The recent virtual climate summit meeting between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping may have initiated meaningful contact between the two states, but it failed to resolve the lingering US-China disputes. about the trade war. The proceeding also established that both states continue to view the Indo-Pacific region as contestable territory for the foreseeable future.
All in all, the multilateral balance is in bad shape: the US is increasingly looking inward rather than global interests. Some had hoped for another moment of “beautiful isolation” in the US, but the US is unlikely to withdraw its pledges around the world, especially given China’s relentless economic upswing. China is not only an economic superpower, but also a diplomatic and development giant. Russia has also established control and power beyond its borders, not least by supplying weapons and controlling global energy supply chains in Europe.
The US has always relied on allies to fight for global hegemony, but this is easier said than done in the existing global fabric. There would have been hope of revitalizing the Pax Americana, had the US not destroyed its support among its European allies and enabled a wave of new alliances such as AUKUS and the Middle East QUAD that could expand America’s narrow security agendas. push where instead there are opportunities to leverage in global diplomacy, development and economic connectivity. The fate of NATO and even the UN Security Council is at stake, with a growing mandate for conflict resolution but dwindling resources and conviction to lead.
In the Indo-Pacific, broadening relations and coordination with Australia, Japan and India remains a priority for the US. China, on the other hand, looks to increased economic cooperation as a means of spreading influence and accessing key markets and trade routes.
AUKUS and defense agreements with India (BECA) of recent years clearly identify China as the main threat. The next task for the US in this area would be to increase defense cooperation among its partners – closer India’s contacts with Australia, New Zealand and the UK for greater cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.
While Australia views its alliance with the US as the cornerstone of its security policy, China is also an important economic partner for Canberra. But the deal through AUKUS to buy nuclear-powered submarines is a prime example of Canberra looking to resettle in its maritime backyard. The erosion of the relative position of the US relative to China is also driving Australia to participate more directly in the Indo-Pacific region and to encourage the development of a new regional architecture.
Alliances aside, good old “hard” defense capabilities continue to dominate national budgets with significant spending on both sides. However, a look at US and China’s total defense spending indicates that the “competition” the US refers to is actually skewed in Washington’s favor. Even the most inflated estimates of China’s defense spending put the number somewhere between $35 billion and $65 billion a year. These numbers pale in comparison to corresponding U.S. data, which indicates defense spending was $766.58 billion in 2020.
This fundamental inequality is not likely to change anytime soon for several reasons. First, China still has some economic challenges to overcome before it can deploy unlimited resources to build its capacity to invest in its defense. Second, even if China is specifically looking to compete with the US military in both quantity and quality, it has yet to catch up. The “capital supply” of modern military equipment in American hands is estimated to be about $1 trillion; China’s defense resources currently amount to $100 billion by comparison.
There is also still some skepticism about China’s equality with the US in the oceans. According to satellite images, Beijing will soon put its first aircraft carrier into service, but the exact date is still unclear. There are estimates that this could happen anywhere in the next three to six months. The US already has 11 by comparison.
However, technological advancements and more technology research and development could help speed things up for China. The recent hypersonic missile test seems to alarm US-based experts. Launched from China, the missile went around the world and then landed a payload on a target in China, meaning China could soon be able to evade missile defense systems at the most distant targets. These developments have led to mounting tensions, which place a significant burden on the international system as the risk of conflict increases, especially as the US militarizes its Asia policy. The camp formations being shaped or perhaps imposed by an overprotective American establishment are reminiscent of a forced polar mentality that will eventually harm the interests of the region.
On another level, at the bilateral summit, Biden spoke briefly about China’s “unfair trade and economic policies” and how these harm American workers, and expressed concern about human rights violations in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, while reiterated support for Taiwan. Despite their differences and ongoing trade war, both countries seem wary of the responsibility resting on them to place guardrails on potential economic and geopolitical conflicts between those that flare up in the uncontrollable diplomatic or kinetic empire.
The US and China are both paying high taxes on each other’s imports as a result of the trade war that began between the two under Trump in 2018, which eventually resulted in escalating import tariffs and subsequent supply chain disruptions affecting businesses and individuals worldwide. Under the still unresolved trade war, China is still more than $180 billion short of a pledge to buy $380 billion worth of U.S. products before the December 31, 2021 deadline. While the recently held virtual climate summit meeting between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping has sparked some optimism about engagement between the two states, but has done no groundbreaking in resolving the lingering US-China trade war disputes.
In the short and medium term, the Indo-Pacific is likely to remain a hotbed of tension and arms building without an actual outbreak of violence. At present, the issue of Taiwan has been identified as the potential match that could turn tensions into something uglier. However, all indications from the US point to a reluctance to participate, as one misstep could lead to a protracted conflict spilling beyond Indo-Pacific waters. For now, both sides will be in an uneasy stalemate and continue to spend defense with inattentive weapon hoarding. The competition to expand power over the Pacific is in full swing.
The writer is a researcher at the Jinnah Institute. He tweets @wastiA