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Global Perspective: US, China competition will continue after dust from election settles

President-elect Joe Biden speaks at The Queen theater, on Nov. 19, 2020, in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Former Vice President Joe Biden has declared victory in the U.S. presidential election, accelerating the transition process. As President Donald Trump has refused to concede defeat, saying he will proceed with his legal battles, there is a thread of uncertainty left, but it is unlikely the election results will be overturned. Never before has the world -- not just the American people -- paid so much attention to an American presidential election. This is because the choice of the president of the United States is considered to have a major impact on international relations.

    But how much will the world be affected by the outcome of this election? There is no doubt that world affairs over the past four years have been influenced by President Trump's unique personality. He withdrew from the Paris Agreement on climate change and also declared the U.S. withdrawal from the World Health Organization (WHO) in the middle of the new coronavirus pandemic. He has also been explicitly critical of the post-World War II alliance system.

    The relationship between the United States and China, who have each become the other's largest trading partner, also changed with the advent of the Trump administration. The president abandoned previous administrations' "engagement policy," launching a "trade war" against Beijing by raising tariffs substantially, increasing pressure on Chinese companies in the tech sector, and criticizing and restraining China's hardline stance backed by its military might in the South China Sea and other areas.

    Will the change of government bring about a major change in global international relations? Needless to say, it is unlikely that the world will return to the way it was in 2016. Politics, once in motion, is driven by its own dynamics. But how much will the outcome of the U.S. presidential election change the factors defining these dynamics?

    I suspect that the main variable defining the current dynamics of international relations -- the structure of international politics -- has already changed significantly, and that this will remain unaltered for a fairly long time, regardless of the presidential election's outcome. But what is the current structure of international politics?

    The first factor to consider in this structure is China's growing economic and technological power, and the potential military implications this could bring. Measured at purchasing power parity, China's gross domestic product (GDP) has already surpassed that of the United States, and it is on the verge of reaching the world's highest level of technological power in a number of areas. The biggest change in the world system over the past three decades has been this progress in China. The Xi Jinping administration is trying to accelerate this movement. This is not going to change, no matter what happens in the U.S. presidential election.

    Secondly, the lack of signs of change in China's political system is another factor that defines the dynamism of contemporary international relations. The fact that the Chinese Communist Party's political system is a strong authoritarian regime that allows neither freedom of speech nor of expression has not changed since 1949. But when combined with the first structural factor -- China's growing strength -- the constancy of China's authoritarian regime has become a major structural factor in international politics. If China's economy was weak and its technological capabilities inferior, China's authoritarian regime would not have a significant impact on international politics. And if China was a democracy, China's growing strength would just be a phenomenon like Japan's in the 1980s.

    However, authoritarian China, which approaches the United States in terms of economic and technological power and is capable of overpowering its neighbors in terms of military might, has become an entity that threatens the freedom, democracy, and ultimately, security of other countries. Companies that depend on the Chinese market, as seen in Hollywood and elsewhere, will carefully weigh the Chinese government's intentions and act accordingly. Also, nations that disagree with China will be at a trade disadvantage, as was the case with Australia recently.

    And the third immutable factor of the world system is that America's military and technological power is still the strongest in the world. At this stage, there is no sign that the United States feels that it cannot beat China's economic and technological power. The abandonment of the "engagement policy" that allows China to do whatever it wants is the strengthening of Washington's determination not to coddle China in the future. It does not mean that the U.S. has fallen into defeatism.

    The factors that define contemporary international relations outlined above are not phenomena that have arisen with the coming of the Trump administration. Under these three structural factors, the Trump administration stopped its "engagement policy" because it felt threatened by China's growing economic and technological power, and because it became increasingly aware of the threat of China's hardline external stance as Beijing is strengthening its powerful regime internally. Washington's approach seemed peculiar, partly because of President Trump's personality. However, even if the Trump administration had not been in place, the U.S. attitude toward China would have had to change sooner or later.

    Therefore, the post-Trump U.S. administration would have to act under this structure as well. It is almost certain that U.S.-China relations will remain strained under a Biden administration. Of course, even if the structure does not change, the process -- the way things are done -- can change. In the past, even during the Cold War, there was a process called "thaw" or "detente." In other words, this is where the beauty of diplomacy lies. To be more specific, the Biden administration is likely to place greater emphasis on relations with Western allies, return to the Paris agreement on climate change, and take a coordinated stance with China on the climate change front. The process of "coordination" and "adjustment" in U.S.-China relations may become more prominent. However, we should not forget that the structure of "competition" and "confrontation" behind it will not easily change.

    (By Akihiko Tanaka, president, National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies)

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