In the aftermath of arguably the most divisive election in US history, a new White House Administration seeks to usher in an era of change. But what does it spell for the relationship between the world’s two biggest powers — and the countries in our region? Professor Kishore Mahbubani (Arts and Social Sciences ’71) looks at the complexities.
Donald Trump will be remembered for many things. And one of the things he will be most strongly remembered for is the major geographical contest he launched against China during his Presidency. Initially, it began as a trade war, but it spread to other dimensions, and included some remarkably rude and insulting statements about China. Fanning the fire, Trump’s outgoing Vice-President Mike Pence, in a lengthy lecture on China on 24 October 2019, spelt out in great detail all the mistakes made by China. Here is an example of what he said: “All that Beijing is doing today — from the Party’s great firewall in cyberspace or to that great wall of sand in the South China Sea; from their distrust of Hong Kong’s autonomy, to their repression of people of faith — demonstrate that it’s the Chinese Communist Party that has been ‘de-coupling’ from the wider world for decades.” He made it clear that Trump would stand up to China.
So, what will happen to US-China relations when Joe Biden becomes President? The answer is paradoxical. On the one hand, everything will change. On the other, nothing will change. Both statements are true!
Why will everything change? For a start, the Biden Administration will stop insulting China. Even though Biden called President Xi Jinping a “thug” during the election campaign, the Chinese government will understand that this is part of the American election process. Many American Presidential candidates do not actually implement what they say in election campaigns. Just as Bill Clinton established good relations with China during his terms in office — even though he had said in his election campaign that he would not “coddle the butchers of Beijing”— Joe Biden will be courteous and civil when he meets his Chinese counterparts. Biden is a genuinely nice guy. He will not make policies through tantrums or tweets. Instead, there will be a certain predictability and stability in US-China relations. But while the tone will change significantly, the substance will not.
In short, the whole world faces both a major danger, and a major opportunity, with the Biden Administration coming into office.
THE ETERNAL TUSSLE
This, then, is the other limit of the paradox: the US-China contest will continue. This US-China contest is not driven by personalities but by structural forces. In my book, Has China Won?, I spelt out at least three such structural forces. Firstly, for millennia, the number one power (today, the US) always tries to thwart the number two power (today, China) and prevent it from becoming number one. American behaviour in trying to block China’s rise as number one is normal geopolitical behaviour.
Sadly, American opposition to China’s rise is also driven by emotional forces. For centuries, the Western psyche has feared the “yellow peril”. This emotional dimension explains why President Trump called COVID-19 “Kung Flu” and “China virus”. The third structural force is a bipartisan consensus in the US that China has let the US down by not becoming a democracy. Two senior Democrat officials, Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner, documented this disappointment in a Foreign Affairs article. They wrote, “Ever since [rapprochement began under the Nixon Administration in the 1970s], the assumption that deepening commercial, diplomatic, and cultural ties would transform China’s internal development and external behaviour has been a bedrock of US strategy.” These three structural forces are powerful forces. Hence, under Biden, the US-China contest will continue.
MAKING OUR POSITION KNOWN
What should the rest of the world, including ASEAN, do in response to this continuing contest under Biden? Remain passive? Or speak out loudly and clearly to convey their own fears and concerns? It would be fatal to remain passive. As I document in a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on US-China relations [to be released by NUS and edx in January 2021], the whole world will be affected, indeed destabilised, if the US-China contest gains momentum. Hence, we should speak out.
But what should we in ASEAN say? We should make three points. The first point we should make is that both US and China should press the “pause button” on the contest. Why? The simple answer is that billions of people — including those in the US and China — are suffering from the massive economic recession caused by COVID-19. Global poverty is rising again. The only way to jumpstart the global economy is for the number one and number two economies to work together. Indeed, if Biden were to announce a simple suspension of the trade war against China and withdraw all of Trump’s erratic trade tariffs, the markets would react positively. The global economy would start growing again. Jobs would come back.
The second point is that the most pressing challenge we face is global warming. Fortunately, Biden, unlike Trump, agrees with this assessment. He will make Climate a priority. Yet it is also true that the US cannot stop global warming alone. Nor can China. Both have to work together. This is why I say in the conclusion of my book, “Humans would look pityingly at two tribes of apes that continued fighting over territory while the forest around them was burning. But this is how America and China will appear to future generations if they continue to focus on their differences while the earth is facing an extended moment of great peril.”
The third point we should make is that the continuation of the US-China contest will not just disrupt American and Chinese lives. It will (as it already has) disrupt lives all across the world. Hence, the first thing the new Biden Administration should do is to send out “listening” envoys to the rest of the world to poll the attitudes of the rest of the world to this contest. In the process of “listening”, they will discover that the rest of the world, in all likelihood, does not want to choose sides between the US and China. Indeed, they want to have good relations with both. This is true of Asia too. As Ambassador Chan Heng Chee observed recently, “The indications are that no country in Europe or Asia would like an exclusive relationship with the US or China… All want to be able to develop relations with both powers.”
In short, to close with another paradox, the whole world faces both a major danger, and a major opportunity, with the Biden Administration coming into office. It could face a major danger if the Biden Administration is driven by structural forces to accelerate the US-China geopolitical contest. Yet, it could also face a major opportunity if the six billion people living outside US and China speak out clearly and call on the world’s leading powers and economies to cooperate and deal first with pressing global challenges we face, like COVID-19 and global warming. ASEAN, including Singapore, should send these clear messages to Beijing and Washington DC.
Named as one of the top 50 world thinkers for 2014 by British current affairs magazine Prospect, Professor Kishore Mahbubani is a Distinguished Fellow at the Asia Research Institute at NUS, and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2019. He previously served for 33 years in Singapore’s diplomatic service and is regarded as an expert on Asian and world affairs.