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Marianne, France

China-USA: The Duel

By Elie Barnavi

Translated By Tabitha Middleton

23 November 2012

Edited by Jane Lee

France - Marianne - Original Article (French)

“What's the G-20? It's the G-2 (China and the United States) plus zero.” This joke, told by a Chinese university professor, reminds me of a similar one from Cold War times. In May of 1967, in the middle of a crisis that broke out during the Six-Day War, President Johnson, exasperated by General de Gaulle's repeated demand for a dialogue between the four powers, grumbled, “The four powers? What the hell are the other two?”* The comparison is revealing. Two giants are still facing off — the United States is still there, Gulliver caught in a net, but Gulliver all the same. Only their adversary has changed, and so has the battlefield. In the first scenario it was the world, with Europe as the epicenter. Today, it's the Pacific.

In Alain Frachon and Daniel Vernet's excellent essay, “China Versus America: The Duel of the Century” , we see this parallel's strengths and weaknesses clearly. The United States didn't choose the Soviet Union as an adversary—it was imposed on them. Their opposition was total and of an ideological nature. With Beijing, it's much more complicated. In this situation, ideology plays a secondary role. In fact, Americans favored China's emergence as a global economic power, supporting in the beginning Deng Xiaoping's reforms, and then supporting the delocalization of their own industries and the American market openly accepting Chinese products. It was about neutralizing Moscow, then, once the Soviet empire was disposed of, encouraging Beijing's conversion into a trustworthy partner. Economic development had to be accompanied by the democratization of the regime, just as China's integration into the global exchange system, which was enacted in 2001 by the World Trade Organization, was supposed to enforce respect for the principles of free trade.

A Sucker's Market?

For the moment, all bets are off on the democratization of China and arriving at any commercial partnership between the U.S. and China that would be acceptable to Washington. This could change, and experts on both sides are hotly debating the issue. Until China's unpredictable development determines the final outcome, the two giants have each other by the throat, one deep in abysmal debt to the second, which is itself condemned to support the first or risk going down with it. The problem with this unprecedented type of terrifying economic standstill is that it might prove even more unstable than a nuclear one. As commercial partners, albeit in a difficult pas de deux, Washington and Beijing are strategic adversaries in a region that both consider as their turf. Previously unable to challenge the United States—a unique global military power—China, surrounded on all sides by American allies, now feels powerful enough to threaten American interests in the Pacific.

In the absence of shared values between China and the U.S., it's now about “organizing the face off.” With America weak and divided, and with China having no idea how to resolve the formidable contradiction between lawless economic development and an authoritarian regime that does all it can to govern the social consequences of its own success, the conflict is far from over.

Where is Europe in all of this? During the third debate between Obama and Romney, which was dedicated to international affairs, it simply wasn't mentioned. In the conclusion of their book, Frachon and Vernet explain why. It's a cruel read, and a useful one.

*Translator’s note: This quote, accurately translated, could not be verified.



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