Rising in the East: a closer look at geopolitical shifts

SALISBURY, Conn. — The most recent installment of the Salisbury Forum featured an informative discussion of U.S.-China relations led by Bonnie Glaser.

The Forum was held online Thursday, Feb. 8.

Glaser, managing director of the German Marshall Fund’s Indo-Pacific program and author of “US-Taiwan Relations: Will China’s Challenge Lead to a Crisis,” which was published in April 2023, said relations between the two governments were cool during the first two years of the Biden administration.

The Chinese objected to the American characterization of China as a “competitive” country in relation to the U.S., and smarted under tariffs and restrictions on technology that could be sold to China.

Xi Jinping, the Chinese president who is in an “unprecedented” third term, has a firm grasp on power and is promoting a program of “national rejuvenation” by 2049, Glaser said.

“He appears to be confident that China is on a path to becoming stronger than the U.S.”

Glaser said Xi’s belief is that China is rising as the West is declining, and that “democracy has failed around the world.”

That is not to say that Xi isn’t dealing with problems. Glaser said there is lingering resentment over China’s harsh COVID-19 lockdown measures, more willingness to criticize the central government, and a sputtering economy.

However, “there is no opposition to his rule.”

Biden and Xi met in November 2023 at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco.

In the wake of that meeting, Glaser ran through what she termed “Areas of Progress” and “Areas of Divergence and Competition.”

Under “progress,” Glaser said that while China did crack down on domestic manufacturers and exporters of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids, it has not done much about the production of precursor chemicals that are shipped to clandestine labs in Mexico and turned into drugs there.

She credited U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Senate majority leader, for pushing the issue during a visit to China by a congressional delegation in October 2023. A joint working group was established last month.

Under “defense relations,” Glaser said that restrictions on military-to-military communications that were enacted by the Chinese after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) traveled to Taiwan in 2022 have been lifted.

And under “artificial intelligence,” the possibilities for cooperation are wide open.

“This is a completely new issue. There are no rules, no norms,” she said.

The goal should be “to build boundaries and common expectations.”

An example of that would be keeping “humans in the loop” regarding the use of nuclear weapons.

The list of troublesome items is longer.

While China has not sent Russia lethal aid for the latter’s ongoing war with Ukraine, “China has done nothing to stop the war.”

China has advocated for the “two-state” position regarding the war between Israel and Hamas. Glaser said this was somewhat surprising as China had previously had good relations with Israel. “But they threw Israel under the bus.”

Rather, China has attacked American policy in the hope of driving a wedge between the U.S. and its European allies.

Glaser said the Biden administration has tried to get China to use its substantial pull with Iran to get the latter to stop funding terrorist groups in the Middle East, to no avail.

China has been similarly uninterested in pressuring North Korea to be less belligerent.

The issue of the independence of Taiwan “is really dangerous.”

Glaser said she does not believe China, Taiwan or the U.S. are seeking a military conflict.

But the situation is dicey. China routinely sends aircraft close to but not into Taiwan’s air space. Taiwan will inaugurate a new president in May, who was elected with a 40% plurality in a three-way race. Glaser said Chinese propagandists will certainly seize on this fact to belittle Taiwan’s democratic process.

And on nuclear weapons, Glaser noted that China is actively trying to match the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Asked if Chinese shipping had been affected by ongoing attacks by Houthi rebels on ships in the Red Sea, Glaser said “If it was damaging China, they’d do something about it.”

She said the Chinese Navy has started escorting Chinese ships through the area, but not as part of the American-led coalition.

Asked about China’s demographic problems, Glaser said that China has experienced “a serious decline in working-age people.”

She said the decline has occurred faster than anticipated, and one of the ways China is coping is by increased use of automation.

“The jury is out on this being the most problematic” issue for China, Glaser continued. They have so many other economic problems.”

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