Coupling is a word usually associated with intimate relations or railway wagons and not with international relations: countries don’t like being joined at the hip, nor do they fancy being dragged around like mindless wagons in a train. Which makes it a mystery why the west’s efforts to unshackle its economies from a rising China should be referred to as de-coupling. But mercifully now de-coupling is passe; the new buzzword handed down from the pulpits of Washington DC and Brussels is de-risking. A sort of safe engagement with all due precautions, and I promise not to stretch this metaphor further.
Of course, this goes beyond semantics. By the time Washington woke up from its wishful dream that a generous approach towards China would make that country play ball by established rules and encourage internal reform, it was too late. An unashamedly autocratic China had emerged as America’s top challenger, determined to shape global narratives to its own priorities. Ironically, it was the Trump administration, with all its petulant disruption, that correctly read the Chinese characters on the wall and initiated appropriate responses to China’s predatory economics, its technology-skimming and its buccaneering in the Indo-Pacific. The pandemic exacerbated matters further and Biden’s approach remained the same, sans some of the rhetoric. Concepts such as resilient supply chains, friend-shoring and de-coupling entered the geopolitical lexicon.
But as every schoolboy knows, kutti is easy to declare but difficult to sustain: you soon want a bite from the other guy’s lunchbox. De-coupling seemed too final a goodbye, a costly divorce from a huge market and rich investments. De-risking, first popularised by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, is less apocalyptic. Relations with China would still be seen through the lens of national security, but engagement would continue in areas where still possible. Conflict is not to be seen as inevitable; China’s growth need not be at America’s cost. How far the Chinese will buy this bifurcated bargain is anybody’s guess.
Beijing seems to be enjoying the fun as the west, particularly Europe, struggles to square its own circles. While von der Leyen closely toes the hawkish American line on de-risking, French President Emmanuel Macron and, to a lesser extent German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, would rather take more risk; both paid court to Xi Jinping with huge business delegations in tow. Hungary, unlike other central and east European countries, remains another Beijing fan.
Washington, too, is making so far unrequited efforts to dial down tensions with China. Ever since a Chinese spy balloon flew over America, several administration officials have made a beeline to Beijing and not too smartly at that. Secretary of State Antony Blinken seemed overawed in Xi’s presence while the latter told him to do a hundred lines, or its diplomatic equivalent; Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s low bow indicated that she thought she was in Japan and the Chinese defence minister didn’t give Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin the time of the day in Singapore when asked. America’s brahmastra, Henry Kissinger, has also been trotted out, dressed up as a private visitor—though with all respect to the centenarian, trotted may not be the mot juste. The Chinese laid out a wedding feast befitting a visitor who had arguably created the diplomatic opening that led to China’s rise. The old master of information arbitrage will no doubt dine out the season with corporate clients on the titbits gleaned at Xi’s laden table even as US-China relations struggle to carve out a stable framework. For reasons too obvious, this remains a space that India needs to watch.
Navtej Sarna is former ambassador of India to the US and author, most recently, of the novel Crimson Spring.