[Analytics] US and China in ideological battle for the future

An American defence official says the US and China are locked in an ideological battle. Photo: Reuters

Cooperative steps with allies under consideration to counter expanded Chinese footprint in Asia and Europe. Competing interests among European countries make working strategies difficult, analysts say. Mark Magnier, Nectar Gan specially for the South China Morning Post.

The United States is in an ideological battle with China and needs to devise an effective, coordinated strategy with its allies to counter the rise of the Asian giant, according to a senior US defence official.

China’s use of “predatory economics” and its growing military clout threatened to worsen corruption, undermine the sovereignty of smaller nations, erode human rights and weaken free trading systems, said Randall G. Schriver, assistant secretary of defence for Indo-Pacific security affairs at the US Department of Defence.

“We don’t want to see any coercive approach to resolving disputes,” Schriver told a conference on US-China-European Union relations sponsored by the Washington-based Hudson Institute think tank.

While some of these concerns also touched on Russia, North Korea and non-state actors, “we’re particularly concerned about the trajectory of China”, he said.

Beijing’s “Belt and Road Initiative” – an ambitious investment and infrastructure programme – as well as its island building and military expansion in the South China Sea, were key areas of concern, Schriver said, before outlining several cooperative steps the US was considering to counter China’s expanded footprint in Asia and Europe.

These included greater intelligence sharing with European and other allies, closer coordination on freedom-of-navigation voyages in the Indo-Pacific region, stronger safeguards on proprietary technology and intellectual property, and more help for smaller nations in protecting their 200-mile exclusive maritime zones.

China and the US were engaged in “ideological battles” making this a consequential time, he said, referencing a speech made at the Hudson Institute by US Vice-President Mike Pence in October. “It is a very different regional architecture and order if China is successful,” he said. “And its model of governance is an ascendant one.”

Officials at the Chinese embassy in Washington were not immediately available for comment, although in past statements Chinese officials have rejected similar claims, calling on Beijing and Washington to work for “non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation”. The world’s two largest economies are involved in a trade war that has seen tariffs slapped on hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of manufactured goods.

But analysts and EU officials concede that forging effective working strategies among allies is easier said than done, particularly when it involved European Union nations.

While Beijing’s size and one-party state allowed it to act with focus and purpose, Western countries had varied and competing interests. Beijing in recent months has convinced Italy, Hungary and Greece to join its belt and road plan, even as other European nations remain wary.

Europe has been slow to respond to China’s rise in part because of its many internal distractions, including economic problems, a refugee crisis and Britain’s 2016 Brexit vote to leave the EU.

“During those five, 10 years when we were navel gazing, the world changed,” said Jeppe Tranhold-Mikkelsen, secretary general of the European Council of Ministers and Denmark’s former ambassador to China. “While we were fighting our way out of the crisis, the GDP of China doubled.”

At the same time, he said, Chinese industries had made giant strides in mastering the most important technologies of the future.

Last week, China and the EU wrapped up their annual summit in Brussels, papering over differences in areas such as trade and intellectual property protection. According to Tranhold-Mikkelsen, the EU sees China as a partner, albeit an increasingly challenging one, that it is very happy to work with, provided Beijing operates in a fair, rules-based manner.

Tranhold-Mikkelsen said Brussels also faced challenges on the US side, with the Trump administration not always taking its allies into account. “The US is very insistent on its own interests,” he said.

Another challenge in this increasingly complex environment is the race to develop 5G technology. The US, Japan, Australia and other nations are wary about the use of Huawei equipment and standards in their next generation telecommunications systems.

They are concerned that close ties between the company and the Chinese government will allow Beijing to gain access to sensitive information, an allegation Huawei has strongly denied.

Senior fellow at the Hudson Institute Thomas Duesterberg said one problem was the lack of companies with the size and reach to compete with Huawei’s technology, prices and low-cost financing.

“We don’t, jointly or individually, US or EU, have a really good economic alternative yet for Huawei,” he said, adding that one option was for both sides to help their companies to create competing offers.
Duesterberg said Hungary, Greece and Italy had “latched on” to the belt and road programme because their economic needs were not being met elsewhere.

“The US shouldn’t try to lecture the Europeans about how they handle their internal economic problems,” he said, even as he called on the two sides to explore economic development as a way of providing an alternative for countries in need.

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