But I Thought We Were Friends? What Changing U.S. – China Relations Will Mean for the World

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China has changed tact and begun to declare that it is the equal of the United States in the world order. Not in terms of economic size or military might, though it plans on getting there by 2049, but in terms of what constitutes a “legitimate” form of government, domestically and abroad. China believes its authoritarian form of government and centrally managed economy is an equal contender to the liberal democracies and free market capitalism embraced by the west. The Biden administration has responded by doubling down on tough rhetoric and maintaining strong punitive economic policies towards China. All of this was on open display during the U.S. – China talks in Anchorage last month. Taken together, this signals a fundamental change in the U.S. – China relationship, and how the global system will function in the future. 

Anyone who assumed that the election of Joe Biden would change the tenor of U.S – China relations and that Trump’s aggressive stance was just a one-off occurrence has missed a more fundamental change going on behind the scenes. States are reasserting their sovereignty and showing a willingness to reverse trends towards globalization in pursuit of their own interests. Advocates for focusing on relative gains in power between states are now the flavor of the day, pushing aside the long cohort of neoliberal advocates who championed the absolute gains of global development. 

In colleges and think tanks around the world the effects of “globalization” have been championed and bemoaned. Exactly when the world began moving towards becoming one giant interconnected community is debated. However, it is generally agreed that what Francis Fukuyama described as the “end of history”, began in earnest after WWII. This included the idea that liberal democracies and free markets had become the only legitimate way for states to be governed. After the conflict, as a result of the rapid convergence in major global trends in information, transportation, industrialization, and a new appreciation for the potential scale of future conflict between states, the rules of how states were supposed to act and cooperate with each other were codified into global institutions such as the United Nations (U.N.), World Bank, and International Monetary Fund (IMF). 

The credibility of these institutions was backed by the will of the free world and the world’s greatest military, whose only credible rival fell with the wall in 1989. The rise of free trade, American “cultural imperialism”, the multinational corporations that made it all happen, big tech, and NGOs with bigger aid budgets than governments, seemed to make the very idea of “nation states” obsolete, as if the world structure ensconced in the treaty of Westphalia in 1648 would go the way of feudalism. As if the series of treaties signed after WWII that brought the U.N., IMF, and World Bank into existence signaled a similar seismic shift in the system that would eventually remove states as the primary actors on the world stage. 

The pending fall out of China’s rise, and America’s entrenched response, is reminding us that states still matter, and although they may be willing to outsource many traditional roles to external, international, or non-governmental organizations their sovereignty is still absolute, and they will use force to protect it. There has been a lot of grumbling from multinational corporations such as Apple, whose entire supply chain is wrapped up in China, to HML, who has been trying to find a way to distance itself from the atrocities being committed on Uighur Muslims forced to pick the cotton that goes into their clothes while not alienating their Chinese market. What they are coming to realize is that they cannot do both, they will need to pick a side because the U.S. and Chinese governments will each force them too, and we are going to start seeing the threads that hold the globalized world together get snipped and spliced to route around state boundaries that the champions of neoliberalism long derided as antiquated roadblocks on the path to global development and prosperity. 

After a long hiatus we are seeing that nation states still matter, that the liberal hegemony that allowed the process of globalization to run rampant may be more anomaly and less prophecy of what is to come, and there is still disagreement about what development means and how to get there. We are now playing a new great power fueled geopolitical game. Unlike the last one with the Soviet Union however, in this new game the rules are not agreed on, no one knows how to keep score, and we are a long way from having any idea what “winning” looks like. Perhaps this is what it means to be “living in interesting times”. 

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