OPINION: China-US Crisis

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Trump and Xi

By Jerome-Mario Utomi

Similar to the Soviet Union /US time-honoured race for preeminence in the world’s political sphere, the heightened exchanges in recent months between the Peoples Republic of China (PRC), and the United States of America (USA), over the real/imagined cause, and origin of the dreaded Coronavirus (Covid-19), pandemic has, instead of improving the global knowledge economy or proffer solution to the scourge, brought to the fore welter of diplomatic, political, socio-economic issues.

From a more critical approach, aside from  the need to tackle this silent crisis which some analysts labelled ‘competition without catastrophe’, which is becoming urgent, many believe that the present friction construed around Coronavirus is fueled by the Donald Trump led administration’s lack of diplomatic communication and interpersonal skills needed for constructive conflict management. To others, it is nourished by the Chinese government’s lack of common understanding and incapacity to recognize the interest of other stakeholders.

Exploring these interplays which has to do with power, and the question of who owns and controls information, and the means by which it is generated and distributed, understanding the visible tensions visited on the world by such issues, and drawing solution to the challenge from expert comments and objective analysis of the current situation by well foresighted and development-minded people/institutions across the world is the purpose of this piece.

Specifically, that China has become a reality that the world worries about can only be  a  surprise to those  who  all these years maintained a narrow focus about the country or  failed to understand  China’s ‘competence’ in technology and economy.

This assertion is not without precedents.

Call it prophesy or prediction. For over the past three decades, Predictions/prophecies about China’s greatness and possibility of becoming world power were everywhere.

As far back as 1987, one of the greatest world leader/development expert forecasted that through the WTO, the Chinese economy can become integrated into the rest of the world. With broad and deepening people-to-people contacts, stereotyped perceptions of each other will be replaced by more realistic appraisals. When the Chinese people’s livelihood is inter-dependent with that of the World through trade, investments, tourism, and the exchange of technology and knowledge, there will be a better basis for a stable World.

China, it added, has the potential to realize its goal of becoming a modern economy by 2050. It can be engaged as an equal and responsible partner in trade and finance, and become one of the major players in the world. If it is not deflected from its present concentration on education and economic development, China could as well be the second largest, if not the largest, trading nation in the world, with greater weight and voice in international affairs. This is one vision of China in 50 years—modern, confident and responsible.

Today, China, going by commentaries, represents a far more competitor. In the last century, no other US adversary including the Soviet Union ever reached 60% of US GDP.But China passed that threshold in 2014, in purchasing power terms; its GDP is already 25% greater than that of the United States. And its economy is more diversified, flexible and sophisticated- a feat that qualifies it as emerging global leader in several economic sectors.  

Indeed, the US and the global community, in my views  must recognize that a major potential aiding China’s possibilities is that as advocates of multi-literacies, Chinese system of education and learning is not ‘confined simply to the acquisition of skills, or the mastery of particular practices; but entails a form of ‘critical framing’ that enables the learner to take a theoretical distance from what they have learned, to account for it’s social and cultural location, and to critique and extend it’.

There are however, concerns this time around that what China is ‘showing’ the US may not be the first half of a recurring circle but rather the beginning of something new.  And an outstanding opinion article worth mentioning which articulates this claim is by Minxin Pei , dated April 3,2020 and titled; China’s Coming Upheaval.

Among other concerns raised, the report noted that over the past few years, the United States’ approach to China has taken a hard-line turn, with the balance between cooperation and competition in the U.S.-Chinese relationship tilting sharply towards the latter. Most American policymakers and commentators consider this confrontational new strategy a response to China’s growing assertiveness, embodied especially in the controversial figure of Chinese President Xi Jinping. But ultimately, this ongoing tension—particularly with the added pressures of the new coronavirus outbreak and an economic downturn—is likely to expose the brittleness and insecurity that lie beneath the surface of Xi’s, and Beijing’s, assertions of solidity and strength.

United States, he noted, has limited means of influencing China’s closed political system, but the diplomatic, economic, and military pressure that Washington can bring to bear on Beijing will put Xi and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) he leads under enormous strain. Indeed, a prolonged period of strategic confrontation with the United States, such as the one China is currently experiencing, will create conditions that are conducive for dramatic changes.

If this account is right, it will necessitate the following questions; is democracy being threatened globally? Is there any thing left for politics to do?  Explicitly, in my views, it will not be characterized as an overstatement to support claims that democracy may not die anytime soon but has become unusually troubled.

Among many, a particular indication is signposted, and traceable to the work by Thomas Caothers and Richard Youngs, published April 11, 2017, with the title; Democracy Is Not Dying.

Among other worries, the duo expressed great concern that democracy has unquestionably lost its global momentum. Quoting Freedom House, the piece explained that there are only a handful of electoral democracies in the world today than there were at the start of this century. Dozens of newer democracies in the developing world are struggling to put down roots, and many older democracies—including, of course, the United States—are troubled.

Submitting that in the West, it is difficult to escape the pessimism that pervades current discussions of global affairs; from Russia’s invasion of Crimea and the never-ending crises of the European Union, to the Syrian catastrophe and the rise of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), the world appears to be tearing at the seams. Meanwhile, democracy itself appears to be unraveling—helped along by resurgent authoritarianism, weakened liberal democratic values, rising populism, and contagious liberalism.

Similarly, a recent edition of the Foreign Affairs, one of the most respected Journals in the United States, while discussing the topic; The Pandemic Won’t Make China the World’s Leader, explained that some leaders, of course, are embracing Beijing’s narrative and applauding its methods in combating the outbreak—including officials in Cambodia, Iran, Pakistan, and Serbia. Another proof, the report added, that  the United States may be facing a stiff challenge in the hands of China is the failure of the G-7 foreign ministers to reach agreement on a joint statement (because the U.S. delegation insisted on calling the novel coronavirus the “Wuhan virus,”.

For decades, it continued, the United States has maintained power, credibility, and influence not only by virtue of its size and capabilities but also by attracting other nations to its vision for security and prosperity. A United States that is churlish and defensive about China right now is not a United States that will earn respect among its friends and allies. A United States that learns from the experiences of Germany, South Korea, Taiwan and others in pandemic management; that embraces practical and meaningful cooperation with China; and that engages with global organizations, such as the WHO, to help them reform is a United States that can use the pandemic as an opportunity to remind the world of what American leadership looks like.

However, as a mark of hope for the United States and democracy by extention, the Journal assured that China’s economy cannot become the sole survivour of the global economy. Although there is a partial uptick on the supply side as Chinese factories reopen, the demand side drivers for China’s growth are in real trouble. China’s economy is too dependent on external demand from the United States and Europe to become the sole savior of the global economy. The 12 countries hardest hit by the virus today account for about 40 percent of China’s exports. Many of these countries are also China’s top suppliers of intermediate goods.

Whatever the true situation may be, the truth is that similar to history, which is no longer simply the story of people; but has become the account of natural things, productive collaboration has become the only way out for the American and Chinese.

Jerome-Mario Utomi, Lagos, Nigeria.

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