When I returned from a trip to Europe, I suggested that the rivalry between the United States and China was not front-page news in Europe.
Europe seemed more concerned about the urgent task of economic recovery amid the Omicron threat leading to more lockdowns. Protests in Rotterdam and elsewhere showed that the public, especially young people, are revolting against further restrictions on their rights to socialize.
Back in Asia, the news is incessant in the face of US-China conflicts, including the looming boycott of the Winter Olympics or the suspension of international tennis by the Women’s Tennis Association in China.
What happens to individuals like tennis star Peng Shuai therefore has an impact on international relations.
How much of the tension is media generated (rhetoric) rather than stiff competition on all fronts (reality) between the two greatest powers on Earth? The latest Foreign Affairs magazine aptly headlines the US-China rivalry: The Divided World: America’s Cold Wars. Note the emphasis on America’s Cold War.
Despite President Joe Biden’s pledge in his recent United Nations speech that the US was not “looking for a new Cold War or a world divided into rigid blocs,” the question remains whether China is prepared to heed. America’s demands on red lines like Hong Kong. Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet or Taiwan, all of which see China as its sovereign issues.
Essentially, what game is played by the protagonists? A wise Dutch friend noted that China played the game of Go, Europe (including Russia) grandmaster chess and the US poker!
The game of Go, a Japanese name for the Chinese game of weiqi, is a board game of 19×19 line grids, between two players (black checkers vs. white checkers) in which the simple rule is that whoever circles (wei or surrounds) the opponent’s pieces those pieces and wins by eventually surrounding the opponent.
International chess, on the other hand, has an eight by eight board with 16 pieces on each side, with the aim of capturing the king, defended by one queen, two rooks, two knights, two bishops and eight pawns with defined rules of movement.
The poker game differs from the other two in that it involves multiple players using a standard deck of cards, which can be eliminated until just one winner. There are elements of chance and escalated bets that evolve around bluffing strategies as opponents judge the others’ cards to determine if they want to stay in the game.
All three games are strategy games in which psychology plays as much a role as hard trumps. Even these complicated games were reduced to predictable results by super-fast computers when, in 2016, Google’s DeepMind program AlphaGo defeated the world’s top Go player, South Korean Lee Sedol.
The Great Power game is, of course, infinitely more complicated with nearly 200 countries in the game, including non-state players like ISIS, which can influence how each player moves and positions themselves.
However, the US, China and the European Union each accounted for 16% of the world’s gross domestic product in terms of public-private partnerships in 2017 (almost half of world output), while the top ten players, including India Japan, Russia, United States Kingdom, Brazil, Indonesia and Mexico, in that order, would account for nearly three quarters of the world’s gross domestic product.
Add to that the fact that the top six, plus Iran, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel are nuclear clubs, makes the power play deadly.
Henry Kissinger, the architect of the US-China detente in the 1970s, posed the essential questions for the unfolding US-China rivalry as one in which “both were too big to be dominated, too special to be transformed and too necessary for anyone else to afford isolation.”
He called it “appropriate label for the Sino-American relationship as less partnership than “coevolution” because “neither is able to define terms for victory in a war or in a Cold War-type conflict.”
The conventional wisdom is that China is almost equal to the United States in economic power, not quite there in financial power, and clearly behind in military and media power. This is a psychological test of will, where the rest of the world won’t take sides yet.
Kissinger rightly judges that “the United States is more focused on overwhelming military power, China on decisive psychological impact. Sooner or later, one side or the other would miscalculate.”
The structural reality is that rational calculations would cause both protagonists, in the event of mutually assured destruction by nuclear war, to withdraw from the actual conflict.
Kissinger is also perfect in the sense that in any rational competition, America alone is responsible for restoring its infrastructure, manufacturing and domestic social capital to bolster its economic and technological competitiveness, something China cannot be involved in.
But the danger is that emotional factors, especially values and egos, plus minor incidents and events by other players, provoke what each player sees as a decisive test of their will and eventually escalate into heated conflict.
So it would take statesmanship standards of leadership from both the US and Chinese presidents to ensure that such mishaps and miscalculations do not turn into a real war.
The harsh reality is that while President Xi will still be there in 2024, the risk of Biden losing his legislative majorities in 2022 or even reelection in 2024 means the US-China relationship will be a relaxing one at best. .
Looking into 2022, it would be safe to say there won’t be any major vision policy breakthroughs from any of the major players, just more “stable as she goes” muddling through.
The real test of national and global leadership in the coming years will not be how they manage international order, but how they avoid further disorder.
Andrew Sheng writes about global issues from an Asian perspective. The opinions expressed here are those of the author.