The short game might be Beijing’s to lose for now, but the long game is certainly Washington’s to squander away, writes Collins Chong Yew Keat for South Asia Monitor
The Washington-Beijing conflict sets the discourse for global geopolitics for the next century, underlying fierce competition in various spheres. The curtain raiser of the dispute will continue to witness Washington's attempts to maximize the power range and ensure that the power gap remains to its advantage. Beijing will align to a planned and strategic policy combination in challenging the existing Western system and to push the global order into its own periphery.
A series of strategic measures in an effort to curb Beijing's aggressive expansion of power in the Indo-Pacific remains Washington's primary objective, which is increasingly being squeezed by China's targeted and comprehensive push under President Xi Jinping's vision and goals.
The mission of renewal and development of China's legacy and pride as a modern, superior and dominant country under Vision 2049, which is based on the aspirations of the Chinese Dream and the Great Rejuvenation of China, brings a complex interweaving flow of intentions and message interpretations to other regional and global actors. This mixture of anxiety and fascination with China's return to power in orchestrating Asia’s grip and development as well as the revival of the perceived Eastern culture and influence will shape the security and soft power architecture for the region for decades to come.
US forced to remodel game
Washington, which previously relied on the now futile approach to mould and support Beijing towards embracing change and transiting to democratic embrace with universal values of freedom through various channels of capital and technical assistance as well as transfer of expertise and technology, is now realizing the bitter truth that this policy is not only backfiring but comes at a greater cost. It is forced to remodel the game in the face of China's sudden transformation and meteoric rise with unclear intention, which poses the highest challenge and threat to Washington since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The alignment of joint goals and resources against Beijing sets the stage for the urgent priority of the White House in galvanizing needed economic, military, socio-cultural and other parameters in halting China’s rice.
The notion of the Chinese stealing American lunches right under their very noses, worsened by the fact that the American elites have been the culprits enabling this to happen, will shape the perceptive framework of the view on both China and the blunders of America in its failed approach of the past.
The spectrum of competition and relations with Beijing remains structural, systemic and value-driven where individual influence and affiliations matter less. The sole superpower status held by Washington will continue to be strengthened and maintained, despite realizing the declining gap and the missteps in properly weighing China's threat. Beijing’s no hold barred impetus and drive in narrowing the existing power gap with an all-out and whole of society approach in repelling Western and external containment measures, while simultaneously enhancing its foothold in the Indo-Pacific are banked on as the new major fuel by Washington, justifying the start of a new global focus after the victories in the World Wars and the Cold War.
Beijing's new found dominance in new critical sectors including hypersonic defence technology and mastery of semiconductor supply chains, among others, compelled Washington to scramble all existing approaches in not relinquishing its firm grip over the existing global system it created and protected more than seven decades ago. The three-pronged mantra of, firstly, building a global American-led system of democracy and rules-based liberal norms, secondly, to invite others to join the system, and finally to protect the order from challengers remains the ultimate yardstick.
Beijing’s dramatic transformation
Beijing is seen to be the only power that is capable of threatening this order and will continue to pose the greatest threat. It has wisely used the openings, opportunities and guarantees provided by America in maintaining this global system that allows peaceful access and progress of trade, economy and mobility of knowledge technology at the international level that have fuelled Beijing’s historic rise.
The sole ability and responsibility by Washington in guaranteeing the safety of world trade routes and maintaining international norms and rules that allow progressive economic and development activities have been the predominant enabler at the external spectrum in assuring China’s ecosystem of global trade dependence in fuelling its rise. This stability of the global system and order creates profound stimulus and openings for Beijing's efforts to continue its ambition of state renewal and modernization, capitalizing on its vast resources, capital and engrained public support and synergizing with the support of external critical assurances provided by Washington.
The dramatic transformation in China's development and modernization in the military field, mastery of futuristic technology and world economy, dominance in innovation and research capacities and other critical sectors gives a new sense of both awe and anxiety. But Washington remains confident in its existing and future capabilities and advantages in braving the challenges and threats. Beijing's deep economic grip from debt trap to market dependency further limits the policy options by the players, creating a climate of continuing reliance, and further bolsters the drive to create a China-led periphery of global trade and capital investment.
This signals a shift from the previous approach to further integrate China’s role and purpose into an open globalization drive to one that is forcing the current global system to adhere to Chinese architecture. Whether it is through the systematic and systemic narrowing of the security and economic options left for the vulnerable players, to downright coercive measures, global and regional players are left with a squeezing dilemma.
Washington will continue to take the moral high road in upholding the international systems and norms that adhere to rule of law and values of freedom, democracy and respect for human rights. A global stage free from threats, coercions and aggressive policies that could undermine the sanctity of diplomatic institutions and the security of states is a precedent that the Biden administration will continue to strive for. Through a three-pronged emphasis on invest, align and compete, Washington will continue to strengthen its existing strength that is based on competitiveness, innovation and the nobility of democratic values and freedoms which are seen as the backbone for competition based on principles, values and morals.
America will also spur greater alignment of support and renewed integration networks along with allies that will further enable capacity building to continue to compete with Beijing in the defence of the systems and values that have been built for decades. It will be a boost to America's confidence to continue galvanizing its internal strength and bright future power prospects if it continues to target the right and strategic policies and stages of internal development and transformation in devising measures and efforts to compete with China and maintain global dominance at the same time.
While both Beijing and Washington are aware of the inevitable interdependence of interests in almost all key indicators including economy and trade sectors and the critical cooperation needed in addressing global challenges especially the impact of climate change, the urgent pursuit of maintaining power and influence gap and ensuring the status quo remains the bigger ultimate purpose. Washington continues to be confident in its existing advantages that have stood the test of time, well aware that the conflict and competition with Beijing will not be fought alone.
Armed with a solid backbone of the global system it has built and relying on an alliance of competent, credible and highly capable allies, Uncle Sam continues to target long-term success with widespread future potential and advantages still untapped in its competition with China.
Washington is also aware that the pattern, pace and outcome of this game are actually shaped and determined by the strength and goals of its own internal progress and future orientation, where only with absolute failure and total collapse of America's institutions, values and internal systems will it enable China to have a free pathway to its vision of global superiority.
Until that actually materializes, America will continue to build new strongholds and depths in securing its status and prestige, all the while ensuring that China remains outside its sphere of influence in the existing global system, thwarting any attempt by Beijing to undermine this entrenched American and Western-led order. The short game might be Beijing’s to lose for now, but the long game is certainly Washington’s to squander away.
(The author is a strategic and security analyst who has been with the University of Malaya for more than nine years. Views are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)