Given their ongoing differences, what will the future of China-US relations look like? After more than 40 years of growing ties, the economies of China and the US are now deeply intertwined, and decoupling to any degree would mean a disentangling of enormous complexity.
With no immediate end in sight for the trade war between the world’s two largest economies, and with no signs of a fundamental easing of tensions between China and the United States, how are American companies in China caught in the crossfire coping?
The WTO is the world’s primary trading system, comprised of 164 member-economies scattered across all of the world’s five continents, and it is obviously in the interests of the world that it works effectively. But growing disputes between China and the Western economies are making the World Trade Organization increasingly dysfunctional. Could the result be a radical overhaul of the global trading system?
Europe is not used to getting its way in trade negotiations with China. But that is exactly what appeared to happen at the EU-China Summit recently. In the days leading up to the meeting in Brussels, it looked like the two sides would fail to agree a joint statement for a third straight year. European Union ambassadors complained of the “slow and difficult” talks with their Chinese counterparts. Just four days ahead of the summit, one diplomat told Euractiv that Brussels and Beijing remained “worlds apart” on several key issues. But all that changed when the Chinese side made a last-minute push to secure a deal.
The rapid deterioration in relations between China and the US over the past 12 months has left many scratching their heads and wondering how we got here. Stephen S. Roach is not one of those people. A former Chief Economist of Morgan Stanley and currently Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, Roach has been watching the development of Chinese-US relations closely for more than three decades. For him, a tariff war between the world’s two largest economies was as predictable as it is harmful.
The Sino-US trade tussle has had the greatest impact on multinational corporations in China—precisely the group that the US started out trying to support. Many have begun considering radical courses of action to stay in business.
For many in Beijing, the trade war confirms long-held suspicions that the United States is determined to thwart China’s rise as the world’s next superpower. As a result, US demands that China abandon Made in China 2025 have also tended to be viewed by Beijing as being motivated not by concerns over fair competition, but by a desire to make sure America keeps its lead in the global innovation race. Public statements from senior figures in the Trump administration have fueled these concerns—the trade war not as an isolated incident, but part of a longer history of US attempts to undermine rival powers.
Few thinkers can speak about global governance with as much authority as Kishore Mahbubani. A former President of the United Nations Security Council, Permanent Secretary of Singapore’s Foreign Ministry and Dean of the renowned Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, he has been named “the muse of the Asian century”. In his latest book, due next year, Mahbubani plans to tackle the rising tensions between the US and China. As he explains, the US should embrace a more minimalist and strategic approach to foreign policy to maximize its interests in an era of Asian dominance.
China’s huge current account surplus was once the symbol of its status as the “factory of the world.” But in recent years, that surplus has been shrinking. Last year, it sank to 1.3% of GDP. The half-year deficit announced in August was the first in more than 20 years. Some economists predict China could soon be running a current account deficit. If that happens, it will be a watershed moment with implications for all manner of issues, from the policies Beijing is able to pursue to the status of the RMB as a global currency and maybe even the way the US finances its debt.
The speed at which China has emerged as a major player in Southeast Asia is stunning. In 2000, total trade in goods between China and the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was only $40 billion. By 2014, this had leaped to $480 billion, and is forecast to reach $1 trillion by 2020. Southeast Asia has become a strategic market for companies across the whole Chinese economy. Manufacturers are looking to offshore production in order to reduce labor costs, while tech companies are eyeing the region’s 633 million-strong consumer market as a new source of growth.