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China-US relations will dominate geopolitics this decade

Chinese and US flags flutter in the breeze in Shanghai, China. File picture: Aly Song/Reuters

Chinese and US flags flutter in the breeze in Shanghai, China. File picture: Aly Song/Reuters

Published Mar 1, 2021


By Helmo Preuss: Economist at Forecaster Ecosa

The relationship between the US and China will dominate geopolitics this decade in the same way that the relationship between the US and the Soviet Union dominated the four and a half decades after the end of World War II.

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Unlike that period, South Africa will try to remain neutral as China is our largest trading partner, but in October 2020, the US was the largest recipient of our exports.

China is trying to mend the relationship with the US after the confrontation of the Trump administration when the US slapped tariffs against Chinese goods and restricted access to US technology with Huawei, in particular, being targeted. To address this issue, China organised a forum in Beijing this week that had as its theme: “Promoting Dialogue and Co-operation and Managing Differences: Bring China-US Relations Back to the Right Track.”

In his opening remarks to the forum, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called for a “non-conflict, non-confrontation” relationship between China and the US. This echoed the phone call between President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden.

"Given the differences between our two countries in social system, development stage, history and culture, it is natural for us to have disagreements. What is crucial is to enhance mutual understanding through dialogue and not allow our relations to be defined by disagreements," Wang said.

"Over the past 40-odd years of diplomatic relations, various sectors of the two countries have forged deep bonds. The Chinese and American peoples enjoy a long-standing friendship, which should stay immune to the ups and downs in the political dimension of the relations,” he said.

Wang said that the China-US relationship was the most important bilateral relationship in the world, so China was ready to restart dialogue and consultations, manage their differences, and focus on mutually beneficial co-operation with the US in the interests of both peoples and the world and in the spirit of no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win co-operation.

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To promote a reset of the relations between the two countries, Wang said both sides should have mutual respect on the different development paths and ideology they choose and should avoid any interference in each other's internal affairs, to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity.

He urged negotiations rather than sanctions to find win-win solutions for their economic and trade conflicts. A concrete way of advancing this new relationship would be for both sides to increase maritime co-operation and remove restrictions on people-to-people and cultural exchange between the two countries as soon as possible, said Wang.

Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd and current president of the Asia Society said in an article in Foreign Affairs that the contest between their two countries will enter a decisive phase in the 2020s.

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In his view, if the US opts for economic decoupling and open confrontation, every country in the world would be forced to take sides, and the risk of escalation would only grow. That would have major implications for South Africa, as it would prefer not to take sides.

I believe that China will aim to de-escalate trade tensions, stabilise the bilateral relationship as early as possible, and do everything possible to prevent security crises, which is why China is hosting forums like this week’s one. China will also aim to reopen the lines of high-level military communication with the US that were largely cut off during the Trump administration.

To encourage a personal relationship between the two leaders, China will seek to convene regular, high-level political dialogue, such as those felicitated by the G7 summits. The US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue served as the main channel between China and the US until recently and China will be interested in reviving this form of dialogue.

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A form of partnership between the US and China that would be benefit the world is co-operation in the production and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines. Wang suggested this kind of co-operation in his address to the 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) this week.

He said the Covid-19 pandemic was the common enemy of humankind and co-operation was the only choice for the international community, so vaccines should be distributed fairly around the world to ensure accessibility and affordability, especially in developing countries.

* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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