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International Relations

US-China 'power rivalry' to dominate in future

American experts in Davos predict rising tensions, but say military clash unlikely

Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, left, speaking with Center for Strategic & International Studies President John Hamre during a panel discussion hosted by Nikkei in Davos, Switzerland on Jan. 23. (Photo by Akihiro Sano)

DAVOS, Switzerland -- Two prominent American experts on foreign policy and foreign relations say the "great power rivalry" between the U.S. and China will only amp up in the years ahead.

On a panel discussion hosted by Nikkei together with the Financial Times in Davos, John Hamre, president and CEO of the Center for Strategic & International Studies, and William Burns, president of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, agreed that the U.S.-China relationship will dominate international agendas over other issues.

Burns, a former U.S. deputy secretary of state, said "the international landscape in 2019 is shaping up to be the year of greater risk and unpredictability since 1989," as uncertainty looms over the administration of President Donald Trump amid profound geopolitical changes including "the return of great power rivalry especially between U.S. and China."

The veteran American diplomat said the "euphoria" at the end of the Cold War in 1989 has "long faded," while the world now faces competition in systems and ideas.

Hamre concurred that "there's a big battle coming over China." He said that the "old consensus" on China's peaceful rise and harmonious relations with the West is "gone." What started off as a trade friction has developed into much wider issues including intellectual property protection, due processes and dispute resolution and that China cannot unwind tension simply by buying more U.S. soybeans.

"Both Republicans and Democrats are not of the view that that is the deal," he said.

Hamre said Western nations are beginning to cooperate to prevent China from "exporting excess capacities to the rest of the world by undercutting prices" after markets were previously flooded with Chinese aluminum, steel and solar cells. He sees the U.S. and its close allies such as the U.K., Australia and Japan will establish mechanisms to screen Chinese goods, as seen in investments.

Burns said potential short-term concessions in trade deals will only "mask longer term competition" between the two countries. He believes that both countries are increasingly influenced by right-wing forces.

Given the potential of escalating tensions, Burns said managing the relationship with China will be the "biggest test of statesmanship." The leadership on both sides would "cold-bloodedly" cooperate on certain issues, while competition and occasional conflict would emerge, not only on trade and the economy but also on Taiwan and the South China Sea.

The souring relationship with the U.S. is pushing China closer to Russia. As Burns observes, "There's a common interest in chipping away [the] America-led order," and the rapprochement has come to be more than a tactical one. He warns the world should "not underestimate the strength and durability" of the renewed relationship.

However, in the longer run, there exists a "built-in tension" between the two nations, Burns said. The ambitious strategy of the Belt and Road Initiative led by President Xi Jinping "will bump into the sphere of influence [for Russia] in Central Asia."

Do they see a military clash between China and the U.S.? Hamre told the Nikkei Asian Review after the discussion that in the worst case, the tussle over the South China Sea could build to crisis point. But he also added: "I personally don't think much of that, because the Chinese don't want it." Burns also echoed Hamre's view that the leadership on both sides "will manage" through a display of statesmanship.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is in Davos but not on the panel, sent a written message to stress the importance of free trade. "I believe that now, more than ever, we must be forceful in promoting the benefits of free trade and innovation," he wrote. Abe pointed to the benefits yielded by the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, that was successfully negotiated and finally came into force at the end of 2018.

Hamre had also stressed during the panel discussion the importance of the TPP, the pan-regional framework initiated by Washington but abandoned by the Trump administration.

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