Johns Hopkins University Press
  • US-China Relations and Remaking Global Governance:From Stalemate and Progress to Crisis to Resolutions

In this article I examine the emerging crisis in major institutions of global governance, and the ways that US-China relations play crucially in the crisis and its potential resolution. The mix of competition and cooperation in the US-China relationship during the Obama presidency resulted in progress as well as stalemate in global governance, while the subsequent degeneration of relations during the Trump presidency has brought about crisis situations in major international organizations, a critical change-point in global governance. But the change is ambiguous; it can result either in organizational collapse or the pursuit of a fundamentally transformative outcome.


US-China relations, global governance, Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, Barack Obama, crisis

How does the US-China relationship affect global governance? Has the evolution of US-China relations reshaped global governance for better or worse? Does global governance matter for the US-China relationship? If so, what are the main trends or patterns? This article examines the emerging crisis in major institutions of global governance and offers a comparative assessment of how the conduct of the United States and China, and their interaction, are defining the nature of the crises and play crucially in their potential resolutions.1 The analysis takes up the perspective of global governance, and implicitly global order, and offers a dispassionate assessment of the behavior of Washington and Beijing: the ways their respective conduct and mutual interaction have helped or hurt the collective management of global problems, and the extent to which they have met the expectations of international stakeholders. [End Page 91]

The analysis highlights two main empirical patterns. First, global governance has become more significant to China's party and government leaders during the last decade, as China has become ever more globally integrated and as its global weight, power, and footprint have expanded (Chin 2010c; Chin and Thakur 2010; Freeman 2020; Johnston 2019; Kastner, Pearson, and Rector 2018). For the United States, the trend has run in the opposite direction. Although China was increasingly involved in multilateral organizations and global forums during the period of the Fourth Generation leadership of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao (2002–2013), China's senior leaders did not explicitly reference "global governance" in their official speeches. They called only for increased "global partnership," especially with the developing world, to push for a more fair and just international system. In those years, China avoided taking leadership in global institutions, even when asked to do so by others (Shambaugh 2013).

In contrast, the current Fifth Generation leadership (since 2013), led by Xi Jinping, explicitly references "global governance" and calls for an expansion of China's leadership in global forums. For example, in 2014 Xi called on China's diplomats to "advance multilateral diplomacy, work to reform the international system and global governance" by increasing the "representation and say of China and other developing countries" (Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2014). In a 2018 speech, Xi went further, ordering China's diplomats to "take an active part in leading the reform of the global governance system" (Xinhua 2018, emphasis added). The change in official Chinese rhetoric has been accompanied by changes in actual behavior. Under Xi Jinping's direction, China has further elevated its involvement in global governance, not only pushing substantial reforms in existing international organizations (IOs), but also itself launching new IOs and major new international initiatives.

For the United States, the Barack Obama administration gave considerable attention to multilateralism and global governance, a policy shift from the unilateralist George W. Bush administration. However, while the Obama administration looked to restore and reinforce the lead of the United States in global governance, raising expectations about international cooperation and emphasizing global interdependence and a more consultative diplomatic approach, the Donald Trump administration, with its "America First" foreign policy, has demonstrated a preference for operating unilaterally and bilaterally in ways beyond the George W. Bush presidency. When the Trump administration has engaged multilaterally, it has been within the parameters of "advancing American influence" in the world through multilateral institutions, [End Page 92] with the aim to "protect American sovereignty and advance American interests and values" (White House 2017, 37, 40). The pattern that has emerged is that the Trump administration has mainly engaged in IOs when it wants to criticize an organization and demand "better" or "fair treatment" of the United States; to challenge other states when they potentially threaten US interests (Russia, Iran, North Korea); or to push back against China's rising influence. For Obama, "multilateralism regulates hubris" (quoted in VOA News 2017). Not so for Trump, and his supporters, who accuse the Bill Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations of ceding control of IOs to China and its allies (Bill Powell 2020).

Second, global governance has become a prominent element in the US-China bilateral relationship. In the Obama-Hu/Wen and Obama-Xi periods, global multilateralism and the institutions of global governance were terrain for both global coordination and bilateral cooperation and competition with China. In the Trump-Xi period, global governance has been treated mainly as terrain for international struggle. One could call this latter pattern the weaponization of the institutions of global governance. Each instance of intervention by the Trump administration to address what it perceives as the "mistreatment" of the United States by IOs and to impede rising Chinese influence has been greeted by a counter-response from Beijing. The pattern that has emerged is usually that China increases its contributions to the global forum, which further increases China's influence at the cost of US influence, and also increases Beijing's capacity to push back against the current US administration in the immediate term and shape and remake global rules in the next decades.

What is the main consequence of this weaponization? The mix of competition and cooperation in the US-China relationship during the Obama presidency resulted in progress as well as stalemate in global governance, while the degeneration of US-China relations during the Trump-Xi period has brought about crisis situations in major IOs—that is, a critical change-point in global governance, but of an ambiguous nature, that can result in either organizational collapse or opportunity to pursue a fundamentally different outcome in a transformative sense.2 Hardest hit have been the realms of world trade and global health, but global security has also been affected, as have the spheres of advanced technology, digitalization, artificial intelligence (AI), and e-infrastructure, where global rules are still nonexistent and yet to be developed. In the summary, I will outline the global governance outcomes that are likely to result from the differing scenarios of either a second term of the Trump presidency or a Biden presidency.

The weaponization of global governance in the Trump-Xi period has had one other unintended net effect, that is, the weakening of US [End Page 93] influence in major institutions of global governance, institutions that the United States had played a leading role in creating and sustaining throughout the postwar era. US power and influence in these multilateral organizations and issue-areas is increasingly based on its raw power to force other states to act in ways that the United States desires—ways they would not otherwise follow without US pressure applied through the use of coercive measures such as the suspension of normal economic relations, or political and financial sanctions threatened or applied.

Progress and Stalemate

From the vantage point of global governance and multilateralism, Chinese officials must look back to the Obama presidency with a certain fondness, despite their somewhat undiplomatic or awkward handling of Obama's first visit to China as president in November 2009 (Cooper 2009; Weisman, Browne, and Dean 2009). At the G20 Summit in London (April 2, 2009), it became apparent to those on the ground that the US-China relationship was emerging as the most important relationship in the world, a de facto G2 nested within the G20 (Chin 2009). As Geoffrey Garrett (2010) observed, what the de facto G2 did, "together, independently or in conflict," increasingly defined the global bounds of the possible.

It should be noted that China's leaders were generally supportive of the G20 as the collective response to the global financial crisis. They were willing to contribute financially and substantively to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and to the existing regional development banks for financial crisis management. However, the Hu-Wen leadership held to a fairly cautious approach toward the G20, avoiding taking overt leadership positions within the G20 process or regarding the G20 as the mechanism for global governance. Moreover, they did not support attempts to bolster and formalize this informal summit process (Chin and Dobson 2015). Rather, they argued for keeping the G20 focused on global economic firefighting and insisted on utilizing existing global institutions, especially the United Nations' key policy forums and specialized agencies, the Bretton Woods organizations, and regional development banks and emergency financing mechanisms (Chin 2010a, 2010b).

There were limits, however, to what the United States and China achieved, particularly within the G20 Leaders process and within their bilateral annual "Strategic and Economic Dialogue." Once the initial basement was put under the freefall of the global financial system by [End Page 94] the summer 2009, the G20 shifted to addressing the sources of the global economic crisis and medium-term macroeconomic adjustment of the world economy as a "global steering committee" (Cooper 2010). From that point onward, the United States and China each pursued its bilateral economic diplomatic objectives within the G20. Their economic relations became increasingly difficult to manage for global multilateralism. Both countries agreed in Pittsburgh (September 25, 2009) that the G20 would pursue a new framework for "strong, sustainable and balanced growth," but this approach meant something different to each of them (Office of the Press Secretary 2009). For Washington, the primary objective was to use the collective pressure of the IMF and the G20 to induce China to make policy changes in the renminbi-dollar exchange rate and related macroeconomic policy adjustments that would reduce or ameliorate the US trade and financial deficit with China. The United States, supported by its G7 allies, pushed the G20 for an IMF-facilitated "mutual assessment process" (MAP)—to quote President Obama, a "new framework that will allow each of us [G20 members] to assess the others' policies, to build consensus on reform, and to ensure that global demand supports growth for all."

Chinese officials did not buy into the international consensus behind the MAP and pushed instead to use its large surplus to finance and support large-scale infrastructure projects in other countries, especially in the developing world. As a result, the large trade and financial imbalances between the two countries, in which China buys US debt and Americans buy Chinese goods, remained unchanged. Before the global financial crisis (GFC), despite rising tensions about the growing imbalance, the codependence these imbalances created was accepted as the necessary source of domestic growth for both the American and Chinese economies (Garrett 2010). After the crisis, the imbalanced codependency became the lightning rod for frustration and conflict, as the US trade deficit with China grew even bigger and Beijing amassed an astounding foreign exchange reserve that by 2014 reached almost US$4 trillion. This imbalance would set the stage for support on both sides of the aisle in the US Congress for what would become a trade war during the Trump administration.

Despite the growing friction in the trade realm, and other brewing sore spots in the bilateral relationship—such as IMF voting reform and security tensions in the South and East China Sea—the Obama administration and the Chinese leadership (first Hu-Wen and then Xi), did achieve some significant breakthroughs in cooperation in global governance beyond the G20 and global financial crisis management. The two [End Page 95] countries worked together on threats to global human security, notably in climate change mitigation but also in combatting piracy off the Horn of Africa, encouraging reconciliation and development in Afghanistan, fighting the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, and promoting nuclear nonproliferation. The Obama administration referred to China as a "partner" on global governance (to quote, "we partner to address global challenges") (Office of the Press Secretary 2015). Obama called China a "critical" member of the UN Security Council for both the sanctions regime that brought Iran to the negotiating table and the talks that produced the comprehensive deal to try to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. At the September 2015 Obama-Xi Summit in Washington, the two sides referred to the "historic" climate change announcements made in 2014 in Beijing, which "encouraged other countries to step up, as well." Obama highlighted, importantly, that "when the world's largest economies, energy consumers and carbon emitters come together like this, then there's no reason for other countries—whether developed or developing—to not do so as well."

Despite the general belief in the Obama administration that US and Chinese cooperation "can deliver greater good for all," undercurrents of tension had started to bubble to the top and spill over into open rivalry. In the economic realm, perceptions in Washington about unequal or unfair Chinese rules for US companies intensified, along with rising concerns about China's adherence to the principles for the trade of information technologies and protection of innovation and intellectual property (IP). Concerns about the fair valuation of China's currency heightened as well, even as US exports to China nearly doubled by the end of Obama's second term, supporting nearly one million American jobs. In the East and South China Seas, the two sides clashed increasingly over China's land reclamations and construction and militarization of disputed islands, with the United States increasingly raising concerns about its freedom of navigation and overflight.

Worry about cyber threats to US companies and US citizens also intensified, especially after the 2015 Chinese hacking of federal personnel data. The Wall Street Journal had reported (Thurm 2003) that Huawei admitted, in papers filed in US District Court in Texas, that a small portion of its router software (2 percent of the 1.5 million lines of code, confined to one module) was copied from Cisco Systems Inc., and Huawei said it would remove the tainted software from its routers globally. However, Huawei's acknowledgment added fuel to the US narrative about Chinese tech companies "stealing" from US-based competitors and stealing sensitive military technology and data (Rybeck, Cornwell, and Sagan 2018).3 [End Page 96] During Obama's last summit with Xi in 2015, the US president emphasized that cyber threats and industrial espionage were a "very serious concern" for US companies and citizens, declaring that "it has to stop" (Office of the Press Secretary 2015).

Rising US-China Tensions

Despite US-China cooperation on global threats during the Obama presidency, it was insufficient to counter the growing divide between the two countries. US antipathy toward China's growing global economic clout heightened with the Chinese leadership's launch of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013 (originally "One Belt, One Road") and its "Made in China 2025" campaign in 2015. The first was greeted in US policy circles as a Xi strategy for world domination, or at least the domination of Eurasia and Africa through vast Chinese investment in infrastructure and other network investments, trade, financial integration, and people-to-people intercultural and social bonds (Kaplan 2018, supported by the Office of Net Assessment of the US Department of Defense). As one long-time international economics strategist at the normally free-trade Peterson Institute for International Economics said to the author, the BRI is "war by other means."4 Many in the United States and other leading economies also saw "Made in China 2025" as China's new master plan to control "core technology" for all future automation and artificial intelligence. That view was based on China's aim to become the main production hub for high-tech products in the next few decades and secure Chinese market leadership across the range of new technologies, including information technology, computerized machines, robotics, energy-saving vehicles, medical devices, and high-tech equipment for aerospace technology and maritime and rail transport.

US-China relations have taken a dramatic turn since Donald Trump took office. The current administration has taken a confrontational approach to China. This should not have been surprising given Trump's harsh rhetoric about China during his presidential campaign alongside growing bipartisan calls in the US Congress for confronting China over its trade practices. Soon after taking office, in January 2017, Trump moved to pull the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) the twelve-nation Asia-Pacific trade deal that was the linchpin of Obama's Asia policy. In June he announced US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Change Agreement, successful conclusion of which [End Page 97] had been a signature achievement of the Obama administration and of US-China cooperation.

Amid the Trump administration's demonstrated distrust, even disdain, for multilateralism, China began to fill the vacuum left by US disengagement in ways aimed at enhancing its global stature. Something of a pattern emerged whereby Trump's anti-globalist actions were matched by Xi's presence in major multilateral forums. In January 2017, when the newly ensconced Trump administration worked on the executive order to pull the United States out of the TPP, for example, Xi attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland—a first by the most senior Chinese leader—where he gave a keynote speech before bankers, corporate heads, and political leaders that defended globalization and free trade. Raising the hackles of the incoming US administration, days before Trump's inauguration, Xi cautioned other nations against blindly pursuing their national interests, and declared China's willingness to act as the leader in global governance (Xinhua 2017). President Xi put forth China as the defender of free trade, global economic openness and integration. Whereas Trump spoke of the ills of globalization, Xi's defense of globalization went down well with its audience of beneficiaries. In the nearly one-hour speech at Davos, with outgoing US vice president Joe Biden watching in the audience, Xi declared that "no one will emerge as a winner in a trade war" and promised that China would not boost its trade competitiveness by devaluing its currency. In Davos, Xi also urged the signatories of the Paris Climate Accord to stick to the agreement.

In essence, Davos drew the main battle lines between Beijing and the Trump administration. The US-China trade war formally started in May 29, 2018, with the White House announcement of a 25 percent tariff on US$50 billion of Chinese goods with "industrially significant technology." However, that decision was foreshadowed by the administration's January 2018 attacks on the World Trade Organization (WTO) (Wroughton 2018). Trump had long criticized the organization, especially over what he described as the WTO's poor treatment of the United States and its preferential treatment of China. In 2016, Trump called the WTO a "disaster" in an NBC interview, claiming the "US always loses" at the WTO. In fact, while the United States has lost more than 80 percent of cases where it is the defendant, it has won nearly 90 percent of the cases when it has challenged other countries on the legality of their trade practices, a far better record than the two-thirds of cases in which China has prevailed (Elliot 2018).

As Trump prepared to clamp down on Chinese trade, his administration wrote in the 2018 annual report to the US Congress on China's [End Page 98] compliance with WTO commitments that "the United States erred in supporting China's entry into the WTO on terms that have proven to be ineffective in securing China's embrace of an open, market-oriented trade regime." Trump and Robert Lighthizer, the administration's principal trade negotiator, were said to be "united" on the view that "this is a problem that has gone on too long and needs to be addressed. . . . we're not going to tolerate broad-based policy that attempts to promote state-led enterprises" (Wroughton 2018). Lighthizer framed the trade threats in terms of protecting the global economy and the world trading system, "threatened by major economies who do not intend to open their markets to trade and participate fairly." This "practice is incompatible," he said, "with the market-based approach expressly envisioned by WTO members and contrary to the fundamental principles of the WTO." The Trump administration indicated it intended to transform the 164-member trade body, and that it was willing to block WTO judicial appointments in order to gain the desired outcome.

In Beijing, many observers still did not believe that the Trump administration was willing to pay the heavy economic price of a trade war and upset the established trade relations between the two nations (Wroughton 2018). They were wrong. By May 2018, the United States had issued a list of trade demands—in a "draft framework" for "Rebalancing the Trade Relationship between the United States of America and the People's Republic of China"—that was basically an ultimatum to China, one "no great sovereign nation could accept," as Martin Wolf put it (2018). When the Chinese did not agree to "repeat" the "humiliating" history, as Xi described it,5 the United States slapped a range of heavy trade tariffs on Chinese imports, and China then retaliated. In case the US side was wondering whether China would cave in to US pressure, one only needed to examine Xi's call on China's diplomats, in June 2018, to firm up their pushback to "safeguard China's sovereignty, security and development interests," "build a more complete network of global partnerships," and "break new ground" in "major country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics" (Xinhua 2018).

In summer 2018, the Trump administration strengthened calls for WTO "reform," saying that "the WTO has treated the US very badly, and I hope they change their ways" (Llewelyn 2018). In August 2018, Trump threatened to withdraw the United States from the WTO if the international organization did not start to act more favorably toward his administration, warning that the WTO better "shape up" (Maza 2018). The US and Chinese sides preoccupied themselves mainly with the bilateral negotiations from late 2018 to early 2019. For the Trump administration, [End Page 99] the significance of the G20 Leaders Summits was reduced to bilateral side meetings with other influential leaders and photo ops with various leaders, most importantly Xi. The two presidents met twice on the sidelines of successive G20 summits, ostensibly to smooth out their bilateral trade war, first in December 2018 in Buenos Aires and then again in Osaka in June 2019. The meetings are remembered only for their showy rhetoric and photos displaying supposed friendship, but the reality on the ground was that neither side was backing down as no substantial change came of the meetings.

In July 2019, days before the United States and China were to reengage their bilateral negotiations in Shanghai, the White House ramped up its attacks on the world trading regime, demanding that the WTO update its definition of "developing country" and remove the favorable treatment that China and other nations receive from the designation.6 In a memo to Lighthizer, Trump wrote that "nearly two-thirds of WTO members have been able to avail themselves of special treatment and to take on weaker commitments under the WTO framework by designating themselves as developing countries." Trump noted that seven of the world's ten wealthiest countries claim developing country status, naming Brunei, Hong Kong, Kuwait, Macau, Qatar, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates—and "so do Mexico, South Korea and Turkey, who are all members of the Group of 20 and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development" (quoted in Wayne 2019). But Trump singled out China in the memo, writing that "the United States has never accepted China's claim to developing-country status, and virtually every current economic indicator belies China's claim."

Following the release of the memo, Trump went further, in a tweet:

The WTO is BROKEN when the world's RICHEST countries claim to be developing countries to avoid WTO rules and get special treatment. NO more!!! Today I directed the US Trade Representative to take action so that countries stop CHEATING the system at the expense of the USA!

(quoted in Wayne 2019)

Trump instructed Lighthizer to use "all available means" to change the WTO rules, and he gave Lighthizer (read: the WTO) ninety days to determine whether there has been "substantial progress" toward limiting the number of countries considered developing countries. Trump then escalated the threat, saying the United States might act unilaterally to revoke the preferential treatment if substantial progress was not made. Analysts logically saw the move as linked to pressuring Beijing to commit [End Page 100] to new specific measures to buy more US goods, and to further liberalize its market (Schlesinger and Leary 2019).

After spending two years chipping away at the WTO, the Trump administration carried through on its threat to refuse to nominate new jurists to the WTO's appeals court, the Appellate Body, depriving that body of the requisite three jurists it needed by December 9, 2019 to continue functioning. The WTO operates under a consensus, and the appellate body only has one judge remaining. Actually, the United States has been unwilling to consider any new judges since the end of the Obama administration, but the deadline to nominate the two new judges has come and gone under Trump. The obstruction blocks the appeals body from being able to mediate disputes among the 164 members of the WTO, thus impairing its dispute settlement function which the WTO director general Roberto Azevêdo considers "a core pillar of the WTO system" (Arnason 2019).

A similar pattern of US confrontation of China, and pushback on its influence, can also be seen in the realm of global health governance. The Trump administration started singling out China in March 2020 for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. It made a point of using the terms "Chinese virus" and "China virus," said China "could have been stopped right where it came from," and insisted the "world is paying a high price for what [the Chinese] did" (Mangan 2020a, 2020b). In April 2020, the administration took the fight to the global multilateral level, when Trump sharply criticized the World Health Organization (WHO) for being too influenced by China, and for issuing bad advice during the COVID-19 outbreak. He threatened to suspend US funding for the agency. At a White House press briefing on April 7, Trump charged that the WHO "called it wrong. They really—they missed the call. And we're going to put a hold on money spent to the WHO. We're going to put a very powerful hold on it . . . ." (quoted in Channel News Asia 2020a).

But the administration did not stop there. Even after WHO's chief executive, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, agreed to an independent evaluation of the agency's handling of the pandemic "at the earliest opportunity," Trump on May 18 sent him an official letter in which he attacked the WHO again, saying "they're a puppet of the Chinese, they're China-centric to put it nicer." He confirmed that he was considering slashing or ending US financial support to the WHO (Channel News Asia 2020b). Trump said that his country pays around US$450 million to the WHO, the largest contribution of any country, whereas China only pays about US$40 million a year. Trump then threatened to permanently freeze US funding unless "substantive improvements" were made in the next thirty days. [End Page 101]

In the letter to the WHO director general, which Trump shared with the media, the administration listed what it called examples of the WHO's shortcomings in managing the pandemic, including ignoring early reports of the emergence of the virus, and being too close to China: "It is clear the repeated missteps by you and your organization in responding to the pandemic have been extremely costly for the world. The only way forward for the World Health Organization is if it can actually demonstrate independence from China" (BBC News 2020). The next day, at the UN's two-day World Health Assembly, which reviews the work of the WHO and involves all 194 of its member states, US health secretary Alex Azar spoke for Trump in saying, "there was a failure by this organization to obtain the information that the world needed" (Channel News Asia 2020b).

Observers note that Trump's criticisms of China and the WHO come when he faces reelection this year. President Xi has defended China's actions during the outbreak. At the UN health meeting, he contended that his nation has acted "with openness and transparency," and he insisted that any investigation should happen after the pandemic is brought under control. Xi added that China would provide the equivalent of US$2 billion over two years in health assistance to nations in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and he promised that China would share any vaccine it might develop as soon as it became available. White House National Security Council spokesperson John Ullyot described the Chinese offers as a "token to distract from calls . . . demanding accountability for the Chinese government's failure to meet its obligations" (Channel News Asia 2020b).

One week after the Trump administration gave the WHO the thirty-day ultimatum, on May 29, 2020 the US president declared, "We will be today terminating our relationship with the World Health Organization and redirecting those funds to worldwide and deserving, urgent global public health needs" (Gittleson and Thomas 2020). The move was widely criticized both domestically and internationally for its timing amid a global pandemic, and was condemned for ceding the global stage to China. In addition to doctors' groups in the United States and members of the Democratic Party, some in the president's own Republican Party criticized the withdrawal. Senate Health Committee Chair Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), for example, said: "Certainly there needs to be a good, hard look at mistakes the World Health Organization might have made . . . but the time to do that is after the crisis . . . not in the middle of it. . . . Withdrawing US membership could . . . interfere with clinical trials that are essential to the development of vaccines, [End Page 102] which citizens of the United States as well as others in the world need" (Sullivan 2020). Trump supporters, in contrast, charge Bush and Obama with ceding control of the WHO to China or its allies, with some former US officials such as Joseph Bosco, former China country director at the Pentagon, going so far as to argue that "we [USA] encouraged it" (Bill Powell 2020).

Looking Ahead, A Tipping Point and A Way Forward?

The four years of Trump-Xi have had a major impact on global governance, with the Trump administration bringing major global institutions to the point of legal or political crisis and Beijing moving to fill the leadership void. There is little if any reason to believe that US-China relations might see improvement, including via global governance if Donald Trump is re-elected. Official statements by Trump as well as other senior members of his administration, including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, all suggest more confrontation with China (now being called the "Communist Party of China") lies ahead. Beijing, for its part, has given no indication that it is shifting its hardening approach. In September 2019, at a presentation to young and mid-level leading cadres and officials at the Central Party School, President Xi called for a tougher edge to the way that China conducts itself in the world, summoning China's diplomats to "firm up their will to fight" and "when faced with difficult situations and tasks, dare to fight and win." Xi called for "resolute struggles" against risks and challenges "harming the leadership of the Party and the socialist system, China's sovereignty, security and development interests" and the "country's core interests and major principles" (quoted in Wei 2019). Outside observers tie such instructions to the rise of a newly assertive "wolf warrior" brand of Chinese diplomacy. So far, Beijing has kept its wolf warrior-type diplomacy confined to the bilateral track; it has yet to spread to the multilateral arena. But if Trump is re-elected, then such a shift can be expected.

Amid this crisis in US-China relations and global governance, are there any reasons for optimism? Some early green shoots of crisis resolution and significant institutional modification are starting to emerge in the realm of world trade governance. Realizing the risk to stable and predictable trade and commerce worldwide, and the potential of the legal void to further stoke trade protectionism, other WTO member states [End Page 103] believe some sort of alternative resolution is needed. In July 2019, the EU and Canada became the first to step up, agreeing to a workaround to avoid the US blockage. They signed a deal for an interim appeal mechanism that would take effect immediately when the WTO's Appellate Body ceased to operate in December 2019 ( with Reuters 2019). Canada had already initiated the "Ottawa Group," in October 2018, a collection of thirteen nations to address problems of the troubled global trading regime, and to reform the rules-based WTO, with the hope of "setting the table" for a larger effort involving the world's two largest economies.

When the expanded discussion did not happen, the Ottawa Group then committed to resolving the appellate body impasse. Canada and the EU worked on bringing other nations into the fold, and by January 2020, fifteen nations or entities, including China, had signed on to the interim appeals mechanism.7 The fact that China joined was particularly salient not only to the United States but also to Canada, the European Union, and other nations. According to a law professor at Queen's University (Kingston, Canada), Nicolas Lamp, by joining the interim mechanism, China is showing that it is "not opportunistically taking advantage of the fact" that the Trump administration has decided to impair the WTO's ruling mechanism; China is "sending a message that for the time being, it is committed to preserving a rules-based trading system and the rule of law over the rule of the jungle" (Naomi Powell 2020). Lamp finds that the United States is increasingly "isolated" among major trading nations.

How US-China relations may impact global governance is an open question if Joe Biden is elected as the next US president. Tensions, conflict, and competition in US-China relations would not disappear, and would likely remain a central and ongoing feature of the bilateral relationship going forward, especially in the areas of advanced technology, digitalization, AI, IP, the trade and financial imbalance, and the South and East China Seas. However, there may be some openings for improvement in the bilateral relationship, and ground for new consensus and cooperation, especially in the areas of climate change mitigation, environmental protection, and global health pandemics, including COVID-19. Joe Biden has already pledged to bring the United States back into the Paris Agreement and the WHO. A Biden White House could be open to negotiating global agreements on advanced technology, digitalization, and IP protection via the WTO.

In summary, US-China relations are central to the future of global governance. If the relationship remains antagonistic, or worsens further, [End Page 104] we can expect that the crisis emerging in the major institutions of global governance will worsen. And if the United States continues on the current path of impairing or withdrawing from IOs, it may not remain the leading power in these organizations, leaving China and other nations to fill the political and institutional vacuum. With this scenario, the process of rule-making and the setting of 'international expectations' in the major institutions of global governance will increasingly reflect multiple centers of power, a necessarily more negotiated order, in other words multipolar or bipolar, and less US-centered. [End Page 105]

Gregory T. Chin

Gregory T. Chin (PhD) is an Associate Professor of Political Economy at York University, Canada. His research is focused on China's international financial and monetary affairs, Asian regional cooperation, the BRICS, and global governance reform. He is a Senior Fellow of the Foreign Policy Institute (FPI) at Johns Hopkins University SAIS, and a member of the boards of Review of International Political Economy and Global Governance. Prior to joining York University in 2007, he was First Secretary (Development) at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing from 2003 to 2006, where he liaised with the World Bank Group, Asian Development Bank, the United Nations specialized agencies, decision-makers in China and key think tanks, bilateral donors, private foundations, and he designed and managed Canada's foreign aid to China and North Korea. He can be reached at


. I thank Carla Freeman and Mel Gurtov for their excellent editorial suggestions, and Andrew F. Cooper for the discussions.

1. "Global governance" refers here to the process of global ordering whereby differing states and international organizations operate according to multilateral rules, norms, principles, and within associated organizational arrangements, to manage shared problems at the global level.

2. I thank John Ravenhill for sparking my interest in the ancient Greek and Lat-in understandings of "crisis," with his inaugural lecture as the Executive Director of the Balsillie School for International Affairs, Waterloo, Canada, November 1, 2013.

3. In the latter category are the B-2 stealth bomber, the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter, tens of thousands of military personnel records, and key design information about the new Joint Strike Fighter plane, including sensitive information about the JSF's radar systems that are used to track targets, detailed engine schematics, methods for cooling exhaust gases, and "aft deck heating contour maps." Appelbaum et al. (2015); Dorling (2015).

4. Former Ronald Reagan administration senior official for international trade and investment policy, and long-time senior fellow of international trade, investment and sanctions at the Peterson Institute, whose name shall remain anonymous. 2016. Panel discussion with the author, University of California, Berkeley, October 21.

5. In November 2019, Xi Jinping, in his first public comments on the possible interim US-China "phase one" trade deal, said that China wants to reach an interim deal but will never let its "humiliating" history repeat itself. "We want to work for a phase one agreement on the basis of mutual respect and equality," he said; "when necessary we will fight back . . . we did not initiate this trade war, and this is not something we want." See: Woo, Lee, and Moon (2019).

6. The Trump White House argues that the benefits of the developing country status include "longer time frames for imposing safeguards, generous transition periods, softer tariff cuts, procedural advantages for WTO disputes, and the ability to avail themselves of certain export subsidies—all at the expense of other WTO members."

7. The fifteen are Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, the European Union, Guatemala, Mexico, New Zealand, Panama, Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland, and Uruguay.


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