Illustration: Stephen Case
Peter T. C. Chang
Peter T. C. Chang

Dysfunctional US-China relationship and divided America hinder efforts to tackle global crises

  • Increasingly tense US-China relations and fractious American politics are hampering the fight against climate change and Covid-19, among other pressing issues
  • Restoring the US’ steady leadership, which is vital to resolving today’s global problems, requires learning to peacefully coexist with China
In his opening speech at the recent General Assembly, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that the world faced a “pivotal moment” to change course or face a future of perpetual crisis.

The increasingly tense US-China rivalry is complicating the global community’s ability to respond as one to this urgent call for action. But a divided America is also depriving the world of the vital US leadership needed to address these historic challenges.

China and the United States are in the midst of a once-in-a-generation historic social transformation. In his quest for “ common prosperity”, President Xi Jinping has launched a crackdown on many issues, from the country’s all-powerful tech titans to for-profit tutoring companies and the computer gaming industry.
In the US, President Joe Biden is rolling out a multi-trillion-dollar agenda to rebuild American infrastructure, invest in green technology and boost spending on child care, education and other social programmes to “build back better” for everyone.

But to realise their domestic goals, Biden and Xi have to navigate very different regulatory processes. In the US governance system, Biden must win congressional support.

Faced with intra-party strife and inter-party resistance, it is uncertain if Biden will be able to garner the votes required to pass his ambitious programme.

In China’s single party-state government, by contrast, Xi is unimpeded by partisan politics and already enforcing his whole-of-society transformation. With unchallenged rule, Xi has a freer hand to enact his “common prosperity” edicts.

In fact, Xi has the less daunting task of making sure a still-growing economy does not leave anyone behind and ensuring that everyone grows rich together in this next phase of China’s development. Biden, however, is confronted with the more arduous task of healing a deeply polarised country.

Aside from economic inequality, the American landscape is fracturing along racial, cultural, political and religious lines. The January 6 insurrection points to a fragile democracy increasingly threatened from within.


What is China doing about climate change?

What is China doing about climate change?
Xi is more likely to achieve his domestic agenda, setting the foundation upon which to advance his broader vision of “building a community with a shared future for mankind”. At the General Assembly, Xi reiterated China’s resolve to do its part to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and promised to stop building new coal-burning power plants overseas.
At the same venue, Biden reaffirmed his administration’s commitment to arresting global warming and pledged to double America’s aid to help developing nations tackle climate change. Assailed by extreme weather and natural disasters at home, Biden and Xi know the US and China must each do their part to tackle the worsening environmental crisis and to prevent our planet from slipping to a point of no return.
But this shared cause of climate change cannot mask the mistrust that continues to plague the two countries’ relationship. Apart from the threat posed by a decaying environment, the US sees the rise of China as an imminent, systemic threat to the American way of life and the free world.

Freed from the Afghanistan debacle, the US and its allies are pivoting to the Asia-Pacific determined to contain China.

In response, Beijing is reinforcing its national self-reliance with its “ dual circulation” strategy and the “ China Standards 2035” blueprint, among others. Through the Belt and Road Initiative, China is laying the global groundwork to sustain its own sphere of geopolitical and economic dominance.

China is decoupling from the world, not the other way around

The US-China relationship is veering towards decoupling as a separate, China-led geoeconomic bloc begins to take shape alongside the existing, Western-centric world order.
Biden vowed a more nuanced strategy towards China: to compete when possible and to confront when one must. Launched by the Group of Seven this summer, “ Build Back Better World” was promoted as a competitive alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative.

But the constructive spirit that underpins the programme is the exception rather than the norm.

The Biden administration’s doubling down on investigating the origins of Covid-19 has undercut any prospect of a US-China joint response to the still-unfinished battle against the pandemic. The recently announced Aukus agreement is adding turbulence to an already unsettled South China Sea, increasing the risk of open conflict.


US ‘not seeking a new cold war’, Biden says in first UN address

US ‘not seeking a new cold war’, Biden says in first UN address

Guterres has warned that a dysfunctional relationship between the US and China will have a detrimental impact on the rest of the planet. But a divided US also has consequences on the world’s ability to deal with any crisis confronting humankind.

Unlike Xi, who has a clearer runway to realise his quest for “common prosperity”, Biden’s domestic policies face an obstruction-ridden legislature. The fate of his agenda now hangs in the balance.

Biden’s congressional ordeal is symptomatic of the US political establishment’s diminishing ability to transcend partisanship for the common good and a body politic that has lost its aptitude for moderation. US efforts against the pandemic and global warming, for example, have become a partisan and proxy war between science and religion.
A distracted and divided America has international repercussions. In declaring “America is back” and attempting to restore much-needed global leadership, Biden had to reverse Donald Trump’s earlier withdrawal of the US from the World Health Organization and the Paris climate accord.

But will the current US global leadership survive beyond the Biden administration?

Though deemed as a threat to the free world, authoritarian China is likely to display greater consistency in its response to the common problems afflicting humankind. The US must get its house in order, not least because America’s steady leadership is vital to resolving today’s global crisis.

More importantly, at this pivotal moment in history, the US must learn to coexist with China. Failing to do so will expose our planet to greater peril and push it closer to a point of no return.

Peter T.C. Chang is deputy director of the Institute of China Studies, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia