The Inevitability Of US-China Confrontation For Regional And Global Dominance – Analysis

By and

The relations between the United States and China in the 21st century is a hot topic for analysis and debate among international relations scholars, policymakers, and political commentators. Political scientist, Dale Copeland argues that issues surrounding the US-China relations are an intense topic of debate because the world has entered into a highly dangerous system of superpower competition – a situation in which the two great powers stand firmly in the same area (1). That is to say, two lions reign on the same mountain. That is why in recent years, there has been a plethora of opinion and research articles focusing on different aspects of the Sino-American relations.

The Fluctuation US-China Relations 

Since the late 1940s, the Sino-US relations have fluctuated and evolved from a tense situation to a mixture of increasing international diplomatic hostilities and a growing economic interdependence (2). This complex relationship has, in general, shifted from confrontation to cooperation and vice versa. What is noteworthy about the diplomatic relations between the two countries is the change of the United States’ grand strategy from the containment policy between 1949 and 1969 to the alignment policy between 1969 and 1989 (3). In recent decades, the policy seems to have shifted from cooperation and hedging under the Bill Clinton and Obama administration to containment under the Donald Trump administration. The relationship has evolved and has reached a stage when confrontation between the two powers for regional and global dominance seems inevitable. 

In January 1979, diplomatic relations at the ambassadorial level between the United States and China were established, enabling the normalization of the US-China relations (4). The reestablishment of diplomacy was seen as a ‘week that changed the world’ (5). Cooperation between the two countries brought benefits to their economic development and security, which contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, US strategic experts considered China a new threat to the interests of the United States and its allies, especially in the Asia-Pacific (6). The perception that China is a threat has grown as China’s rise has become a central force in global politics. 

In the current fast-changing world, the relationship between the United States and China has become more complicated and complex. Although many political analysts and scientists as well as politicians have argued that China is a threat (7). China insists that it is not going to change the status quo. It will instead rejoice in economic cooperation through its peaceful rise and is determined to become a responsible superpower in international political order (8). Xi Jinping once said that ‘In the interest of peace, China will remain committed to peaceful development. We Chinese love peace. No matter how much stronger it may become, China will never seek hegemony or expansion’ (9). Chinese leaders have tried to shape public opinion that China will remain a status quo superpower, enjoying its economic engagement and peaceful rise. However, while Xi has claimed that the Chinese love peace (10), and that the Chinese would never seek aggression and expansion, he has also said that China would never compromise when defending its sovereignty (11).

A leading realist John Mearsheimer has argued that lying is an ‘acceptable conduct in international politics because there are sometimes good strategic reasons for leaders to lie to other countries and even to their own people’ (12). He further added:

A leader has no higher obligation than to ensure the survival of his country. Yet states operate in an anarchic system where there is no higher authority that they can turn to if they are seriously threatened by another state. In the harsh world of international politics, there is no 911 number to call if a state gets in trouble, and even if there were, there is nobody at the other end to pick up the phone. Thus, leaders and their publics understand that states operate in a self-help world where they have to do whatever is necessary to provide for their own security. If that means lying and cheating, so be it. (p. 8) 

Strategically, strategic mistrust has not merely strained the US-China relations but also fed on a set of long-standing controversies, such as the trade war, the South China Sea and East China Sea dispute, the Taiwan issue and especially the North Korea issue. Although the United States has asserted that it is ready to take action on the Korean Peninsula without China, China has said that military action should not be used in exchange for North Korea’s suspension of its nuclear program. However, while President Trump stressed the US support for international norms in the East and South China Sea and objected to the demilitarization of the disputed area, President Xi expressed his desire for the U.S participation in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) (13). Overall, diplomatic relations between Washington and Beijing have fluctuated since the Mao Zedong time up to the Xi Jinping era. The relations have been driven by economic and strategic interests as well as strategic mistrust. Their relationship has, however, worsened when Donald Trump took office and adopted the America First policy, resulting in trade wars and economic stalemate. 

The US-China Strategic Rivalry

The differences in political systems characterized by distinct political culture and values remain a significant concern in Sino-US relations. It is important to note that the ideological difference tends to spur competition and distrust that are rooted in potential geopolitical rivalry. In the ancient time, Athens and Sparta were arguably the best example of the fiercest rivals between the ruling power and the rapidly emerging power, always resulting in intense and bloody conflicts. Athens had a form of democratic government, while Sparta was a militaristic oligarchy. In today’s world, the US is a democratic power, whereas China a communist. These two powers are more likely to clash, given their different ideologies and governance systems. 

Princeton professor Aaron Friedberg argues that ‘Relations between the United States and China were never going to be smooth but, for as long as it persists, the ideological gap that now separates them is going to make it much harder to achieve a stable modus vivendi’ (14).  Similarly, as James Curran notes, American policymakers are just beginning to face one of their most difficult problems related to China’s rise: the battle for ideological superiority (15). In line with these arguments, Honghua Men asserts that the culture of a nation is the heart, soul, and character of that nation; the source of its national unity and solidarity; and a solid foundation for national identity (16). Meanwhile, John Mearsheimer maintains that nationalism outweighs more heavily than liberalism in international politics (17). Therefore, the US-China rivalry seems inevitable and will not fade away anytime soon.

According to a recent Pew Research poll, the US negative attitudes toward China have risen by nearly 20 percent since President Donald Trump took office, up 13 points since last year (18). As Aaron Friedberg has recently put it, “Just as at the turn of the 20th century American policymakers set out to ‘make the world safe for democracy’, so, at the start of the 21st century, their Chinese counterparts are attempting to make it safe for authoritarianism.” (19) Thus, ideological clashes seem to be one of the main reasons leading to the competition between the United States and China (20). 

In addition to the political ideological rivalry, security concerns remain at the forefront of economic interests in international politics today. Many international relations scholars claim that the rising powers are always against the ruling powers and that competition for security among them is inevitable (21). The superpowers were feared of emerging powers, as in the historical case of Athens and Sparta. Joseph S. Nye pointed out that historical analogies such as this were often drawn to explain the cause of World War I when Germany surpassed Britain over industrial power, and German Emperor Kaiser was pursuing an adventurous global policy, leading to the clash with other great powers (22). If there is one thing we can learn from this historical analogy, it is that the United States and China are on the path to tragedy due to their growing competition, confrontation, and conflict (23). 

The Inevitability of the US-China Confrontation

China’s current foreign policy is based on realistic ideas that have existed for thousands of years. As China modernizes its economy and joins international bodies such as the World Trade Organization, China tends to behave in ways that prompt realists to believe that this emerging power intends to develop its military slowly and ensure its sustained economic growth, while avoiding confrontation with more superior US forces (24). Impressively, in the aftermath of the 2009 global financial crisis, China’s security and foreign policy has become more assertive, aggressive, or strong, especially with regard to the territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the East China Sea (25). According to Michael Auslin, control of the ‘Asiatic Mediterranean’ means Asian domination (26). Thus, China has considered these three seas as its territorial sea due to their geographical and geostrategic significance. 

Against the backdrop of China’s rise, in order to maintain a ‘favorable international environment for economic interdependence,’ the United States must focus on ‘deterrence strategies’ that are committed to protecting the vital interests of its allies by protecting them from hostile and threatening powers ranging from East Asia to Eurasia. Clearly, China and the United States are revisionist states (27). The United States is a defensive revisionist (maintaining its role as the Western hegemonic superpower and balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region), while China is an offensive revisionist, with its ambition to become regional hegemony in Asia (28). Undeniably, the United States is a regional hegemon in the Western Hemisphere, while China is emerging as a dominant regional power in East Asia. China is therefore trying to control the East Sea and the South China Sea to ensure its security and serve its national interests. 


No doubt, the United States wishes to maintain its leadership role in the region, while China wants to push the United States out of Asia and become a regional hegemony. The United States has pursued a post-Cold War foreign policy of liberal hegemony to strengthen the liberal order, which is perceived by China as a threat to its internal security. China’s rapid rise in economic, strategic, military, and diplomatic power has frightened the United States, leading it to adopt a containment strategy to curb the Chinese influence in the region and around the world. Some scholars argue the United States will pursue a regional containment policy to curb China’s aspirations in East and Southeast Asia as regional superpowers (30). This has made it hard for China to capture leadership in Asia, which it considers its backyard. 

All in all, China wants to restore its position as a middle kingdom or seek regional hegemony. This ambition, coupled with the ideological differences and the nature of power struggle between an existing hegemony and a rising one, means that the world will see the intense security competition between the two great powers, which seems inevitable and looks set to become more intense.

About the authors:

  • Vannak Ro holds a PhD in International Relations. He is Lecturer of International Politics at Paragon International University and Co-founder of Cambodian Institute for Democracy (CID).
  • Kimkong Heng is an Australia Awards scholar pursuing a PhD at the University of Queensland in Australia. He is a co-founder of Cambodian Education Forum (CEF).


  1.  Copeland, D.C., 2012. Realism and neorealism in the study of regional conflict. International Relations Theory and Regional Transformation, pp.49-73.
  2.  CFR (Council on Foreign Relations). 2018. U.S. Relations with China 1949 – 2020,
  3.  Chang, J.H.Y., 2000. China-US relations: The past as looking glass. American Studies International38(2), pp.62-79. 
  4.  MoFA (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China). 2018. The Establishment of Sino-U.S. Diplomatic Relations and Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping’s visit to the United States,
  5.  Waldron, A., 2015. The Asia mess: How things did not turn out as planned. Orbis59(2), pp.143-166.
  6.  Layne, C., 1997. From preponderance to offshore balancing: America’s future grand strategy. International Security22(1), pp.86-124; Jacques, M., 2009. When China rules the world: The end of the western world and the birth of a new global order. Penguin; Navarro, P., 2015. Crouching tiger: What China’s militarism means for the world. Prometheus Books.
  7.  Betts, R.K. ed., 2016. Conflict after the Cold War: Arguments on causes of war and peace. Taylor & Francis; Friedberg, A. 2011. “Shadow government: In U.S.-China relations, ideology matters.” Foreign Policy.; Jacques, M., 2009. When China rules the world: The end of the western world and the birth of a new global order. Penguin; Kagan, R., 2019. The jungle grows back: America and our imperiled world. Vintage.
  8.  Xinhua. 2017. China loves peace, but never compromises on sovereignty: Xi.
  9.  Gan, N., and Pinghui, Z. 2015. ‘We Chinese love peace’: Xi Jinping’s war parade message moments before announcing cuts of 300,000 military personnel.
  10.  Xinhua. 2017. China loves peace, but never compromises on sovereignty: Xi.
  11.  Wen, P., and Blanchard, B. 2017. President Xi says China loves peace but won’t compromise on sovereignty.
  12.  Mearsheimer, J.J., 2013. Why leaders lie: The truth about lying in international politics. Oxford University Press.
  13.  USCC. 2017. Annual report to Congress of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, U.S Government Publishing Office.
  14.  Friedberg, A. 2011. “Shadow government: In U.S.-China relations, ideology matters.” Foreign Policy.
  15.  Curran, J. 2018. “Clash of ideologies feeds into the rivalry between US and China,” The Australian.
  16.  Men, H., 2016. China’s position in the world and orientation of its grand strategy. In China in the Xi Jinping era (pp. 299-325). Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.
  17.  Mearsheimer, J.J., 2018. The great delusion: Liberal dreams and international realities. Yale University Press.
  18.  Silver, L., Devlin, K., and Huang, C. 2020. “Unfavorable views of China reach historic highs in many countries”. Pew Research Center.
  19.  Friedberg, A.L., 2018. Competing with China. Survival60(3), pp.7-64.
  20.  Curran, J. 2018. “Clash of ideologies feeds into the rivalry between US and China,” The Australian.
  21.  Art, R. J., 2003. A grand strategy for America. Cornell University Press; Luttwak, E.N., 2012. The rise of China vs. the logic of strategy. Harvard University Press; Mearsheimer, J.J., 2001. The tragedy of great power politics. WW Norton & Company.
  22.  Nye Jr, J.S., 2015. Is the American century over? John Wiley & Sons.
  23.  Tunsjø, Ø., 2018. The return of bipolarity in world politics: China, the United States, and Geostructural Realism. Columbia University Press.
  24.  Snyder, J. 2009. “One world, rival theories,” Foreign Policy.
  25.  Lynch, D.C., 2015. China’s futures: PRC elites debate economics, politics, and foreign policy. Stanford University Press.
  26.  Auslin, M.R., 2020. Asia’s new geopolitics: Essays on reshaping the Indo-Pacific. Hoover Press.
  27.  Ro, V. 2020a. Joe Biden’s foreign policy: Liberal hegemony revival? (Khmer version). BK Updates.
  28.  Ro, V. 2020b. China’s Asian dream:  Geo-economic strategy (Khmer version). BK Updates.
  29.  Ro, V. 2020a. Joe Biden’s foreign policy: Liberal hegemony revival? (Khmer version). BK Updates.
  30.  Art, R. J., 2003. A grand strategy for America. Cornell University Press.

Vannak Ro

Vannak Ro holds a PhD in International Relations. He is Lecturer of International Politics at Paragon International University and Co-founder of Cambodian Institute for Democracy (CID).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *