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Why China-US rivalry is not about to end

By XN Iraki | June 20th 2021

China seems to have easily taken the place of the Soviet Union. [Courtesy]

We grew up as children of two superpowers - United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. We knew the US as democratic and the leader of the free world.

The USSR or the Soviet Union was a counterweight to the US with its mighty display of weapons during parades. Donald Trump had toyed with that idea.

USSR broke up into 15 republics in 1991, the march to political utopia halted. Russia inherited her nuclear weapons. But it seems she could not muster the grandeur of the former superpower.

China seems to have easily taken the place of the Soviet Union.

She is nuclear powered, has a huge population and seems determined to compete with the US in every sector, including Space.

She is building a Space Station and has landed on the far side of the moon.

The US and its allies seem rattled by the rise of China which has occupied its key foreign policy analysts since President Richard Nixon visited there in 1972, only six years before China opened her economy to the rest of the world.

Driving through major Chinese cities like Shanghai or Beijing leaves no doubt the world had waited for this moment, every major brand has a presence there, except African brands.

The West and East including Japan and South Korea fueled the economic growth of China with huge investments.

They build factories in China to produce for their markets cheaply, because of the low cost of labour.

It’s this outsourcing model that Trump attacked with some dose of nationalism, making him popular.

After four decades, the West, read the US seems to have realised that China is becoming a formidable economic competitor.

So much so that a law is being passed specifically to confront China’s competitiveness. The US Innovation and Competition Act (2021), originally Endless Frontier Bill is to boost research and development (R&D) to help America compete with China in areas like Artificial Intelligence where China seems to have a head start.

Other areas of focus include quantum computing and semiconductors. The Bill, if it becomes law has a tag of Sh10.7 trillion ($100 billion). It is now with the House of Representatives, equivalent to our National Assembly.

The Bill is significant in many ways. One is the focus on R&D, an area we have invested little in.

What percentage of our Budget got into R&D, the seedbed of economic growth and in whispers military power? Get a copy of our 2021/2022 Budget.

The Bill from the US Congress “redesignates the National Science Foundation as the National Science and Technology Foundation and establishes a Directorate for Technology within the foundation.

The goals of the directorate shall be to (1) Strengthen US leadership in critical technologies through fundamental research in key technology focus areas, such as artificial intelligence, high-performance computing, and advanced manufacturing; (2) Enhance US competitiveness by improving education in such areas and attracting more students to such areas; and (3) Foster the impact of federally funded research and development through the accelerated translation of advances in the focus areas into processes and products that help achieve national goals. “Can we enact such an Act in Kenya?

Rivalry between the US and China is not new. Remember, Chinese Exclusion Act, formally the Immigration Act of 1882, which tried to stop Chinese immigration to US? Will this Bill, if passed into law stop the rise of China?

Anti-sanctions law

Let’s not forget that China is also responding to the US with its anti-sanctions law. China has been sanctioned by the US and EU over trade, technology transfer, and new laws in Hong Kong and human rights in Xinjiang.

My hunch tells me the rise of China will not be stopped by the new laws. China has built a growth momentum based on controlling Covid-19, reaching out to the rest of the world with mega projects and silent diplomacy.

The Chinese model, getting into other countries from the “top” through top leadership unlike the US which starts at the bottom, reaching out to the common man through non-government organisations, seems more efficient.

The megaprojects like the One-Belt One Road initiative seem to have no specific response from the West. Maybe after President Biden visits Europe, they will craft such a megaproject or response.

It’s in Kenya where the two countries are playing their quiet game. After the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), China is now building an expressway in Nairobi.

Standing outside a supermarket at Westlands at night, the welding sparks on elevated expressway compete with the neon lighting of Oracle, a US-based firm across the road. At the University of Nairobi, you can see a US-built engineering wing from a China-built tower.

It seems a new law will not be enough. The US must get on the ground, as she has done in her wars abroad. Today, we see the Chinese building roads including in my village. I recently came across the Chinese building power lines in the Happy Valley where mzungu once had merry and endless fun.

Let’s be fair, the US is investing particularly in the services sector, espoused by hotels and software and consulting. But her visibility is muted compared with China.

The media, movies, and Kenyans who live in the US is not enough.

We can even stretch the truth further. The Indians built our first rail and stayed on.

The Chinese have built SGR and are likely to stay on. Do we have such a significant number of Americans staying in Kenya? Some British settlers stayed on but their visibility is limited.

The proposed US law shows the rivalry between the two countries is not about to end. President Biden, despite his opposition to Trump, can’t ignore China that does not have to go for expensive elections like the US. The Chinese president’s term seems unlimited.

Countries like Kenya are often torn between following the US and her democratic systems or China and her command economy.

The envisaged flowering of democracy after becoming an economic power is still awaited in China. It has left Western scholars and pundits spinning.

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