Differences between US, China 'obscure common ground'

Panellist at forum also says biggest worry for now is unpredictability of US policy

The United States and China may see eye to eye when there are overlapping practical concerns, but fundamental differences in their beliefs cast a long shadow over any common ground, an investment conference panel has said.

Still, full military engagement between the two powers in this era is unlikely, the panel said yesterday, the start of the Credit Suisse 22nd Asian Investment Conference.

In the short term, they will likely reach some sort of a trade deal as "both sides need to claim victory", said Mr Tao Dong, vice-chairman for Greater China at Credit Suisse private banking in Hong Kong.

He was one of three panellists speaking on whether the US and China can avoid the so-called Thucydides Trap, where rivalry between an established power and a rising one often ends in war. The conference ends on Thursday.

Mr Tao believes the Chinese leadership is willing to make trade concessions for five years of peaceful development, although over the longer term, competition between the two would simmer.

"(In) the past five (US) presidential campaigns... bashing China had been a... dominating process... I am pretty sure that when the 2020 (US) presidential election comes, China will be a country people love to hate," he said.

Another panellist, Professor Pei Minxin of Claremont McKenna College, cited examples of areas in which the interests of the US and China are at odds.

He said that unlike China's interest in being the major party in East Asia, the US does not want one country to dominate the region.

Mr Tao said there is common ground, particularly in South-east Asia, but he fails to see how the US can offer the kind of commercial benefits the Chinese can for the rest of Asia, while Prof Li is of the view that both powers are aligned on denuclearising North Korea. Prof Pei said that as long as there are countries in the region that are afraid of China, the US will be invited to stay.

And while the US had hopes that China would find a place in an American-dominated system, the Chinese are interested in maintaining their unique one-party system that is in conflict with American ideas of democracy.

But the third panellist, Tsinghua University's Professor David Li Daokui, believes that the wish for stability in global affairs would bind the two sides. "The two countries do not want to see other countries acquire nuclear weapons, for example. The two countries do not want to see extreme Islamism become a big issue in many parts of the world, and the two countries, lastly and most importantly, do not want to see another... global financial crisis in the near future."

In the hour-long discussion, the panel presented mixed views when asked if the US and China have any common ground in Asia.

Mr Tao said there is common ground, particularly in South-east Asia, but he fails to see how the US can offer the kind of commercial benefits the Chinese can for the rest of Asia, while Prof Li is of the view that both powers are aligned on denuclearising North Korea.

 
 

Prof Pei said that as long as there are countries in the region that are afraid of China, the US will be invited to stay.

But the biggest worry for now is the unpredictability of US policy, said Prof Li, referring to President Donald Trump's administration.

The panel also touched on Hong Kong's role amid US-China geopolitical rivalry. Prof Pei thinks the territory "will be unavoidably collateral damage" if tensions escalate, while Prof Li thinks Hong Kong will play a greater role as a bridge between East and West.

More importantly, the US-China trade war has changed the mindsets of Chinese leaders, who now believe China must not rely on exports and imported technology, said Mr Tao. "The centre of the next round of Chinese growth will be driven by the Greater Bay Area," he predicted.

The discussion comes ahead of another round of US-China trade talks in Beijing this week.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 26, 2019, with the headline 'Differences between US, China 'obscure common ground''. Print Edition | Subscribe