Managing Strategic Competition


Beijing Review 2021年28期

By Ma Miaomiao

When discussing global issues, Russian Ambassador to China Andrey Denisov always recalls that in 1973, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai used a quotation from an ancient Chinese poem to describe the international situation of the time: “Heavy rain is about to shower in the mountains, and a strong wind is blowing through the pavilion.” According to Denisov, nothing has changed after almost half a century and the quotation still applies to the current chaos of global politics.

Increasing instability and uncertainty, growing mistrust in international affairs and worsening China-U.S. relations, are among the thorny problems facing the international community. They were also at the top of the agenda of the Ninth World Peace Forum, a high-level seminar on international security hosted by Tsinghua University in Beijing on July 2-4.

In his keynote speech, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi pointed out that practicing multilateralism is the surest way toward breaking the zero-sum game, resisting unilateralism and bullying, and truly achieving lasting peace and common security. “Upholding and practicing true multilateralism is the right way forward in tackling complex issues and effectively countering security challenges, traditional and non-traditional, in todays world,” he said.

Revitalizing global multilateralism

In the eyes of former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, isolationism is simply no match for viruses, wildfires, cyberattacks, a rising sea level, or other non-traditional security threats. “I firmly believe that we must elevate our sustained efforts to reinvigorate multilateral cooperation in order to holistically address the inherently global challenges of both today and tomorrow,” he said. “Doing so will help forge a brighter, more harmonious international order that is fit for purpose in the post-pandemic epoch.”

Herman Van Rompuy, former President of the European Council and former Prime Minister of Belgium, stressed that learning to live with the differences between countries is the basis of harmony, solidarity and peace, and countries being competitors or rivals does not necessarily make them enemies. He went on to say he believes countries can be strategic partners in well-defined fields or projects, even if they are not like-minded.

Former Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying said the main lesson people have learned from COVID-19 is that no country can face global challenges alone. “We should focus on working together on common interests, instead of being swayed by differences. And we should go through global challenges together by upholding multilateralism,” she said.

British Ambassador to China Caroline Wilson echoed Fus statement, saying “Chinas readiness to cooperate—and its readiness to lead—on transnational challenges will define whether [the world] can successfully overcome them.”

Cooperation needed

During the forum, participants called on China and the U.S., the worlds two largest economies, to better manage their relations and find common ground instead of resorting to harsh words and confrontation.

Despite the impact of COVID-19, trade in goods between China and the U.S. grew by 8.3 percent year on year in 2020 to exceed $580 billion. Two-way trade surged in the first quarter of this year, increasing by 61.3 percent over the same period of last year.

“The reality is that in the new age of strategic competition between China and the U.S., as a matter of logic, there are only two alternatives: managed strategic competition, with some rules of the road and some prospect of preserving peace, or unmanaged competition, the loss of all strategic guardrails and the growing risk of crisis, conflict and war,” former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said.

He called for a strategic competition framework to manage down the growing array of security and foreign policy tensions which currently dominate bilateral relations. “For example, climate change and nuclear non-proliferation could be areas for cooperation between China and the U.S.,” he said.

On April 22, Chinese President Xi Jinping attended the Leaders Summit on Climate at the invitation of Biden. During the meeting, Xi emphasized that China looks forward to working with the international community, including the U.S., to jointly advance global environmental governance.

According to a China-U.S. joint statement issued before the summit, in addition to increasing their own actions to mitigate climate change, both countries will also cooperate with each other under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement.

However, at the Group of Seven (G7) leaders meeting in June, Biden again tried to rally U.S. allies to take on China together for a political win.

Speaking at the forum, former Singaporean Foreign Minister Kishore Mahbubani said superficial diplomatic statements cant override real economic interests and trade relations. “At the end of the day, countries have to be realistic and have to take care of their own interests,” Mahbubani said, adding that countries often dont want to take sides because they want to maintain good ties with both China and the U.S.

Michael Swaine, a senior researcher with U.S. foreign policy think tank, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the U.S. cannot continue on the current path of viewing China in a zero-sum way. According to Swaine, the U.S. needs to recognize its own weaknesses and limitations while also more readily recognizing Chinas strengths. At the same time, the U.S. should be aware that its own allies wont support a more hardline zero-sum approach toward China.

Technological decoupling?

To counter Chinas technological advancements, the U.S. Senate passed the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act in June, which includes the Endless Frontier Act, a legislation that, according to the White House, “would authorize historic investments in critical science and engineering research.”

Earlier, in April, the U.S. Department of Commerce added seven Chinese supercomputing companies to a trade blacklist.

Kim Sung-Hwan, Chairman of the Board of the East Asia Foundation in the Republic of Korea, said technological decoupling, a process initiated by Donald Trump in 2018 and seemly inherited by his successor Biden, has long been worrisome. According to Kim, if technological decoupling occurs between countries, especially between China and the U.S., globalization will suffer a severe setback and many other countries may be forced to take sides, which he described as “a nightmare.”

Alexander A. Dynkin, President of the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Russia, said the breakdown of cooperation in technology would disturb the market, diminish foreign direct investment and thus hurt productivity. Moreover, it could give rise to diverse incompatible standards and make recoupling increasingly costly.

Research published by the International Monetary Fund in April estimated that technological fragmentation could lead to losses of around 5 percent of global GDP.

Wang Jisi, President of the Institute of International and Strategic Studies at Peking University, said more stringent U.S. restrictions on technological transfer and export to China, as well as crackdowns on China in the fields of semiconductors, artificial intelligence and commercial aircraft, will only push China to accelerate technological innovations. In the long run, this will constitute greater competitive power against U.S. dominance.

“The U.S. and China need more dialogue between government departments, enterprises and think tanks to avoid this possible decoupling in technology,” he said. BR