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As China-US Tensions Heat Up, the Rest of the World May Have a Choice to Make

Photo from CNN

As China continues to expand its global influence and importance, their relations with the United States continue to become more strained. The list of issues the two countries conflict upon is long, and appears to be growing daily, but includes topics such as human rights in Xinjiang and Tibet, Taiwan and Hong Kong autonomy, foreign trade and investment, and technological development. As these tensions continue to escalate, the remaining world’s countries may be forced to decide with whom they want to side on these complex issues.

It’s a discussion that is familiar to most Canadians, as it was embodied by the December 2018 arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver, at the request of the American government. Canadian authorities complied on the basis of their extradition agreement, and Sino-Canadian relations have been deteriorating ever since, characterized by the subsequent arrests of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig by Chinese officials, as well as tariffs and travel advisories issued by both sides. In this case of “choosing sides,” the Canadian government’s position is unsurprising. The United States is Canada’s primary trading partner, representing over 75% of exports and 50% of imports, as well as sharing more ideological and cultural similarities. China meanwhile is Canada’s second largest trading partner, consisting of approximately 4% of exports and 12.5% of imports. The Wanzhou case currently continues to sit in legal limbo.

While Canada’s allegiances are relatively simple to understand, many other countries around the world may soon find themselves facing a less obvious decision. Nations such as Japan, South Korea, and Australia are all more ideologically aligned with the United States, with agreements that include extensive military cooperation. Economically however, they stand to lose much more by angering China – it is the primary trading partner for all three, constituting approximately 21.7%, 23.7% and 36.8% of total trade for Japan, South Korea and Australia respectively.

Furthermore, the current “America First” policy of the Trump administration has been off-putting to many historically American allies. Here in Canada, public opinion of the United States has sunk to a historic low, with 63% of Canadians holding an unfavourable view, according to Focus Canada. Compare that to just ten years ago, when 73% held a favourable view during President Obama’a first term. Similar trends are found in many other nations in the world, including the UK, France, Germany, Japan and Australia. It is worth noting that largely unfavourable views of China are also held by these countries.

The United States has enjoyed a more-or-less uncontested level of global influence since the end of the Cold War, but China’s economic explosion in recent decades is proving to challenge that status quo. If Sino-American conflicts continue to escalate, the rest of the world will be faced with navigating a power balance that is bipolar.

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