There are two major dimensions to the US/China strategic competition. One is ideology; the other is economics. Who will eventually win depends on who has a better combination of the two; discounting a war in which all will lose.
There is a Chinese saying that a tree without deep roots easily falls over. Both the Americans and the Chinese have their deep roots, one in democracy and the other in socialism (albeit of the communist kind). Unfortunately their belief in their roots evolved to a point where it was all roots and no tree. It was, however, the Chinese that came to this realisation earlier when in 1961 Deng Xiaoping said that it does not matter if the cat is black or white so long as it catches mice. When he came into power after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, he put his pragmatic ideas to work to set the Chinese economy back on track. This proved to be life changing for the Chinese people and shook the liberal democracies of the world to their core. A shaken US, with its unwavering faith in democracy began to plunge deeper into its democratic ideology in search for an answer to the China phenomenon. China and the US took opposite trajectories, one towards more pragmatism and the other towards more ideology respectively.
The democracy of the US took a neoliberal turn especially during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. It was clear to objective observers that neoliberalism brought ills – the gap between the rich and poor widened, life expectancy shortened, the American middle class shrank, money that should have been allocated healthcare and infrastructure went instead into military spending. The opportunity for politicians to ascribe blame came when the Chinese economy was poised to eclipse that of the US. Blaming China did nothing to improve the US’ economic woes, only to give its ruthless politicians more time to procrastinate until the next ruthless president takes over. There was however, an American candidate for presidency (after Obama) who would have introduced more pragmatic measures to ameliorate the damage done by rampant neoliberalism, Bernie Sanders. I saw in Bernie Sanders the equivalent of Deng Xiaoping. Both favoured pragmatic measures to obsessive ideology. The Americans fell for Trump’s rhetoric. For once I saw the paradox of an authoritarian government having an economic advantage over a democratic one. The socialist government of China did what it had to do to improve the livelihood of its people without having to go through messy politics. In the US, rhetoric prevailed over honesty. The Trump who said he will make America great again trumped over someone who said he will contribute towards reducing greenhouse gas, provide free college education, better healthcare, and higher minimum wage. These are socialist ideas. Americans have been indoctrinated to fear socialism,
On the international stage, China tries to gain support among the Global South with its “win, win” formula. This is a more potent sales pitch than the Western media give it credit for. Simply stated, China tells its listeners that for a relationship to be meaningful and thus last, both must benefit from the arrangement. That is where the Road and Belt Initiative proved to be a great asset. Apart from just improving the infrastructures of the recipient country, it also suggests, like the old Silk Routes, that all trade roads lead to and from China.
On the other hand, what the US and its allies attempt to sell is an ideology with its concomitant “values”. What they, the rich people of the world, do not ask themselves is: “Does values and democracy put food on the table?” It is obvious that countries that have social welfare systems value free speech while those that struggle to feed their people value material improvements. This dichotomy shows up very clearly in the two recent international conferences, the G7 and the China-Central Asia Summit described in “Paths to global prosperity” (Daryl Guppy. P&I 26/05/2023). Of the China-Central Asia Summit, Guppy points out that “It specifies no political ideology or adherence to a hegemonic alliance”. He concludes succinctly: The “G7 failed to provide an enhanced model of global leadership and simply endorsed the existing status-quo with all its historical imbalance. The China-Central Asia Summit showed that better cooperative alternatives do exist for global development.”
China’s “win, win” formula is not new. The US too has a similar, yet different, “Win, win” formula i.e. the US must always get much more out of the arrangement than the minor partner. This is not such a bad situation as Singapore and China had shown. They used the arrangement to get themselves on their feet economically, learn from the masters (of the technology and investment strategy) then forge ahead to compete with them. In that situation, the “Win, win” formula could become a “win, Win” one. When that happens, the US decides it is time to “decouple”, and the Europeans to “derisk”. Under Trump, the “America first” slogan caught the imagination of the flock. European Union leaders called for an “end to naivety in their relations with China” as early as 2019. To be brutally honest, they had never been naive in their relationship with the developing world. The US had always practiced “America first” in its relationships, even with its allies. It was the law of unintended consequences delivering its lethal uppercut, just like the idea that China will be “more like us” if it improved its economy with US investments.
Now that the US and its transatlantic allies are on the backfoot, they are still clinging onto their ideological warfare: human rights in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Tibet and the Chinese people as a whole; the “sovereignty” of Taiwan; “debt trap” of those countries that are partners to China’s Road and Belt Initiative. A poor country incurring a debt with China is in a debt trap; only those indebted to the US dominated World Bank and IMF are not in any trap. If debt is all bad, why is the US in debt to the tune of an estimated $32 – 35 trillion? It has trapped itself and needs to raise the ceiling now.
So, which side is winning? At the moment, it looks like China. Internet sources indicate that out of a total of 195 countries in the world, 151 countries have signed up to the Belt and Road Initiative. This is quite an endorsement of Chinese pragmatism.