The announcement that Joe Biden and Xi Jinping will meet virtually before the end of this year raises the prospect that China and the US could work to prevent the US-China rivalry from becoming a dispute. Although Joe Biden emphasized in his speech to the UN General Assembly that the US is not seeking a new Cold War or the creation of a world divided into different blocs, Xi Jinping also advocated resolving disputes through dialogue and cooperation. The rivalry between the two countries has intensified.
In general, US-China relations especially in India and Oceania are very worrying. Therefore, rational leadership from the US, China, and other regional powers will be necessary to prevent the escalation of the conflict. The Biden administration has suggested that the US pursues cooperation in areas of common interest while competing with China. However, China has rejected such a request, arguing that the US should not wait for China to cooperate on issues such as climate change, as long as it challenges China’s policies elsewhere. That is why the Chinese have recently proposed that the US refrain from criticizing China’s domestic system and its policies toward Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet, and Taiwan in return for cooperation on global issues such as climate change.
Although neither the US nor China is inclined to turn their rivalry into hostility and insist on their interests, emphasizing peaceful ways of resolving disputes, the grounds for tension between the two sides are still very wide. Dissatisfaction with China’s foreign policy has spread among US allies in the Indian and Pacific regions, as evidenced by the formation of the Quad and Aukus agreements. In addition, some regional governments, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as ASEAN members, have expressed concern about the escalation of the US-China security and the arms race.
In the meantime, despite threats from China’s warlike diplomacy and offensive positions in the region, as well as China’s East and South Seas, China’s offensive capacity towards the US and its allies should not be exaggerated so as not to escalate tensions. Overall, the rise of China’s nuclear arsenal, along with North Korea’s nuclear program and Australian nuclear submarines, overshadows non-proliferation programs in the region.
Regardless of China protests over the potential dangers of the Aukus Agreement, a nuclear arms race is currently underway in the region. As North Korea continues to build its nuclear and missile programs, China is rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal and strategic capabilities. A viable roadmap for North Korea’s nuclear disarmament or arms control measures to reduce the risk of nuclear war is possible only with the cooperation of the US and China.
Looking at the current tense situation between China and the US there seems to be room for deterioration in bilateral relations. In other words, as long as the US and China place little value on maintaining their relationship, the space for diplomacy to manage bilateral and global challenges will naturally diminish. While there is no prospect of reversing this trend, all regional powers must take action to ensure that the world does not move towards a conflict between the two great powers. The recent meeting between US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and senior Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi was also very encouraging; however, other measures are needed to strengthen the grounds for a responsible competition.
In general, it can be said that the conflict between the US and China can be avoided through the following measures. First, China must abandon the mentality of a fully aligned relationship with the US. As the US and China have tried in recent decades to build constructive relations despite differences in some areas. Second, healthy competition with China and the creation of the necessary frameworks for competition and peaceful coexistence in the coming years require a great deal of effort from diplomats on both sides. Not only does this require the creation of a comprehensive framework for advancing relations, but it also requires identifying areas and areas of tension in which a lack of rules and norms can double the risk of widening gaps. Finally, regional powers can play a key role in advancing multilateral initiatives to bring peace to their neighborhood, given regional needs. While China and the US may be reluctant to accept each other’s proposals given the current state of their relationship, they are likely to welcome cooperative initiatives from third parties.
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About the author:
Amin Bagheri is a Research Fellow at the International Studies Association in Tehran. His primary research interest lies in international relations, transnational governance, international peace, and conflicts in the Middle East.