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China and the US: Tension and Action

How is it possible to understand the Sino-American relations in the current conditions of international relations? This is a key question for all those involved in the execution of foreign policy issues and international relations researchers across the world.
September 2020
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Seyed Mohammad Kazem Sajjadpour

How is it possible to understand the Sino-American relations in the current conditions of international relations? This is a key question for all those involved in the execution of foreign policy issues and international relations researchers across the world. The question could be answered by focusing on “the study of the importance of the existing role of Sino-American relations”, dissecting the nature of relations between China and the US, and the “consequences of tension in Beijing-Washington relations” to indicate that the Sino-American relations are among the main factors shaping the international relations during the transitional period, have a multilayered nature in strategic, ideological and psychological terms, and that all actors in the international system would pay serious attention to the quality of such relations. These factors are in the focus of interest in the following paragraphs: 

A. The importance of comprehending the US-China tensions: The tension between the US and China is a serious one. There are three major facts about how serious the tension is. Firstly, the US-China relations are not ordinary bilateral ties between even two big powers, but are very deep relations, particularly in the economic and social spheres. Over the past couple of decades, the economic relations between the two countries have become so closely intertwined that Abram Bergson, an economist at Harvard University, invented the new term “Chimerica” about the mutual dependence. He said the Chinese and American economies have become so interrelated and intertwined that have formed an integrated economic unit called Chimerica. The role of such mutual dependence had been based on an assumption in the United States that while the economic relations with China were growing, that country would be merged into the world economy, and its internal political structures and international behavior would evolve. But in a relatively long process, China’s economy grew and the Chinese policy did not lean towards the West, which created a new concept in the international political economy, known as authoritarian capitalism, or the Chinese investment model. Moreover, discussions were raised in the US that China has benefitted from the economic relations one-sidedly while the US has lagged.

 The second issue, which results from the previous subject, is that the United States is deeply disillusioned with China and its position, meaning that China’s economic growth and maintenance of its political system have led to the failure of the theory of combination and metamorphosis of China. At the same time, China established a broad network of multilayered ties inside the US, one of which was the dispatch of 400,000 Chinese students to American universities. The sense of frustration as well as the notion of China’s victory and progress became a domestic subject in US politics.

 The third factor is the growing significance of China’s internal aspect in the past years and an intensification of the dual “strategic” and “emotional” dimensions of the US policy in the party debates and domestic politics. This resulted in growing Sinophobia and turned it into a political instrument in the United States’ highly polarized policy. Such anti-Chinese sentiment escalated day by day, in a way that China has become a focal center of interest in the election campaigns for the upcoming presidential elections. The situation has become so serious that renowned right-wing strategist Steve Bannon has said that the only way for Trump to win the election is to overemphasize the threat of China and portray himself as the man standing in the war against China. This would mean that Biden is too weak to deal with China’s threat. A careful analysis reveals that the existing tension is a serious and multilayered one. But one should examine the facts at the bottom of such tension.

B. Nature of tension: There are three remarkable facts in the deep layers of Washington-Beijing tension and are worth deliberation. The first fact is the strategic nature of this role. Strategically, China is undoubtedly a global and emerging power in the international arena and all fields, while the US is a world power whose international and monopolistic position has faced a deep and multilateral challenge from inside and outside. This phenomenon would not be an easy one and will linger in the world for quite a long time.

 The second fact is the ideological dimension of the tension. These days, the term “New Cold War” is much heard about the role of China and the US. However, it lacks accuracy. There was an ideological link in the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. The theoretical arsenals of the two superpowers of that era were engaged in an ideological battle as well. The current tension between the US and China is different in this regard. China does not consider the US from an ideological viewpoint. In the US, however, there are ideological considerations, particularly among the individuals and currents represented by Pompeo, but there is generally no repetition or similarity between the US-Soviet Cold War and the Cold War between China and the US.

 The third fact is the psychological aspect of the tension. Psychology of the US is the psychology of fear of losing the global position in the face of rising China. Moreover, the US is seeking a show of force and saber-rattling with the purpose of intimidation, particularly in China’s surrounding regions. China, however, seems to be acting self-confidently. China tries to be calmer than the US, does not intend to upset the psychological atmosphere, and is not interested in the escalation of tensions, but at the same time, it cannot leave the US actions unanswered. Whatever it is, we are witnessing a different nature in the Sino-American relations compared to the past. Now one should see what consequences the tension would have.

C. Consequences of tension: The first consequence is that the tension is not short-term and will remain in the international community for a long time. More exactly, the future of the international system depends on the finalization and management of this relation, which would not happen rapidly and easily. Secondly, it would affect the global system and polarization. Whatever it is, the tension would not result in a monopolistic world favored by part of the US government. Several Chinese strategists have raised the possibility of the bipolarity of the international system in the wake of the tension, saying there would be a great and substantial distance between these two poles the other ones. Apart from such an ideal situation, it is impossible to ignore the contribution that the tension would make to some sort of multipolar system. Ultimately, the third consequence should be evaluated in terms of the impact on Iran-China relations. However, a new gap has been created in the world between the two poles, one of which is emerging growingly and the other one is grappling with the challenges of hegemonic desires. What should be taken into account about these gaps and the Iran-China-US triangle is that the Iran-China ties are inherently authentic within the framework of Iran’s dependent and balanced policy, not affected by the tensions among others.

 Whatever it is, the tension between the US and China is a multilayered and significant phenomenon for all international actors. What goes on in this regard would have global and far-reaching consequences.

(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)

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