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Sino-US ties at a crossroads

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15.06.2020

THE confrontation instigated by the United States with China continues to intensify. The pandemic has escalated tensions between them that were already at a record high before the Covid outbreak. This fraught situation has variously been described as a new Cold War, end of the post-1979 era, a geopolitical turning point and less seriously, a ‘scold war’.

What does this mean for the world’s most consequential relationship? Is this a transformative moment from where ties will have to be completely redefined rather than reset? Will the two global powers arrive at a modus vivendi or will their stand-off become an enduring feature of the international landscape? How much of China-bashing in the US reflects campaign politics in an election year? Is the friction an inevitable result of a global power’s response to the rise of another that can challenge its predominant position — a classic phenomenon witnessed throughout history when power dynamics shift fundamentally?

Is economic decoupling between the two inescapable? Or will present hostilities eventually give way to a restructuring of ties in which relations may end up being fiercely competitive and selectively cooperative but with overtones of hostility?

Clearer answers will emerge over time. But a key factor that could shape future relations will be the US presidential election in November when the next occupant of the White House will have to decide how to manage relations with China: to stabilise the relationship on new terms, or embark on a course of drawn-out confrontation. In both eventualities, a return to engagement that previously characterised relations with China is unlikely.

The future course of........

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