No winners in zero-sum game
Asia, the world’s largest and most diverse continent, is bracing itself for a showdown between two superpowers with opposing systems of government.
During their respective time in office, President Xi Jinping has solidified China’s reputation as an autocratic one-party state, while US President Donald Trump has flagged up the unpredictability of Western democracy.
The American leader also knows the issues best deployed to produce a favourable popular vote and has identified one in particular: making an enemy of China.
Polls in the US show that 65 per cent of Americans across the political spectrum have a negative view of China, compared with only 36 per cent in 2011, when President Obama was in the White House. How tough each candidate plans to be on China has become the central foreign policy issue of the presidential election.
Asian governments, meanwhile, are scratching their heads on how best to navigate America’s anti-China rhetoric and Beijing’s open expansionism without become embroiled, as they were before, in Cold War-style rivalry.
There is little doubt that Beijing is attempting to replace the United States as the undisputed power in Asia – though it is far from clear to what extent over the next half century or so it plans to oust America as the global leader and create a new world order, anchored with its own autocratic form of governance.
Also certain is that Beijing’s manner of expansion – picking fights over India, Hong Kong and Taiwan, to name a few – has produced a coordinated pushback from the US, Europe and regional allies.
But the unknown element is how much opposition Xi Jinping’s policies are facing within his own administration and the wider Chinese Communist Party.
Many among China’s governing elite are well aware that they are far from ready to replace the US-led world order. Certainly, in the current climate, China cannot win the trust of Asia enough to usurp America’s position there.
It would be far better if, after Xi’s recent boundary-testing years, China comes to this conclusion itself. A bad alternative would be that it remains on its current path and is forced into retreat by continuing trade sanctions or, at worst, the guns of American warships.
There are two points to note here. The first is that the re-election of Donald Trump would most likely produce a zero-sum environment. Trump’s psychology is of enemy and battle, thus public victory for America and defeat for China, together with the humiliation and loss of face that this would entail. The second is that a Joe Biden presidency might ease the atmosphere, but it would not change the reality.
The harder China continues to push its authoritarian model, the more the US and its allies will move to stop it.
America is skilled at building international alliances, as evidenced by the tightening of the current strategic relationships between Australia, Japan, India and other Asian governments. These will not unravel with a new president.
China faces formidable hurdles if its expansion is to continue as planned. They may be surmountable in the long-term but, within the next decade or so, it is difficult to see a way through.
Beijing is already finding its access to Western markets and technology choked off through sanctions, and international companies, employing millions of Chinese workers, are moving out to elsewhere in Asia.
Despite its record of poverty alleviation and infrastructure-building, China is still a long way from being able to proclaim itself the unassailable leader of the developing world.
Its once lauded Belt and Road Initiative has lost its sheen. Over-lending and its debt trap reputation are creating a bad taste around the region. At one end, there is simmering resentment; at the other, such as with Baloch separatist attacks on the Pakistan-China Economic Corridor, there is increasing risk of being drawn into conflict.
Beijing’s continuing threats against Taiwan are becoming nonsensical and self-destructive. Any military action would almost certainly meet with a devastating economic and military response from Western democracies.
The inevitable internal insurgency that would follow could end up pinning down Chinese troops for years, sending China’s modernisation back decades and turning Asia against it.
Among the region’s 50-odd governments, there is no predominant political system, ethnicity or religion and Asia should not accept one being thrust upon it. The narrative, therefore, must not become one about the greatness of China or of America, and it must certainly not be couched as a battle between ideologies.
The task of Asian governments is to explain this unique and varied Asian culture to both Beijing and Washington and impress upon them that zero-sum absolutes are in no-one’s interests.