The Debate

US-China Relations in Flux: The Road to a Showdown

The United States is for the first time substantively responding to China’s rejection of international norms.

Ben Lowsen
US-China Relations in Flux: The Road to a Showdown

In this Nov. 9, 2017, file photo U.S. President Donald Trump, right, walks with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the people in Beijing.

Credit: (AP Photo/Andy Wong, File)

Two great powers stand toe-to-toe. America calls China a cheat, taking advantage of the U.S.-supported international system to grow wealthy and strong while trampling its rules. China counters that the Trump administration is bullying China through “unilateralism, protectionism, and economic hegemonism,” hearkening back to Beijing’s accusations that the United States is attempting to contain China as it did the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But what is fueling this dispute at its core?

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has written of a “crisis in U.S.-China relations,” pointing to Beijing’s lack of market reform and increasingly aggressive foreign policy along with U.S. President Donald Trump’s more aggressive stance. Indeed, with its National Security and Defense Strategies, the United States rang in 2018 by officially shifting to a policy of competition with China from one of cooperation, capped off by Vice President Mike Pence’s October speech denouncing China. Between these statements, the trade war, and two key congressional reports enumerating China’s malfeasance (here and here), the United States clearly means business.

Is America then changing the status quo? Yes, but not without reason. China’s dramatic increase in power coupled with its ambivalence concerning international law have raised the alarm in the United States and around the world.

From Quasi-Friendship to Full Competition

Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger set America on the path to cooperation with China in 1971, becoming pseudo-allies as a counter to the Soviet Union. Deng Xiaoping’s program of Reform and Opening, beginning in 1978, offered economic and a degree of political freedom to China’s people. It also created the possibility in Americans’ minds that China might be open to further liberalization, a fulfillment of the partnership begun under Nixon. But Beijing dashed these hopes in 1989 as it crushed the Tiananmen Square protests.

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The democratic bloc, despite imposing restrictions and sanctions, ultimately continued to welcome China’s economic rise, culminating in its admission into the World Trade Organization in 2001. Granting this prize to China, however, came with a condition: that China adhere to the rules of fair trade. The democratic nations were essentially placing a bet that once China saw the benefits of economic development and cooperation, it would gradually conform to the expectations of the international system.

Sadly, Beijing over the last 18 years has cast grave doubts on this belief, as shown in the growing crescendo of credible reports. Economically, China is a scofflaw, expropriating technology and market share. President Xi Jinping’s much vaunted Belt and Road Initiative is plagued by debt-trap diplomacy: China buying off corrupt foreign leaders. Militarily, China has become a bit of a bully, making good on State Councilor Yang Jiechi’s 2010 threat that “China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact.” Xi’s restrictive measures over the whole of China is well documented, but the world is only beginning to understand the magnitude of his ethnic cleansing of Muslim citizens. China’s misbehavior has become too great to ignore, inviting Trump and the U.S. establishment to move against it.

Ironically, Beijing may have favored Trump’s election in 2016, believing he would pull back from Pacific alliances, scuttle the Trans-Pacific Partnership, potentially sow chaos in the U.S. political system, and perhaps be more willing to make a deal than Hillary Clinton. Throughout 2017, Beijing had cause for hope as Trump sought Chinese assistance to contain North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. They are surely reconsidering whatever hopes they had, however, as Trump carries out his trade war and the rest of the U.S. establishment organizes to compete against China. Although Washington insists competition does not mean conflict, it is worth keeping in mind that “competition” in Chinese is inherently zero sum.

Trade War

Why then has the United States opted to compete? Simply put, instead of becoming a free trader, China has become a freeloader and systemic abuser. U.S. free traders were inherently against tariffs, but had no other satisfactory answer to China’s anti-free market practices. Too many American voters felt left behind by the free traders’ grand words and empty promises, turning China’s abuses into a winning issue for them. Hence Trump’s election brought with it the rise of China hawks like Peter Navarro and Michael Pillsbury. By that time, however, hawkish views were no longer extreme. American Sinologists had for many years been coming to the realization that the world must confront China’s mischief directly. 2016 simply marked the year that public and elite opinion on China came into alignment. And yet American principle remains the same, namely the time honored Open Door policy, only now instead of preventing others from dominating China it seeks to prevent China from dominating others.

The U.S. plan is to pressure China to reform its economy by pinching the exports on which it relies. China has responded by slapping tariffs on U.S. exports in key political sectors. Thus the conflict is a trial of pain and will. America can hurt China’s economy more, but may have less political staying power than China’s authoritarian system. Indeed, there are some indications that China’s economy has been hit hard, but little indication of flagging U.S. will at this point.

After levying several rounds of tariffs throughout 2018, the United States and China agreed to a 90-day truce in December lasting through the two countries’ key holiday seasons of Christmas and Chinese New Year. Trump probably feels he has exerted enough leverage to make his point and is now giving Xi some space to come to the bargaining table. Xi is probably looking to extend negotiations, betting that Trump will have a difficult time reasserting the pressure now that he has relented a bit while hoping for a more friendly administration in 2021.

But Xi is not impervious. Despite his stricter and more self-centered form of authoritarianism, he must remain pragmatic or suffer consequences. Since he cannot force the United States to back down, he will offer as little as possible to get it to pull back. Xi will likely make gestures to bring China’s markets into alignment with international standards, nominally meeting U.S. demands. The onus will then be on America to ensure China adheres to its promises.

People Livin’ in Competition

On the security front, the U.S. Department of Defense is publicly making nice with China, perhaps in order to concentrate on the economic struggle. Actions like China’s lasing of U.S. aircraft and threatening naval maneuvers, however, show that all is not well. China is openly challenging the U.S.-supported international system in ways small and not so small. Since U.S. strength appears barely able to deter China from breaking international law, we can only assume China’s implicit threat to its neighbors is growing.

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Former Australian Prime Minister and China hand Kevin Rudd asks the big question about this competition: how will America and China settle on rules for this new great game? America and the Soviet Union fought over the parameters of the game, gradually developing a modus vivendi that provided significant but delimited arenas for competition while also offering mutually agreeable areas of cooperation. Such is perhaps the most desirable outcome for this competition.

Finally, however, although compromise and cooperation are possible within competition, on the count of Beijing’s ethnic cleansing of Xinjiang there can be no compromise. It is tempting to see this mass internment as a continuation of previous repressive policies, but given the scale of capriciousness and cruelty, we should carefully consider whether China may be sliding toward the kind of malignant regime the world will sooner or later be forced to confront. China’s future will only be as bright as Xi’s willingness to support the values that benefit both the international system and China.

Ben Lowsen is a specialist in Chinese political and security affairs working as a China advisor for the U.S. Air Force’s Checkmate office. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.