Ashu Maan, Research Intern, ICS
China and the United States have been explicitly at loggerheads in the past few years. However, issues of contentions in Sino-US ties have existed in the past as well. This research blog attempts to understand the US Policy towards China during three different administrations – Obama administration; Trump administration and Biden administration. Additionally, the blog also attempts to understand India’s position in the US-China conflict.
Barrack Obama was the first African American to become the president of the United States and he was also the first American president to visit China in the first year of his presidency. However, Obama administration’s China policy seemed inept as it faced several challenges one after another. On his state visit, Obama was criticized by the media for “not displaying American values” and being “lead by the nose”. Obama’s unsatisfactory visit to China was further followed by ‘Failure to secure an ambitious Copenhagen deal’ at the Copenhagen Climate summit in 2009. Additionally, the American spy apparatus in China was being unearthed and assets were disappearing. Despite the challenges, Obama administration leaned towards engaging China rather than confronting it considering China’s rising economic stature globally. China overtook Japan and became the second-largest economy in the world during his presidency and the Obama administration was quick to realise and accept China’s new reality as an economic heavyweight. Obama administration believed that it was best to cooperate with China as was evident from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton February 2009 remarks – “some believe that China on the rise is, by definition, an adversary, but on the contrary, we believe that the United States and China can benefit from and contribute to each other’s successes. It is in our interests to work harder to build on areas of common concern and shared opportunities”.
Further President Obama with his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao initiated the ‘U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue’ in 2009. The dialogue was aimed at discussing bilateral, regional, and global issues between the two countries. On the trade front the US-China trade rose from $ 40.7 Billion in 2008 to $ 57.8 Billion in 2016. The trade deficit in the same period increased from $ 268,039.8 Million to $ 346,825.2 Million.
Table 1: U.S. trade in goods with China (Million US $)
Source: Compiled from United States Census Bureau.
Trump throughout his presidential campaigns was vocal about his criticisms of globalization particularly in the context of the ills plaguing the US work force. Donald Trump blamed China for taking jobs away from traditional industries like iron and steel and popularised the slogan of ‘America First.’ By the time Trump came to power, China had clearly become a “competitor” as opposed to Hillary Clinton’s “partner”. Trump was straightforward in dealing with China as he termed it an outright adversary, blamed it for stealing Intellectual Property from American companies operating in China, and started the infamous trade war. In the trade war, Trump realized that China was capable of countering trade sanctions and equal retaliation. It is important to note that although aimed at China, Trump’s infamous trade war also affected United States’ closest allies in Europe and Canada. On the trade front, the U.S.-China trade under Trump decreased from $ Billion 578 in 2016 to $ Billion 558 in 2020. Naturally, the trade deficit also decreased from $ Million 346,825.2 to $ Million 310,263.5 in 2020.
Table 2: U.S. trade in goods with China (Million US $)
Source: Compiled using data from United States Census Bureau.
Joe Biden came to power in December 2020. Biden’s policy has been the same as Trump with one change – Biden is engaging with Washington’s closest allies in Europe and Asia in countering China. Since coming to power, Biden has prioritized building alliances and reinvigorating old ones. So far, Biden’s China policy has been well received. In March 2021, the European Union, Canada, and the United States imposed joint sanctions on Chinese officials in Xinjiang. The Biden administration also reinvigorated the QUAD grouping and hosted the first leaders meeting of the QUAD countries namely Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. India and Australia have engaged fully with QUAD owing to Chinese actions on its Himalayan borders and sanctions levied on Australia due to Australia asking for investigation into the origin of Coronavirus. Since coming into power, there have been two leaders’ summit of QUAD, the first one was held virtually on 9 March 2021 and the Second one i.e., the first in person leaders’ summit was held in Washington D.C on 24 September, 2021. To counter China the grouping is focusing on areas such as trade, Artificial Intelligence, Quantum Computing, Infrastructure, vaccinations etc as depicted from the formation of working groups during the two meetings.
Apart from QUAD the Biden administration also formed a security alliance with Australia and the United Kingdom, popularly known as AUKUS. The group is focused on countering China’s influence in the Western Pacific region by providing Australia with eight nuclear-powered and conventionally armed submarines. The aim of the pact is to modernize the Australian navy by giving access to cutting-edge military technology to Australia including artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and undersea capabilities.
India’s Role in the Sino-US Conflict
During the last great power rivalry between US and USSR, India spearheaded the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) with an aim to remain neutral in the rivalry. During the Cold War neither Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson nor Nixon wanted India as an ally. An economically weak India would be an additional security burden for the US and for the American taxpayer because as Eisenhower put it, the US would have to defend “2,000 miles more of the active frontier”.
Unlike the Cold War, stakes are high and personal for India in the US-China rivalry. India shares a long land border with China and there have several border disputes. This time India cannot sit on the sidelines and watch from far. As can be seen from the recent trends, India’s China policy seems to be aligned with that of the U.S to a considerable extent. India has engaged vigorously with QUAD since border clashes with China last year. India’s role in the US-China rivalry will be of balancing and containing China with other Asian and Oceania allies i.e., Japan and Australia. India is slated to become the third-largest economy by 2030 overtaking Japan and Germany and is already among the strongest militaries in the world. India has a significant footprint in the Indian ocean via Andaman and Nicobar Islands and its partnership with France and Seychelles. India, through the courtesy of Andaman and Nicobar Island can impede China’s access to the South China Sea or the Indian Ocean by blockading Malacca Strait during times of conflict.
Though there have been many areas of contentions between India and the United States in the past, they are at present focusing on cooperation both bilaterally and multilaterally. It is important to note that China will not be contained just by security alliances but by economic and technological alliances. The United States should actively look to decouple its economy and manufacturing and diversify into countries like India, Bangladesh, and Vietnam. The United States must accept the new realities of the world and understand that the future of the world will be multipolar. The United States through alliances and partnerships can counter China.