Shahid M Amin
In case Donald Trump wins the forthcoming US presidential election, the world must brace itself for new tensions and crises, which could lead to unpredictable consequences and might end in disaster. He is threatening to build a wall between the US and Mexico to prevent illegal immigration from Mexico, and insists that the latter must pay the cost of building it. Mexico has refused to do so. It is an important neighbour and an old friend. Trump’s stance could jeopardise that relationship.
More disturbing is Trump’s tough talking against China, which is far stronger than Mexico. In a policy paper, he laid out a chargesheet against China. He argues that the Bill Clinton administration made a great mistake in 2000 by supporting China’s entry in WTO. Since then, “Americans have witnessed the closure of more than 50,000 factories and the loss of tens of miliions of jobs. America fully opened its markets to China, who has not receiprocated. Its Great Wall of protectionism uses unlawful tariff and non-tariff barriers to keep American companies out of China and to tilt playing field in its favour.”
The policy paper accuses China of currency manipulation, cybercrime, forced technology transfer, and violation of intellectual property laws. “This theft costs the US over $300 billion and millions of jobs each year.” Trump has warned China of a “swift, robust and unequivocal response. If China wants to trade with America, it must agree to stop stealing and to play by the rules.” He accuses China of violating WTO rules by giving illegal export subsidies, tax breaks or rebates and cash bonuses to stimulate exports. As President, Trump “will not succumb to the financial blackmail of a Communist dictatorship.” He will bolster US military presence in the South China Sea to discourage Chinese adventurism. A strong military presence will be a clear signal to China and other nations in Asia and around the world that “America is back in the global leadership business.”
The Chinese response to such vituperation has been restrained. Xinhua stated that Trump was playing the China-bashing card in an attempt to rescue his falling poll numbers. His “inflammatory” rhetoric was meant to appeal to blue-collar workers. His remarks were “dangerous and offered nothing of substance to improve bilateral relations.” Trump is not known for moderation or sound judgement and his views could be seen as an aberration. But the fact is that many circles in the US have serious concerns not only about China’s economic policies but also its overall geostrategic posture. The alarmist view is that US and China see each other as serious rivals who are heading towards a confrontation in long-term. A more realistic analysis is that there are areas of both convergence and divergence between them: both remain committed to a policy of mutual accommodation.
China’s view is that Sino-American strategic stability should be the “new model of major-country relations” which should avoid confrontation and conflict, respect one another’s political systems and national interests and pursue win-win cooperation. Some American sceptics hold that acceptance of such a model would create an international environment conducive to China’s rise. It would allow China to become the preeminent power in Asia without any great power competition or conflict. These sceptics see the Chinese proposal as a ploy designed to trick the US into acknowledging China’s extensive territotial claims, and undercutting the interests of Ameica’s strategic partners in the Asia-Pacific region.
In international relations, conflict between a rising power and an established power often happens. This has been termed as “Thucydides’ trap”. The ancient Greek historian Thucydides had concluded that the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta had made war inevitable. Interestingly, President Xi Jinping recently said that “we all need to work together to avoid the Thucydides trap –destructive tensions between an emerging power and established powers. Our aim is to foster a new model of major country relations.” This is easier said than done. The last decade has seen the US establish a strategic alliance with India. The underlying motive for this alliance is their conmmon rivalry with China. On the other hand, China has deepened its existing strategic alliance with Pakistan by launching the ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Russia has also been drawing closer to China, making for a possible trilateral partnership. India is wooing Vietnam and Myanmar, two neighbours of China. A shifting of alliances seems to be taking place.
One issue which is potentialloy explosive is the current tension in the South China Sea involving the Spratly Islands. These are 14 islands and over 100 reefs. The archipelago lies off the coasts of the Phillipines, Malaysia and south Vietnam. It has no indigenous inhabitants and contains significant oil and gas deposits. Seven of the islands are occupied by the Philippines, six by Vietnam and one by Taiwan. China’s claims to the islands are mainly based on historical records.
China’s position on the Spratly Islands has been hardening over a period of time. Defence Minister Chang told his American counterpart Chuck Hagel in 2014: “The territorial sovereignty issue is a Chinese core interest. On this issue, we will make no compromises, no concessions..” The US position has similarly hardened. It recently launched a new Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy which aims to “safeguard the freedom of the seas, deter conflict and escalation, and promote adherence to international law.” American Defence Secretary Ashton Carter has stated: “Make no mistake, we will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law permits. We will do that at times and places of our choosing.” China has ignored these warnings and increased its activities and military presence in the area.
An international court recently rejected China’s claims over the maritime area around Spratly Islands. But China has refused to accept the verdict. President Obama has now met his Chinese counterpart during a G-20 Summit in Hangzhou. The biggest convergent interest between te two countries remains the economy. The US is China’s largest market. China wants to concentrate on its economic progress and wants to avoid armed conflicts. President Xi recently said that when the two countries work together, it is good for world peace, e.g.1049 the Paris Climate Change Agreement, the Iran nuclear deal and cooperation on North Korea.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the ex-Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.