With signs of a breakthrough on a US-China trade deal complicated by an American law backing Hong Kong protesters, superpower tensions aren’t going anywhere. But what are the structural issues in the relationship, and can they be fixed?

Given Donald Trump’s tough talk on China and the ongoing “trade war”, it might seem surprising that Beijing would want him in the White House for another term.

But as the Washington Post’s Anna Fifield reported this week, many Chinese officials prefer him to the alternative – and Dr Bates Gill is not surprised.

While Trump may play up his confrontational approach on trade and other issues, Gill – a China expert and professor of Asia-Pacific security studies at Australia’s Macquarie University – says “underlying it all is a kind of pragmatism…almost like a transparent self-interest, which I think the Chinese understand and can manipulate”.

But Gill says there are some fundamental structural problems in the relationship that would be there no matter who was in charge of either country.

Economic relations – the traditional safety net with mutual benefit in cooperation – have become more fraught due to the shift from a complementary relationship to one of more overt competition.

While most media attention has been dedicated to tariffs flying back and forth, Gill argues it is technological competition which will be the most significant problem in the long term.

“China needs to move up the value chain in terms of what it produces and what it exports and wants to be less dependent on the outside world, the United States in particular, for the things that it needs to advance its economy.

“And of course, the United States also wants to be a player, traditionally has held a pretty primary position as a technological leader in the world, and now begins to see China nipping at its heels and maybe even…more problematically, even sees China having reached that point unfairly through IP theft, industrial espionage, or from the US point of view, unfair state-led subsidisation of technological advancement.”

Macquarie University’s Bates Gill says Xi Jinping has a greater desire than previous Chinese leaders to resolve territorial and security issues. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

Then there are security issues, not new but given added prominence by Xi Jinping’s move away from the “hide and bide” philosophy of previous Chinese leaders and desire for resolution on issues like the South China Sea, Taiwan, and “China’s own sense of security and wellbeing”.

There are two potential avenues for resolution, Gill says, both unlikely. The first relies on aggressive Chinese assertion of its territorial claims and securing them without significant pushback from the United States, the second on the United States acting aggressively enough so China backs off from its stance and allows a “sort of status quo ante” to take effect.

An aggravating factor is a mood shift in the United States, “where almost any gain by China is seen as a loss for America”.

Perhaps most problematic, says Gill, is the nascent ideological competition as China tries to gain acceptance in the West and across the world for its preferred forms of governance both at home and abroad.

While Beijing may see the issue as practical in nature, Western countries are more inclined towards concern, exacerbated by the growing role of the party in Chinese people’s lives under Xi and undercut by democratic unrest in the West.

“We’re sort of in this, what do you want to call it, a midlife crisis, about our system of governance,  and meanwhile we see not just in China, but in other parts of the world, something of a success story – certainly economically, but even in many respects, politically and diplomatically, a success story, even though their forms of governance and economic organisation are very different from ours.”

All those issues appear to be at play in the Trump administration’s decision to “blacklist” a number of Chinese technology companies and security bureaus over their involvement in the surveillance of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region and associated human rights violations.

Some experts see it as a worthy effort to hold China to account for its abuse of ethnic minorities, others as a cynical effort to hobble Chinese AI firms before they surpass the US.

“Well, there’s no reason why it can’t be both, and I think it is both,” Gill says.

“There’s money to be made, there’s interesting collaborations to be had…so in that enthusiasm, sometimes we stumble over ourselves and get ourselves into relationships which turned out to be sticky later.”

There are genuine reasons to shed light on the human rights abuses in Xinjiang, but also a wider effort by the US to undermine China’s stance as a technological competitor.

Some New Zealand organisations are caught in the middle, with Massey University continuing to accept funding from a blacklisted firm, and Gill says the West has long tended to focus on the economic benefits of bilateral relationships without accounting for the broader human rights implications.

While the Chinese often work hard to obscure military or governmental ties to universities or companies, Gill says there has also been an over-enthusiasm on the other side of the equation.

“There’s money to be made, there’s interesting collaborations to be had, there’s some legitimate scientific advances to be realised, and that’s exciting. And so in that enthusiasm, sometimes we stumble over ourselves and get ourselves into relationships which turned out to be sticky later.”

He has sympathy for the universities and companies placed in such positions, noting the difficulty of carrying out due diligence and, for universities, the enormous financial pressures that can be eased through partnerships in China.

Gill acknowledges the risk that anything to do with China becomes seen as problematic, but believes the pendulum needs to move towards greater caution – to what he has termed “bounded engagement”, where collaboration continues but with tighter parameters.

Xinjiang response: ‘Shame on us’

He sees that economic primacy at play in the Western approach to Xinjiang and the “egregious abuses” of the Uighurs.

“That doesn’t speak too well of us, I would say here in the West, of the degree to which we’ve been prepared to just overlook it, and move on.

“Yes, we see some movement here and there, some declarations in the United Nations, but this is not substantively affecting the diplomatic and economic relationship with China, so shame on us, quite honestly, in many respects.”

Were it Christians and not Muslims being rounded up and thrown into camps, the international reaction would be very different, Gill suggests.

Recent leaks to international media have exposed “the hypocrisy and lies that the Chinese are telling us about what the camps are all about”, while also showing just how concerned Xi and his government are, rightly or wrongly, about the threat posed by the Uighurs.

But he does not believe the revelations will lead to a policy reversal; if anything, China will “double down” and possibly keep the camps running for longer than they originally intended as a sign of defiance.

“It’s just simply not in the nature of that regime to sort of say, ‘Oh, you’re right, we’re going about this entirely the wrong way and we really need to rectify our thinking’.

“That’s not what’s going to happen – they’re going to find out how it got leaked, they’re going to punish the perpetrators one way or another, and they will not bend to the outside world’s demands or criticisms.”

Get it early – This article was first published on Newsroom Pro and/or included in Bernard Hickey’s ‘8 Things’ morning email of the latest in-depth business and political analysis. Get it early by subscribing now or starting a 28-day free trial.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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