After 21 years of antagonism, communist China sought to reconcile with the US by inviting their table tennis delegation to a tournament in 1971. This so-called ‘ping-pong diplomacy’ paved the way to US-China relations in the run-up to a new era, where China’s economic growth would allow it to establish itself as a rising power.
However, between 1980 and 2004, growing trade ties and converging interests changed the name of the game. In an attempt to contain each other’s economic power and avoid direct confrontation, the two engaged in a choreographed ballet with targeted pivots and well-considered turns. The first pivot was initiated by the US, by turning its foreign policy focus towards East Asia. In what can be seen as a response in this ballet diplomacy, China concentrated its efforts on Latin America.
Uncle Sam strengthened ties with allies such as Taiwan, the Philippines, and Burma by assuring military protection and nurturing economic relations. The great embodiment of its pivot however, is found in the Transpacific Partnership (TPP), where the US saw its chance to use its fierce economic leverage tool to expand its influence sphere. The TPP is a trade agreement that provides an area of similar economic policies and mutual border tariffs, which includes 12 members: Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, Singapore, Australia, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Vietnam and the US. After 7 years of intense negotiation, an agreement was reached in October.
Although critics claim that TPP lacks significant economic influence, they seem to miss out on the value of the agreement’s “brand equity”. The TPP comes with symbolic value as worldwide awareness is raised about the now undeniable and formally stated bond between the US and several Pacific countries, conveniently surrounding the other party in play, China.
Although China was originally invited to join the TPP, China currently finds itself unable to live up to the standards and policies required to join the partnership. While this can be seen as an economic loss to the partnership, the US does not seem all too sorrowful about China’s isolation due to its successful pivot.
Meanwhile, bilateral trade between China and Latin America jumped from $12bn to $ 289bn between 2000 and 2013. Last year, President Xi Jinping forecast that direct investment in Latin America will reach over $250bn in the coming decade. By the looks of it, it seems both nations gracefully pivoted towards each others regions to create influence to lessen pressure on their own ever-growing interdependent relationship and power struggle.
Water ballet is a whole different discipline, the weight of the water puts extensive limits on human movement and flexibility making turns more challenging. In order to perform a credible choreography, one must often hold one’s breath. Similarly, the world held its breath when it came to the US-China encounter in the South-China Sea. Rising economies come with rising military budgets. Hence, in 2007, China heavily increased defence spending, to the indignation of the US that sees itself as the number one established and recognized military power worldwide. A sequence of diplomatic signalling, such as the deployment of 2,500 marines on the coast of Australia in 2011 or the five Chinese military ships that popped up near the coast of Alaska this year, ultimately led to the confrontation in the South-China Sea.
The US insists it has legitimacy via the UN charter on international waters to navigate their ships within a distance of 12 miles of the artificially created islands in the widely contested South-China Sea. This encounter matters for two reasons.
Firstly, China challenges the US military hegemony by gradually developing a blue water navy. Secondly, the South-China Sea is of high geostrategic importance. It is locked in by several East-Asian nations such as Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam, who all have a claim on it. The South-China Sea is said to comprise a richness in minerals, as well as fish. Moreover, it is an important trade and energy route, connecting the Pacific and the Indian Ocean via the Malacca Strait. To lose control over this area, would seriously weaken US. The ballet of pivots and turns has moved on to a ballet of confrontation.
Chaira Adriaenssens is currently studying for an MA in European and Global Governance.