U.S.-China ‘Cold War’ narrative is misleading

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a trade meeting with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He in the White House

By Lully Miura for The japan Times

The 2020 presidential campaign has already started in the United States. For a year and half, the rest of the world will be influenced by the U.S. electoral process. The U.S.-China trade war will likely be one of the election’s central issues. Geopolitical observers have long tackled the question of great power transitions. The world will witness how this unfolds as part of the domestic power struggle and party politics in the U.S.

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The question is acute, especially for a country like Japan, which lives between these two global powers. Although the media tend to focus only on the aspect of day-to-day fights and deals, one should look at the fundamental structure of the U.S.-China trade war.

To ensure government stability as well as President Xi Jinping’s personal power, China faces two kinds of challenge: how to maintain economic growth and how to keep Xi’s rivals out of power. Considering the lingering risks in the Chinese economy, Beijing cannot drag the trade war on indefinitely. China’s trade surplus vis-a-vis the U.S. suggests that it has more to lose, at least over the short term. If the communist regime fails to contain such risks, it will likely encounter a backlash of public opinion, which is of concern even for such an authoritarian regime.

China, however, has the benefit of time. It has little incentive to provoke the U.S., which is increasingly growing inward looking. The Trump administration has been warning its allies in NATO and East Asia that America’s defense assurances do not come without a price. Such a notion benefits Russia and China, even though it may be true.

Of course, the story about East Asian allies is different from NATO’s because Japan and South Korea depend more on the alliance than the Europeans. Favorability of the U.S. is still quite high in these two countries, according to the Pew Research Center. As a matter of fact, the U.S. is the only power that wins high favorability ratings across Northeast Asia, where hostilities among regional powers persist. Relations between Japan and South Korea, as well as between South Korea and the U.S., have become increasingly divided as China increases its influence. The region’s fundamentals benefit China and the only thing it has to do is wait.

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