International rules make conflict between the United States and China more likely
International rules make conflict between the United States and China more likely

International rules make conflict between the United States and China more likely

Unlike previous superpower competitions, competition between the United States and China is fought through and over the content of international rules.

The winners of the First World War tried to reorganize the world in the form of the League of Nations. They did so again after World War II, albeit more inclusively, by setting up the United Nations. Something similar happened after the Cold War, when the “Washington Consensus” expanded across the globe.

Neither China nor the United States seeks to reorganize the world by winning a decisive war. Because both recognize that such a conflict can be catastrophic, they try to win without fighting and use international rules and rule writing as tools to constrain their opponents and shape the world to their advantage.

Long before the United States was willing to recognize its strategic competition with China, then-US President Barack Obama called for the adoption of the Trans Pacific Partnership Trade Agreement because it would allow “America – and not countries like China – to write the rules. heading into the 21st century. ” President Joe Biden’s interim national security guide published in March ended with a similar statement that the United States, not China, would shape “new global norms and agreements.”

Under Xi Jinping, China has become more open about its intention to make, rather than just take, rules. Unlike some foreign policy realists, the Chinese Communist Party understands that harsh military or even economic power is not the only source of international influence.

The competition for new technology is central to this new domain of competition rule writing. The struggle to set global standards and dominate the market for 5G broadband mobile networks unfolds over other new technologies, such as the rules on the development of face recognition technology, which involve fundamental issues of value.

But competition for rules could paradoxically make a military conflict more likely. The basic rules of international relations – many of which are enshrined in international law – exist to govern competition and enable cooperation. These rules exist only to the extent that they are accepted by states. Trying to determine them competitively is pointless. Great powers can simply decide to opt out.

Washington now more clearly recognizes the need for rules that will prevent conflicts, with President Biden recently emphasizing the need for “responsible competition” delimited by “defense” to “ensure that competition does not conflict.”

The recent rise in Chinese jets entering Taiwan’s air defense identification zone has underscored the need for a functioning hotline. When US Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley recently revealed that in the last months of Donald Trump he found it necessary to reassure his Chinese counterpart that they were not being attacked, he added that such phone calls could take days or weeks before Setup.

Washington’s need for more cooperation with Beijing goes beyond crisis management. More generally, it is necessary to address climate change – still at the top of Biden’s agenda – and start negotiations on arms control, a need driven by China’s reportedly successful testing of a fractional orbital bombardment system.

China appears to be far less enthusiastic about “protection,” with Beijing presumably suspecting that such a concept is in fact another form of competition rule and a thinly veiled attempt to lock in the status quo. China itself is no stranger to using conflict management for geopolitical purposes. It pushes a seemingly neutral “Code of Conduct” for the South China Sea that will cement its dominance of this body of water.

Competition without crash barriers is a game of chicken that Beijing seems to be easier to play. It may see Washington’s recent focus on “responsible competition” as a sign of weakness. Experience has shown that, apart from Trump, most US presidents will speak harshly about China, but over time they will realize the importance of engaging and meeting it.

The challenge for Washington is to sell the concept of responsible competition as mutually beneficial without nurturing the perception that this offer is a sign of weakness to be exploited. The order of recent exchanges suggests that this is a delicate balance.

In Biden’s call with Xi on September 9, he presumably sealed the conciliatory “hostage exchange” deal that involved the release from house arrest in Vancouver of Huawei Technologies director Meng Wanzhou in exchange for the release of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. It is also likely that Biden gave general warning about the trilateral security partnership involving the United States, Britain and Australia.

AUKUS was announced on September 15, while the release of Huawei CEO Meng Wanzhou was announced on September 24. The latter addressed one of the points on China’s “List of US Wrongdoings that Must Stop” and allowed Xi-Biden’s virtual meeting to take place before the end of the year. But Beijing has since shown it remains willing to risk conflict over Taiwan to change the status quo.

All is not lost if crash barriers cannot be installed. Washington’s public outreach to Beijing supports the message it sends to the rest of the world. This is as Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Vice President Kamala Harris have stressed that the United States is determined to compete with China, but that they are not “seeking conflict.”

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