biden’s high-profile approach.
Xi’s first foreign trip in 2023 took him to Russia in March, where he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. It was his first trip abroad after his confirmation as the President of China for the third term by the National People’s Congress. It was also the first international meeting of Putin since the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest. China has refused to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and continues to provide diplomatic and economic support for Russia. The Russia-China unity is important for both countries as they face a hostile West.
Xi’s latest trip took him to Johannesburg for a state visit to South Africa in addition to his participation in the 15th BRICS summit. Xi got the warmest reception upon arrival, with a beaming South African President Cyril Ramaphosa personally welcoming him at the airport. On the sidelines of the summit, Xi also met with leaders from Cuba, Ethiopia, Senegal and Bangladesh, highlighting friendship and cooperation with his counterparts from fellow developing countries.
In Johannesburg, the five BRICS nations — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — discussed ways to better cooperate among themselves and to add more members to the group. “An expanded BRICS will represent a diverse group of nations which share a common desire to have a more balanced world order,” President Ramaphosa said before the summit.
Both the US and China are building their own alliances and partnerships, with the US strengthening ties with democratic allies and China consolidating relations with the global south.
BRICS, a club of emerging and developing nations, is often considered a counterforce for the West-dominated G20. A force to be reckoned with, BRICS accounts for about 41% of the world’s population and 26% of global GDP. China clearly wishes to use BRICS as a platform to enhance its profile globally. As Xi wrote in a signed article for South African media, “We will urge the international community to refocus on development issues, promote a greater role by the BRICS cooperation mechanism in global governance, and make the voice of BRICS stronger.”
According to South African officials, over 40 countries have expressed interest in joining BRICS and over 20 of them have formally applied, and some of these countries were present at this year’s summit as observers. At the end of the Johannesburg summit, BRICS leaders agreed to admit six more countries — Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — to the bloc in 2024, a “historic” move praised by Xi that will “bring new vigour” to the bloc.
Talking to each other
Both the US and China are building their own alliances and partnerships, with the US strengthening ties with democratic allies and China consolidating relations with the global south. Clearly, as the US and China are promoting their conflicting agendas globally, the world is becoming more divided. And as China faces daunting domestic challenges and the US votes for a new president next year that may lead to major policy changes in both countries, the world is likely entering a period of greater uncertainty.
Xi and Biden have not spoken to or met with each other after November 2022, when both were attending a G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia.
Washington and Beijing should know that most countries do not wish to take sides in the great power rivalry, and most want to maintain friendly relations with both powers. Seeking support from allies, partners, or “like-minded” countries to defend their own interests will not help reduce tensions or solve fundamental problems between the two powers. Instead, the two powers must address the differences candidly and constructively by themselves.
Cabinet-level contacts have partially resumed between the US and China with successive visits to Beijing by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen, and Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo. Yet Chinese ministers have not travelled to Washington, DC so far, except Minister of Commerce Wang Wentao, who stopped by Washington after attending an APEC ministers’ conference in Detroit in May 2023.
In particular, high-level defence exchanges remain deadlocked, and Xi and Biden have not spoken to or met with each other after November 2022, when both were attending a G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia. Instead of looking for support from others to strengthen their hands, it is high time Xi and Biden met again to directly address serious problems between the two sides.
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