The following is a guest post submitted by Valentina Amuso and Kyle McNally

Is the US in an inevitable spiral of decline? Is China rising as the new hegemon? These are a few of the new dinner table topics of the 21st century. The latest iteration of such questions can be found in the discourse surrounding current economic negotiations. In this area most attention is focused squarely on the US and China; however, it must be recognised that these two countries are only two of the participants in a highly complex dance of geopolitics. The US and China are significant actors, to be sure, but their strategies should be understood in a broader context.

On one hand, Washington is embroiled in two flagship agreements – the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the European Union and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with a host of Asian partners plus selected others. On the other hand, China is, and has been, using the same moves in similar negotiations such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) with 10 ASEAN members and six others. These negotiations are highly politicised and have led many commentators to make bold claims about both the consequences of passage as well as failure to reach agreement.

Discourse & Context

According to one prevailing narrative, the TTIP may be understood as the “West against the rest” wherein the US and the EU are coming together to reassert their power against the rising rest. By the same account, the US is attempting to corral Beijing with the TPP. TPP comprises a number of Asian countries plus traditional US allies such as Canada, and Australia. The strategy is as obvious as it is simple – continue dancing with traditional and well-established allies whilst also courting others to join the US side of the ballroom. However, the Washington is no longer the only belle of the ball.

Beijing has made clear its intention to gain new partners. It concluded a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with New Zealand in 2008; notably, this was the first FTA that China has ever concluded with an OECD country. China is also currently in negotiations with the EU for a bilateral investment agreement, as well as with South Korea and Japan for a trilateral FTA launched in 2012. Moreover, the RCEP, mentioned above, is a plurilateral negotiation launched in 2012 comprising 16 countries; notably including Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

A striking detail that seems to be understated in the geopolitical narrative is that Beijing is now also dancing with conventional US allies. Of course, there will remain questions about China’s ability to maintain the bullish growth it has recorded over the last decade, as well as questions about how the country will cope with persisting poverty, growing shadow banking, increasing unemployment, and an aging population. But, China had time to learn the moves of the dance, and should not be discounted because of these questions – not by a long shot.

Thus, at one end of the ballroom stands the US, courting countries with trade agreements and related incentives that stem from its established and long-standing power. At the other end of the ballroom stands China, courting countries with the prospects and offerings of a power on the rise. In the middle stand old and new friends that are alluring both powers in a courtship that is no longer jealously monogamous. These others are now well versed in the rules of the dance and swing from the arm of the US to the arm of China in a systematic, if not orderly fashion. But, just for a turn of the Waltz, only to rotate partners when the music changes.

The Geopolitical Waltz

TTIP has undoubted significance and has even been described as concerning ‘the weight of the western, free world in economic and political affairs’. However, the EU is concurrently directly engaged with China as well. The European Commission ‘strongly supports China’s swift participation’ in the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) negotiation, and the EU is at the same time in bilateral investment talks with Beijing. So, how can we understand the role of the EU in this context? Brussels is negotiating or has preferential agreements pending with more than 80 countries. Whilst TTIP, TiSA and the bilateral agreements with China are hugely significant, the other EU moves should not be ignored. Nor should the moves made by other courted partners. For instance, Japan and South Korea, both party to TPP negotiations as well as RECP, also have ongoing negotiations for an FTA with China. Even more, they both have separate negotiations underway for regional FTAs that do not include the US or China. These are a few of the examples of other negotiations that ought to be considered when attempting to make sense of this landscape.

There is the risk, of course, of conflating this degree of complexity with chaos. However, it is the argument here that a certain logic can be discerned amidst the complexity, constituted by a series of interchangeable and overlapping courtships. The US and China, as well as the EU and all other relevant countries, are embarking down a path wherein anticipation is matched by uncertainty. The future is hard to predict. Perhaps this combination of overlapping dances will drive movement toward a new global order characterised by entropy and conflict. Or, maybe not. Maybe the world that waits for us is one in which the collective dance will bring the two belles of the ball closer toward complementary, rather than competing, trading blocs. If, or how either of these scenarios will play out remains a question. The one thing we do know is that this will hardly be the last dance.

Valentina Amuso is a PhD candidate and Teaching Assistant at Durham University.

Kyle McNally is a PhD candidate at Durham University, Community Editor for the Global Policy Journal and Project Manager for the Global Challenges Foundation.