The Global Eye in dialogue with Sourabh Gupta. He is a senior Asia-Pacific international relations policy specialist with two decades of Washington, D.C.-based experience in a think tank and political risk research and advisory capacity. His key area of expertise pertains to the intersection of international economics and international law with the international relations of the Asia-Pacific region. At the Institute for China-America Studies (ICAS), he leads the Trade ‘n Technology program. Prior to joining ICAS, he was a Senior Research Associate at Samuels International Associates, Inc., a government relations and global trade and investment consulting firm. Sourabh is a member of the United States Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific (USCSCAP)
China and the US are trying to find a path of least conflict. Why is dialogue between the two major global powers decisive?
China and the United States are very intertwined economically, yet a major war that is waged beneath the nuclear threshold between these two powers is no longer unthinkable anymore. As such, dialogue – and preferably peaceful coexistence – between these two powers is not just an option; it is an imperative. In a nutshell, this is the reason why dialogue between them is decisive.
The United States and China are economic behemoths, constituting more than 40 per cent of global GDP. Despite Washington’s effort to ‘selectively decouple’, the two countries remain deeply intertwined furthermore to each other and to their regions by way of dense trans-Pacific trade and technology linkages. Any war between these two behemoths – howsoever limited that war may be – will have devastating economic consequences. And given that Taiwan is likely to be the theater for such a clash, the body count from an air-sea contest to capture, or alternatively deny the capture, of the self-governing island could also be devastatingly high. As such, both sides understand their abiding interest in this path of least conflict – lest defeat in a potentially catastrophic war lead either to the eviction of the Communist Party from the portals of power in Beijing or, alternatively, the eviction of the United States from its systemically preeminent role, geopolitically, in the Asia-Pacific.
On which strategic areas can there be greater areas of convergence?
There is likely to be a greater convergence of interest between China and the United States on transnational issues, such as climate change, given the cross-cutting nature of such challenges. The Biden administration has been explicit in this regard, soliciting ‘on demand’ cooperation on this front – even as it engages in ‘extreme competition’ with China. Beijing, while expressing displeasure at Washington’s strategy of compartmentalizing cooperation in areas of the latter’s choosing, has nevertheless not been averse to engaging earnestly on this climate change front – albeit quietly.
Beyond transnational challenges, the United States and China also share a converging interest in drawing up an overarching strategic framework to stabilize their relationship. Again, the Biden administration has openly spoken about placing ‘guardrails’ to ensure that bilateral ties do not veer into conflict. While unhappy with Washington’s framing of overall ties through the lens of strategic competition, Beijing has reciprocated the effort to situate ties within a steadying political framework. The principles that underlain the Shanghai Communique as well the Nixon-Brezhnev ‘Basic Principles’ agreement of the early-1970s provide a useful basis to draw up a new and overarching strategic framework to stabilize ties in this ‘new normal’ era of Sino-American ties. It is not axiomatic that because the earlier era of bilateral ties has drawn to a close, the two sides are now fated to succumb to inexorable conflict.
How is the multipolar world moving in the shadow of this great competition?
Not too well, to say the least. Both the Global North and the Global South are more concerned with protecting their narrower privileges and interests than coming together to consensually reform the architecture of the United Nations-centered system. Be it with regard to global public health, climate change, the international monetary and financial system, the international development architecture or the regime of science and technology exchanges, the bloc-like fissures between the two sides appear to be deepening on many of these fronts – despite protestations to the contrary by both.
In no small part, this is due to the approaches of the United States and China. Ever since the end of the Cold War, the goal of the United States has been to establish a system led by itself, sometimes together with several allies and partners and sometimes unilaterally on its own. Rebuilding a UN-centered international order has been a decidedly secondary consideration. As the ‘China challenge’ has metastasized, Washington’s tendency has been to convene a ‘like-minded’ group of (mostly) Western nations that constitute a minority of the UN’s membership and, working through them, seek to perpetuate its global leadership. As for China (and the Global South, more generally), while it seeks greater voice and influence to shape international outcomes, it has difficulty moving beyond boilerplate rhetoric and offering concrete ideas or solutions with regard to reforming the architecture of the United Nations-centered system. China’s readiness to disburse large sums of money is not enough.
In a sense, the multipolar order today seems to be facing a dilemma not unlike the ‘Kindleberger trap’ of the 1930s. The incumbent great powers seem unable (or unwilling) to underwrite the system’s requirements and conflate the interests of their ‘like-minded’ small groups as a (false) substitute for discharging their global responsibilities. The major rising power/s, on the other hand, are yet inward-looking and incapable of making up for this deficiency in the provision of global public goods.