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Global Perspective: Biden gov't, China will compete and cooperate for era of parallelism

Chinese President Xi Jinping, bottom, arrives for the closing session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on May 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

Looking back on the year 2020, it was China that rocked the world. The explosive epidemic of the new coronavirus that began in the Chinese city of Wuhan spread around the world and brought about an unexpected economic and social crisis. Yet the world is indeed a strange and complicated place, and China was the first to suppress the virus by stopping people from moving through a forceful initiative, and was the first to make progress in its economic recovery.

    However, it is not always easy to assess the current situation in China. I wrote a year ago in this column that China's third-quarter growth fell to 6.0% and leaders expressed serious concerns about the future of the economy. The current global pandemic broke out under those circumstances, and the crisis must have caused considerable damage. Worker protests against late or missed wages still occur almost every day.

    The National Bureau of Statistics does not disclose the unemployment rate for those under 24. Probably the job search for young people is quite tough. President Xi Jinping maintains a posture of confidence, but I guess it's too early to say that he has completely ridden out the biggest crisis since he took office. On the other hand, China is the only major country that will mark positive growth this year, and its economic recovery is indeed a lifeline for many industries around the world.

    For the Xi Jinping administration, hitting a right balance between economic revitalization and financial risk avoidance is a difficult policy management issue. After Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, China's largest e-commerce company, bitterly criticized the authorities' financial regulations, the initial public offering of Alibaba Group's financial company, Ant Group, was suddenly postponed. This development indicates a political weariness against bloated private enterprises in China.

    The political season is upon us in China, as the five-yearly congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) approaches in two years. In mid-October, before the plenum of the party's Central Committee later in the month, "Regulations on the Work of the Central Committee" was enacted. The regulations called for the education of people with the so-called Xi Jinping philosophy, and upholding Xi Jinping's position as the "core" of the whole party. This means strengthening the one-man regime and paving the way for a long-term government.

    It is interesting to note that in late September, the party's politburo meeting reportedly discussed the same regulations. However, when the full text of the document was released in mid-October, it was noted that the text was not only discussed, but also ratified there. There is often a conflict of opinion behind the exposure of such contradictions. My guess is this: They only discussed the issue at the politburo meeting, but anticipating the likely outpour of dissenting opinions if the issue were put on the agenda of the upcoming Central Committee plenum, they decided to coordinate the views of the Politburo members and pretend that they had ratified the text at the meeting.

    It is widely believed that the CCP has an internal rule that no one over the age of 68 can be reappointed as a Central Committee member. In addition, according to the party's constitution, no one can be a member of the Politburo or General Secretary without being a Central Committee member. So, in order for Xi -- who will be 69 years old at the time of the party congress -- to continue to reign as the head of the party, changes have to be made to the system, such as modifying the bylaws on age restrictions or reinstating the party's chairmanship. This time around, however, no such changes were announced, nor the designation of a successor made. It seems that the continuation of the Xi Jinping regime has become a fixed route. But will that outcome be achieved smoothly with the clearing of institutional obstacles? It depends on the economic, social, and diplomatic stability in the next two years.

    The biggest task for China's diplomacy is the stabilization of its relationship with the United States. In late November, Fu Ying, former Chinese ambassador to the U.K., wrote in her opinion piece in the New York Times that "cooperative competition" is possible between Beijing and Washington. In the "Tokyo-Beijing Forum" of Chinese and Japanese experts organized by the nonprofit group Genron NPO on Dec. 1, held online this year, Chinese participants said that the U.S.-China relationship includes both competition and cooperation, and China would like to strengthen cooperation with the upcoming Biden administration.

    The Chinese Communist Party has a basic position that diplomacy is a struggle. Recently, some Chinese "wolf warrior diplomats" drew attention with their extreme language and behavior. However, the language Beijing uses for policy is purely conciliatory, leaving the impression of discrepancy between its words and deeds. One example of this is Beijing's proposal toward the Obama administration to establish a "new model of major power relations" founded on mutual respect and win-win cooperation. But there are signs of a change in that policy. China appears to have accepted the two-pronged approach of competition and cooperation -- a practice employed by Japan -- as its foreign policy framework.

    This change seems to manifest in Xi's remarks to the UN General Assembly in September that China will strive to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to virtually zero by 2060, and his statement of active consideration to take part in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free-trade mechanism at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit. In other words, Beijing continues to compete strategically and criticize the U.S. emphasis on the "Indo-Pacific Strategy" as an attempt to maintain its hegemony through the creation of another North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). However, it does not oppose the Japan-led TPP and the economy-oriented "free and open Indo-Pacific" vision. China intends to use multilateral frameworks at its disposal to improve its image marred by the new coronavirus pandemic and to induce Washington to cooperate.

    In my conversations with U.S. experts, I sensed a spreading recognition in Washington that keeping both competition and cooperation is necessary in the US-China relationship. The Trump administration lopsidedly favored a competitive approach, but other countries did not follow. Even considering national interests, American businesses have no intention of leaving the Chinese market. Moreover, if the next Biden administration seriously wants to tackle global issues such as climate change, cooperation with China is indispensable.

    Competition tends to escalate, and tensions inevitably go hand in hand with cooperation. But that is the only way ahead. Japan has to acquire prudence and strength to carry on under contradictory conditions. The media should also have a proper understanding of the two aspects of a "free and open Indo-Pacific" and China's distinct approaches to the initiative based on its recognition of that duality.

    (By Akio Takahara, Professor, Graduate School of Public Policy, The University of Tokyo)

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