US-China rivalry: A Game of Chicken

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Dr Huma Baqai

THE US global hegemony, of which President Biden is now being seen as a savior, is just seventy-eight years old. Being the leader of the “free world” worked well for the US, both during and post-cold war world, the ideological divide served it well. The US predicament is whether it is prepared to lead a world where competition is now around efficiency and delivering to its people and beyond. Is China coming across as a more efficient country, whereas the political system in the US is becoming increasingly dysfunctional?

The rivalry between the US and China was a defining feature of Trump’s presidency. The slippage and volatility started to post the global financial recession in 2008. Obama put it towards the end of 2009, stating, if the two countries do not succeed in correcting deep economic imbalances, they will impose ‘enormous strains’ on their relationship. Trade tensions had already been channelled into the dispute over currency values. Although the two protagonists have so far behaved cautiously, they played a game of ‘chicken’. Fast forward 2020, with another global economic crisis, Trump took it to the next level with both playing the blame game and publicly humiliating China. He also used it to fuel his election campaign. He conveniently played the ‘China Card’ to portray his own domestic problem as being China’s fault both on the pandemic and the economic front.

The real threat is China’s ascendency to global leadership. China managed to emerge stronger post the year of Covid. It is the only major economy expected to report growth for 2020, helping it close the gap with the US. It has emerged as a country that has not only survived Covid-19 but may emerge as a global saviour, both on the medical and economic fronts. It has solidified its standing as a force in global financial markets with a record share of initial public offerings and a secondary listing in 2020. Large capital inflows into stocks and bonds and indexes that far outperformed even the US’s showings.

China is and will remain a vital manufacturing hub for decades. The world for an economic comeback is more reliant on Chinese growth than ever before. China’s economy is expected to account for 16.8 of the global GDP. Its consumer market keeps gaining momentum making it a bigger driver of global companies’ earnings. It is expected to surpass the US as the world’s largest economy by 2028. On the military front, many say China is way behind the US, but it is now an open secret that it has increased spending on weapon technology and developing several secret weapons.

The United States, under Biden, will face a more assertive, determined and emboldened China. Its spectacular recovery from the pandemic has made it more confident. The disarray in the US gives the Chinese Communist Party a chance to pitch good governance and efficiency as a realistic alternative and a choice to the world desperate for direction. China now has a fair chance to contest for global leadership. A more confident China may give the US serious push backs on issues such as technology, territoriality and human rights. Analysts are now drawing parallels to the 2008 global financial crisis from which China emerged unscathed.

The pandemic which started as China’s foreign policy disaster has become the story of hardship and embarrassment for the US and Europe; if anything, it is a success story for China, literally turning a crisis into an opportunity. Biden, on the other hand, takes over a country, where deaths continue to mount; there is no real strategy for vaccine rollouts on the ground and virus-related restrictions making economic revival a huge challenge. If anything, the US has had to resort to stimulus packages.

The Chinese narrative of democracy not delivering good governance, could not have gained so much momentum, had the US handled the pandemic better. Niu Jun, an International Relations Professor at Peking University, said that objectively, public trust should rise given China’s faster recovery from the outbreak. To ordinary people, the logic is very simple. Predicting the pandemic would spark public thinking and discussion about which system of governance is more effective.

China is now seen as a country that is making extraordinary efforts to save lives abroad and is willing to share its capabilities, knowledge and most importantly its finances. China seems to have seized the moment, whereas traditional global leadership is struggling, or is in a state of shambles.

The United States’ global position will come under global searchlights, once the health crisis is over. President Xi, China’s most influential leader since Mao, even before Covid-19 pandemic, had made it his priority to expand the country’s economic and military might around the world. The Covid-19 may have provided him the opportunity to accelerate the pace of his ambition. President Trump’s Presidency has given it the requisite tailwind.
Healthcare and climate will become more important than power and arms in the post Covid-19 world.

Both the US and China do not fit the bill. China has to do a lot more to let the world trust it enough to become a global leader. The West that ruled the world first through their military might and later through international monetary institutions also had soft power reach of rule of law, democracy, morality, human rights and multilateralism; it is now failing on all these fronts. The million-dollar questions are, if the West will recover, revamp and retain its leadership role under the new US President, or China under President Xi’s leadership will emerge as an alternative. The worst of it would be the world caught in between a game of chicken.

—The author is an Associate Professor of Social Sciences and Liberal Arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi. 

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