China-US Great Power Rivalry a Boiling Hot Pot 

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China-US Great Power Rivalry a Boiling Hot Pot 

As election season in the United States approaches, the temperature of the China-U.S. broth is unstably high.

China-US Great Power Rivalry a Boiling Hot Pot 

U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken meets with Director of the Chinese Communist Party Central Foreign Affairs Commission and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing, China, April 26, 2024.

Credit: Official State Department photo by Chuck Kennedy

Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, in the prologue of their 2021 book “Peril,” recount a top-secret and urgent communication on a back-channel line, between then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley and his Chinese counterpart, Li Zoucheng, two days after a violent avalanche of hardline Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. Following the unprecedented insurrection, Milley was fervently trying to calm Li down, assuring all was well in the United States despite the chaotic scenes and that any fear of an impact on the already tense China-U.S. military dynamics was unwarranted. 

As election season in the United States approaches, the temperature of the China-U.S. broth is unstably high, as the recently concluded visit of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to China shows. 

Despite a phone conversation between U.S. President Joe Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping having yielded some attempts at putting in place strategic guardrails on the relationship, the verbal vibes following Blinken’s visit do not suggest a positive arc in the relationship. To the contrary, it seems to be spiraling downward at a time of complex geopolitical convulsions across the world. 

Last year in November, Biden and Xi met after a gap of about a year on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference in California. By then, the relationship had gone downhill following a number of confrontational episodes including then-Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in 2022 and the shooting down of an alleged Chinese spy balloon in U.S airspace in early 2023. In December 2023, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff General Charles Brown and his Chinese counterpart General Liu Zhenli even held a videoconference with the hope of bringing about a broader restoration of military engagements. However, China’s Defense Ministry, during a press conference, reportedly aimed its verbal guns at the United States for continuing with a “Cold War mindset” and said it was the United States’ nature “to stoke confrontation.” 

As the Cold War experience showed, great power relationships are as much about communicating the terms of engagement as they are about the hardcore projection of comprehensive power and military deterrence. At the height of the Cold War tensions, the United States and the Soviet Union negotiated to arrest the arms race and keep military developments from spiraling out of control through agreements such as the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT)

In comparison, the rulebook for China-U.S. competition is relatively empty, despite the relationship being a much more complex game of one-upmanship over national security and economics. The raging Ukraine war, and the growing China-Russia partnership, has a become a severe strategic rift. 

Last week, Biden signed a bill to provide $95 billion in aid for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan, despite deep polarization in the U.S. Congress; more than $60 billion will go to Ukraine. In fact, China’s alleged support for Russia’s defense industry was one of the primary concern areas highlighted during Blinken’s visit, contending, “Russia would struggle to sustain its assault on Ukraine without China’s support.” Obviously, Beijing has been calling out such claims as “groundless accusations” over China’s “normal trade and economic exchanges” with Russia. 

China still refuses to acknowledge the terminology of the Indo-Pacific region, preferring the “Asia-Pacific” formulation. Beijing has accused the United States of stoking regional instability and warned the U.S. against interfering in the Taiwan issue, which it considers “the first insurmountable red line” in China-U.S. relations. 

In the midst of official meetings and bilateral engagements to prevent inadvertent miscalculations and accidents, a host of issues involving trade, technology and national security still loom large over a relationship considered the most consequential for international affairs. New dual-use technologies, having both commercial and military applications, are going to further complicate matters, as witnessed in emerging tensions over new regulations on China-U.S. trade on semiconductors, and the impending fate of TikTok’s operations in the U.S. market. As the two largest economies in the world, with huge bilateral trade turnover, the U.S. and China also exhibit a growing lack of trust, over each other’s economic practices and trade policies, making accusations and counter-accusations over market access and transparency. 

A statement from the U.S. Department of State following Blinken’s visit highlighted the primary issues raised as including “advancing counternarcotics cooperation to disrupt the global flow of synthetic drugs” plus “enhancing military-to-military communication to avoid miscalculation and conflict, and launching talks on managing the risk and safety challenges posed by advanced forms of artificial intelligence.” 

Blinken’s Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, reportedly argued that U.S. measures are “not fair competition, but containment, and it is not removing risks, but creating risks.” Wang apparently chided the United States in a closed-door meeting for “taking endless measures to suppress China’s economy, trade, science and technology,” for over-hyping the concerns related to China’s industrial overcapacity and blaming it for flooding global markets.

Reflecting the ominous shape of things to come as the election season heats up in the U.S., at the end of his China visit, Blinken contended in an interview with CNN, “We have seen, generally speaking, evidence of attempts to influence and arguably interfere [in the U.S. election], and we want to make sure that that’s cut off as quickly as possible.” 

Such an allegation apparently raises serious questions over reported reassurances of non-interference in the 2024 U.S presidential election made during the Biden-Xi meeting in November 2023, repeated during a subsequent meeting between Wang and U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan in Bangkok in January 2024. Foreign interference and meddling in U.S. elections have become a matter of grave concern for U.S. foreign policy and national security, following in the wake of allegations of deep-seated Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The fundamental logic of intense great power competition calls for “intense diplomacy to manage, address misperceptions, and prevent unintended conflict.” However, the emerging power dynamics between Washington and Beijing show that they have miles to go to strengthen strategic guardrails in a difficult environment beset by misaligned perceptions of each other’s red lines. While the political class and citizenry gear up for a highly uncertain election season in the United States, Beijing, like many other capitals across the world, will be calculating and speculating on the “what ifs” in case of a Trump 2.0 presidency.