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What China's growing role on the world stage means for the U.S.


China should play a bigger role in the world. That's the belief of the country's president, Xi Jinping, and he's making it happen. Last week, he held his first phone call with the Ukrainian leader, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, since the Russian invasion. And last month, China took the world by surprise when it brokered a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore diplomatic relations. But what will a more emboldened China mean for America and the rest of the world? Joining us to discuss this is Yun Sun, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center, and Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Thank you both so much for being with us.

RYAN HASS: Thank you, Ayesha.

YUN SUN: Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: So if we can start with President Xi's phone call to Ukraine, Ryan, why do you think that's happening now, and what is the significance?

HASS: Well, Ayesha, it's a good question because as you pointed out, it's been over a year since Russia invaded Ukraine. And President Xi has spoken many times with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, but has not spoken with the Ukrainian leader, Zelenskyy. And I think that part of it has to do with the fact that China wants to do a bit of cleanup work for a Chinese ambassador to France who put his foot in his mouth and offended a lot of Europeans by suggesting that former Soviet states do not have sovereignty. But there's also, I think, a deeper subtext to the story, Ayesha, which is that President Xi has built his brand on being firm and resolute and not bowing to pressure. And I don't think he wanted to be seen as bending to demands from Europe and the United States for him to call Zelenskyy. And so it's notable that there has been a quiet period over the past several weeks where there has not been a lot of public pressure upon President Xi to reach out to Zelenskyy. And then this week, he did so. And this may have a lesson for the United States as well. It may suggest that public badgering of President Xi may not be the most effective way for the United States to achieve its outcomes with President Xi either.

RASCOE: And, Yun, is part of this that generally China wants to be a player or one of the main players or the main player in the world today when it comes to geopolitics? Like, is this something that has changed?

SUN: I think specifically to the war in Ukraine, the Chinese position is that it cannot be absent. Beijing has already realized when it doesn't have a voice, when it doesn't have a position, it will be labeled by the Western countries as the accomplice of President Putin. And that is not a reputation that China is willing to undertake. So we do see that China now is trying to play a more active role in terms of the mediation or the facilitation of a dialogue or some sort of peace discussion between Russia and Ukraine. I still think it's a very long way to go, and this is the very beginning of a very long process. But it does show that China is unwilling to be absent from the issue.

HASS: I completely agree with Yun. But I also wanted to take up the broader point that you were raising. I do think that the Chinese want to present themselves as a peacemaker on the world stage. They played a very active role in trying to encourage rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. But the Chinese also want to be seen as the leading economic engine of the global economy in the coming century.

RASCOE: So then how worried is Washington about China's ambitions on the world stage?

HASS: Well, you know, China is one of the issues in Washington that brings both Democrats and Republicans together with a shared sense of concern and, frankly, frustration with some of Chinese behavior. And I think that there is growing alarm, but there's also frustration. There's a sense that in Washington that the United States and China must keep channels of communication open to maintain consistent communication, which is essential to ensuring that competition does not veer into conflict or catastrophe. And in recent weeks, members of the Biden administration have suggested an interest in strengthening those channels of communication, including by facilitating a phone call between President Biden and President Xi. But the Chinese, according to Washington's telling, have not been very responsive or eager to pick up the phone. And so there's a growing frustration that the United States wants to work to stabilize relations, but there's not a willing partner on the other side of the table to do so.

RASCOE: Is the reason why these issues of, like, the role that China is going to play, the role that the U.S., the West are going to play - is it vital because we are now in a battle that is really over influence and what type of world we will have - like, whether it's going to be one based on democracy or one based on autocracy?

SUN: Well, I think that's one way to look at it, because there have been the attempt to define this competition between U.S. and China as one that is ideological. But on the other hand, it is about two very different types of international system. The Chinese have come to the realization that great power competition essentially is a competition for the rest of the world. It's about whether the rest of the world will identify with the United States and the U.S. approach to international politics and the international system, or identify with China and China's different approach and alternative world vision to the global order.

HASS: I think Yun has captured it well. The honest truth is there really is no consensus in the United States on what the crux of competition between the United States and China is. There are a range of views. You often hear President Biden talk about democracies being in a contest against autocracies for influence on the world stage. But you also hear other people in the Biden administration and elsewhere essentially warning that prestige derives from performance. And China's performance is improving. Their overall economic power, their overall national power, their overall military power is growing. The question that I think a lot of people are grappling with is what is the most effective way to respond to China's growth in overall national power? And some people believe that the United States simply needs to run faster to keep its lead over China. And others feel like more aggressive actions also are needed as well to maybe trip up or slow down the competition from China in order for the United States to maintain or preserve its lead in overall national power on the world stage.

RASCOE: We should remember - right? - that there is a huge economic component to this. Talk about how that plays a role in all of this.

HASS: Well, Ayesha, I think you're absolutely right. Over 120 countries in the world count China as their top trading partner. China is deeply embedded into the the global economic system in a way that the Soviet Union never was during the Cold War, for example. But there are two other sort of broad themes that I think we can extrapolate from watching how countries are responding to this growing competition between the United States and China. And one is that there really are very few countries in the world that are eager to choose between the United States and China. We are not seeing the emergence of rival blocs between the United States and China like we did during the Cold War with the Soviet bloc and the Western bloc. So that is not happening. The second thing that we're beginning to see is that there are very few countries in the world that are eager to pay a high price to preserve American primacy. In other words, you know, there are countries around the world that share values and interests with the United States and want to remain close partners and allies with the United States, but not at a significant expense of trying to do damage to China and hurting themselves in the process. And so this places sort of natural limits on how far countries around the world are going to be willing to align with the United States in opposition to Chinese actions.

RASCOE: Yun, how do you think this growing rivalry will play out between the U.S. and China? Is this something that people should be worried about?

SUN: Well, I think people are worried about this and most focusedly on the issue of Taiwan, right? There have been all this discussion about what China's timeline is coming to Taiwan and whether China will take military action against Taiwan in the foreseeable future. So I think there is a genuine concern that U.S. and China will get into a direct confrontation or a conflict, even, because of the issue of the future status of Taiwan. But also, I would say also at the scope of the Taiwan issue, we are going to see the intensification of the competition between U.S. and China. I would say in the past six, seven years, the Chinese still had the illusion that maybe it still could leverage its willingness to cooperate with the United States, to neutralize the competitive strategy from the United States and try to find a softer approach to coexist with the United States. But I think that perception or that assessment in China is also coming to an end, which means that Beijing is also increasingly clear that the strategic competition between U.S. and China is not only irreversible. It's also non-negotiable. So what that means is China is gradually positioning itself for a long-term competition with the United States, which will have significant impact over the rest of the world, which also means their competition is going to intensify.

HASS: I would just say, though, that although there are strongly unfavorable views of China in the United States, there's very little enthusiasm in the United States for a direct conflict between two nuclear-armed powers, which the United States and China are. And if you look at the pattern of relations over the past couple years, yes, competition has grown more elevated and more tense. But when things have gotten really hot, President Biden and President Xi have stepped in to intervene and try to cool things down and serve as a bit of a pressure release valve on the overall relationship.

RASCOE: That's Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Yun Sun, senior fellow at the Stimson Center. Thank you both for joining us.

SUN: Thank you.

HASS: Thank you, Ayesha.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE VINES SONG, "MARY JANE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.