The nervous global reaction to deteriorating Sino-American relations recalls the old saying that it is the grass that suffers when elephants fight. But Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who warns that no one can “afford a conflict between China and the rest of the world, and in particular between China and the United States” might remember an astute African leader’s comment that the grass also suffers when elephants make love. He may have had in mind Richard Nixon’s pampering of China as a potential pawn against the former Soviet Union.
Recalling the horrors of the Korean and Vietnam wars, there is no denying that Asia in particular needs a stable equilibrium between the United States, which has dominated global affairs since the Second World War, and the People’s Republic of China, which gives every impression of aspiring to a similar hegemonic position. Yet, the appearance of being on a collision course may be deceptive. True, the United States wants to remain the global hegemon. True also, China cannot easily shed what Jawaharlal Nehru called its “Middle Kingdom complex”. But both powers are well aware of the economic realities that advise cooperation such as Spain and Portugal, the two major powers of medieval Europe, practised in 1494 when they signed the Treaty of Tordesillas, in effect dividing the newly “discovered” lands of Asia, the Americas and Oceania between their empires. The arrangement somewhat modified an earlier division of the New World proposed by Pope Alexander V, which the Portuguese dictator, Antonio Salazar, trotted out to rebuff India and justify his colonial stranglehold of Goa.
Democratic hackles everywhere will of course rise at the prospect of carving up the world like this but, truth to tell, the Cold War did exactly that. In fact, the inspired diplomacy of George F. Kennan, the American official who authored the policy of “containment”, suggests a precedent for managing Sino-American competition that is even more relevant than the 529-year-old Treaty of Tordesillas.
Although determined to confine the Soviet Union within certain well-understood borders, Kennan did not advocate “rolling back” Soviet sovereignty, as some ideological militants like John Foster Dulles wanted to. Ever the realist, he played a major role in the withdrawal of 45,000 American troops from Korea arguing that it was beyond US capabilities “to keep Korea permanently out of the Soviet orbit.” Moscow’s rule might be “undesirable”, but Kennan felt that “a period of Russian domination (was) preferable to continued US involvement” in the ravaged Korean peninsula. Reflecting on the partition that created two Koreas, he ruled out the need to extend “an anti-Soviet Korean regime to all of Korea”, thereby ruling out the need for unification of North and South. He even suggested that the United States could “tolerate for a certain period of time a Korea nominally independent but amenable to Soviet influence”.
A similar pragmatism has determined American policy in other spheres too since then. Despite the electrifying rhetoric of John F. Kennedy’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” (I am a Berliner) speech on June 26, 1963, in West Berlin, American policymakers have in practice usually toned down the idealism that if unchecked might have led to major international clashes. The “accidental” encounters of successive American Presidents with the exiled Dalai Lama, for instance, usually take place only when some sticky controversy persuades Washington of the diplomatic advantage of delivering a polite public snub to Beijing. For all the stern denunciation of “serious human rights violations” of the Uighur community in Xinjiang, there has been no whisper of military action or even sanctions such as have been put in place against Russia since it invaded Ukraine. Nor did genuine sympathy for Aung San Suu Kyi find expression in any major action to bring down Myanmar’s Tatmadaw military junta.
China’s so-called nine-dash line whose only purpose seems to be to lend some kind of historical credence to Beijing’s insistence on sovereignty over certain disputed tracts of the South China Sea and various islands and formations there probably presents one of the most serious threats to regional amity. Although Washington’s allies and proteges are victims of the nine-dash theory, the Americans have been relatively restrained in backing the conclusion by the arbitral tribunal constituted under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea that the entire theory with its supposedly historic basis has no legal validity. Beijing cannot have failed to notice either that verbal support notwithstanding, the Americans did not rush to Manila’s defence when China seized the disputed Spratly Islands, which Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei also lay claim to.
The harassment to which TikTok’s Singaporean chief executive Chew Shou Zi is being subjected in the US has understandably generated fervent interest throughout Asia. The app, used by more than 150 million Americans, has been accused of being anything from a Chinese espionage tool to a method of indoctrinating children and encouraging suicide amid soaring US-China tensions, though members of the US Congress have not presented evidence of such occurrences. It might be different if Beijing were seriously to threaten invasion and annexation of Taiwan. That could lead to military action but the more likely danger is economic.
A report by the US Chamber of Commerce and the Rhodium Group reckons that it would cost the US an annual $190 billion in GDP if it imposes a 25 per cent tariff on all trade with China. Forcing the United States to sell half of its direct investments in China would cost American investors $25 billion a year in capital gains and up to $500 billion in GDP losses. US businesses also risk losing global competitiveness if its sweeping policies force separation from China.
All prices would spiral while the American capability to earn in the aviation, semiconductor, chemicals and medical devices industries would be drastically reduced. For example, losing out on China’s massive market for airplanes alone would mean a loss of $875 billion by 2038.
Not surprisingly, therefore, people are clutching at the prospect of a rapprochement after last November’s Bali G-20 meeting between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping. It is said that before the nineteenth century opium wars, many Chinese hoped that there would be a lot of “talkee-talkee” before “fightee-fightee”. That should remind both sides to prove the doomsayers wrong and recalibrate their positions in a changed and changing world. Singapore PM Lee’s father, Lee Kuan Yew, had warned long ago that China should be engaged, not contained.