Facing the Covid-19 global public health crisis, instead of strengthening international cooperation, we have seen more divergence and disputes related to so-called “great power competition” between China and the United States. President Donald Trump recently tweeted that “the US certainly does maintain a policy option, under various conditions, of a complete decoupling from China,” the day after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi. Complete decoupling raises the possibility of anew kind of “cold war” amid the current crises. However, despite rising tensions, China and the US should find a way to promote cooperation in peace and security.
From the current situation, we can project three possible scenarios for the future of China-US relations. The first scenario, the preferable of the three, is that China and the US remain cooperative despite some antagonism. China and the US would not decouple, though they would continue to compete with each other both geopolitically and economically. Compared to other scenarios, this outcome would still allow for multilateral cooperation on shared issues and help bring about a more inclusive and equal form of globalization.
In the second scenario, China and the US move towards a form of partial decoupling, in which the two countries would decrease cooperation in fields related to science and technology, for example, 5G telecommunication. Although such an outcome might seem to offer China and the US some benefits in terms of lower risks to national security, at the same time, the pace of scientific development and innovation in other areas would slow down. Eventually, the gap between the two countries would not only affect themselves but also impact the rest of the world.
In the third scenario, the worst of the three, China and the US move towards a complete decoupling. Other countries would be forced to choose sides, leading to a world divided into two camps. A new and dangerous “cold war” could develop, one that has a high risk of turning into a “hot” war. If this reality comes to bear, not only would we live in a torn-up world, but resources would be wasted, hurting long-term prospects for peace and prosperity. If we consider the world’s rising multipolarity, this may lead to a situation where we have not two but many camps, a fragmented world that would hurt our ability to develop sustainably.
Comparing the three scenarios discussed above, it is not hard to see that the first is preferable and that China and the US should work together, however difficult it might be. In fact, the two countries do have a concrete foundation from which to develop a new model of bilateral relations.
Deep economic ties between China and the US are a strong reason for the two countries to avoid decoupling. According to data from China’s Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM), in 2018, there were more than 70,000 US companies operating in China, with total sales reaching $700 billion. During the outbreak, multinationals such as Exxon Mobil Corporation, Walmart and Popeyes have set plans to expand investment in China, despite the difficult economic environment. China’s vast market potential will continue to be a strong magnet driving China-US economic cooperation.
During the COVID-19 outbreak, non-governmental cooperation between China and the US against the pandemic has reflected deep ties of friendship between the people of the two countries. Compared to governmental relations, links established through civil society have proven to endure even amidst this unprecedented crisis, offering a bright spot amidst increasing rivalry.
In addition to existing foundations of China-US cooperation, the urgent need for the innovation of global governance to deal with the many transnational challenges we face calls for a more united international community. This should be a catalyst for cooperationbetween China and the US to promote a new globalization framework that is beneficial for all.
For example, cooperation between China and the US is key to forging an effective global response to the climate crisis. China and the US are the world’s two largest economies, energy consumers and carbon emitters, jointly accounting for over 40% of global emissions in 2019. If they can work together, China and the US have the critical mass to put us on the road to a more sustainable climate future.
To realize a more favorable future for great power relations, China can also boost cooperation with the US at the sub-national level. Track II diplomacy can also play an important role, as exchange between think tanks and nonprofit organizations across the Pacific strengthens understanding and helps to explore solutions for mutual-beneficial collaboration.
Perhaps, it is inevitable that aspects of the China-US relationship will be colored by rivalry and disagreement. But we must not let unbridled competition undermine efforts to overcome the gravest threats to humanity. To lose sight of that bigger picture would be the biggest strategic mistake of all.
The opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the opinions or views of ISPI.