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The dialectics of engagement in the US-China relationship

By Mamtimin Ala - posted Monday, 3 June 2024

The global political landscape is becoming increasingly intricate. In this context, one of the most intriguing aspects is re-deciphering the essence of engagement between the US and China against the backdrop of China's recent major military drills around Taiwan. While simulating a full-scale attack on Taiwan and propagating predictive programming or normalisation, the drills have sent a threatening message to the new president of Taiwan, William Lai, who follows in the footsteps of his predecessor, Tsai Ing-wen, for the complete independence of Taiwan. At the same time, it has brought the age-old question to the forefront again: Will there be a war between China and Taiwan if the latter refuses to abandon its full and formal independence goal? What would be the position of the US from such a perspective?

Historically, the US position on this matter has been ambiguous. While maintaining official ties with Beijing under its "One China policy," it also reiterates a willingness to intervene militarily to defend Taiwan if China resorts to war. This ambiguity stems from the overall ambiguous nature of the relationship between the two countries.

Different US administrations have characterised this relationship in diverse ways: Obama described relations between the US and China as the most significant bilateral connection of the 21st century, emphasising the collaborative efforts of leading economic and military powers in addressing global challenges. This perspective can be called a collaborative model. Conversely, Trump displayed a degree of contradiction, labelling China as a strategic competitor and a geopolitical rival, initiating a trade war in January 2018 while simultaneously praising Xi Jinping as a "terrific guy" in 2017.


On the other hand, Biden adopted a more pragmatic and nuanced approach, blending elements of competition and cooperation. While recognising a stable and prosperous China that benefits both nations and the global community, it acknowledges the inevitability of conflicts with China.

Over the past decade, the US-China relationship has showcased a complex interplay and possibilities of collaboration, competition, and conflict, encapsulated in a 3-C model. While collaboration has been a significant aspect, as endorsed by Democratic leaders like Obama and Biden, it does not negate the presence of competition or conflict, notably accentuated during Trump's presidency. If not managed effectively, this potential for conflict could have profound implications for global geopolitics.

Therefore, the elements of the 3-C coexist, not as contemporaries but as potentials for dialectics of evolution. Considered from the Hegelian Dialectic, within collaboration as a thesis, competition exists as an anti-thesis, a dialectical opposite, eventually evolving or being synthesised into conflict. Conflict also has its dialectical opposite, i.e., self-constrained peace, deterred by potential nuclear war, unleashing a war of attrition resulting in the end of the world while being prepared to engage in war at any given moment.

In reality, the collaboration between these two powers conceals their intense competition. When this competition escalates to a point of irreconcilability, it can lead to conflict, potentially becoming the most decisive event of the 21st century and, possibly, an existential threat to humanity.

However, the conflict between these superpowers may also be non-confrontational. In this scenario currently playing out, China, instead of engaging in war with the US, is attempting to bring the US to its knees by patiently exploiting its internal social, economic, and political issues, simultaneously undermining the US's global leadership, strengthening the economic power of the BRICKS and accelerating the de-dollarisation process to reduce reliance on the US dollar in international trade and finance.

On the other hand, the US is facing a series of domestic social and political issues, including but not limited to decreasing trust in the integrity of government, the justice system, political parties and elections, increasing social polarisation, concerns about culture and race wars leading to societal collapse or civil war, debates on gun control, the fentanyl epidemic, healthcare affordability, high levels of migration, and high costs of living. The case of Trump stands out as the latest example, marking him as the first former or serving US president to be held accountable for a crime. Not only does this make him the first presumptive major-party nominee to be convicted of a felony, but it also raises concerns about the integrity of the US justice system and sparks the potential for internal chaos and even the collapse of society itself.


From China's perspective, the emphasis seems to be on peaceful coexistence and cooperation with the US, which Xi Jinping repeatedly endorses. However, beneath this diplomatic and rhetoric facade, China harbours ambitions of surpassing the US to become the sole global power, the strategic approach, while covert, that defines the future dynamics of the US-China relationship.

Specifically, China has learned from the negative consequences of its aggressive wolf-warrior diplomacy, contrasting with the cooperative rhetoric and avoidance of controversy carefully practised by Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao. This approach is merely a temporary diplomatic performance as China strategically waits for the US to collapse internally, congruently strengthening its alliances with other perceived adversaries, such as Russia, North Korea, and Iran, preparing for a potential future conflict with the US

Like the US, China grapples with domestic challenges. Some of these include population decline, a widening wealth gap, real estate market instability, increased unemployment among university graduates, heightened social surveillance and control through the social credit system, unbalanced development between metropolitan areas and rural regions, and the CCP's control over private businesses. Under the weight of such internal troubles, China knows it cannot take huge risks to use military force to "reunify" with the independent state of Taiwan, let alone afford a sudden military confrontation with the US over Taiwan or over other sensitive matters.

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About the Author

Dr Mamtimin Ala is an Australian Uyghur based in Sydney, and holds the position of President of the East Turkistan Government in Exile. He is the author of Worse than Death: Reflections on the Uyghur Genocide, a seminal work addressing the critical plight of the Uyghurs. For insights and updates, follow him on Twitter: @MamtiminAla.

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