Since 2021, tensions between the United States and China have escalated on multiple fronts. Disputes over trade, technology, human rights, and territorial claims in the South China Sea have strained the bilateral relationship.
A significant aspect of this competition is the race for technological dominance, with both countries heavily investing in artificial intelligence, 5G, quantum computing, and cybersecurity. Geopolitical rivalry has intensified in the Indo-Pacific region, with the US strengthening its alliances and partnerships while China asserts its interests more assertively. Despite the tensions, economic ties between the two nations remain extensive, but issues like intellectual property theft and market access create friction. Human rights concerns, especially China’s treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang and actions in Hong Kong, have added to international scrutiny.
Both countries engage in multilateral forums to shape global rules, and the pandemic has further complicated the relationship. Nevertheless, there have been some cooperative efforts, particularly on climate change, amidst the broader competition’s complexities.
Historical Context of US-China Relations
The relationship between the United States and China has been characterized by a mix of cooperation and conflicts over the decades. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the two countries had a prolonged period of isolation, with no official diplomatic ties until 1979. During the Cold War, the US and China had limited cooperation against the Soviet Union but also experienced conflicts, such as the Korean and Vietnam Wars. In the 1970s, the famous Nixon-Kissinger-led “opening” policy sought to improve relations, leading to normalized diplomatic ties and significant economic engagement.
The United States and China highlight key incidents and developments that have shaped their interactions. It begins with a 2001 spy plane incident, where a U.S. Navy plane collided with a Chinese jet, leading to tensions but ultimately a quick resolution. The passage then delves into economic concerns as China’s economy grew, with the U.S. granting trade relations and China’s entry into the World Trade Organization.
The subsequent growth of China’s economy and its increasing global influence are discussed. Political conflicts, such as the case of Chen Guangcheng seeking asylum at the U.S. embassy, and the “pivot” towards Asia by the U.S. in 2011, are also highlighted. The passage acknowledges positive overtures and meetings between leaders but also points out factors causing ongoing conflicts, including territorial disputes and human rights concerns. Generally, the relationship between the U.S. and China is seen as complex, with some viewing it as mutually beneficial, while others note increasing competition and tensions. The importance of managing this relationship for the prosperity and security of both nations is emphasized.
Several key turning points have shaped the US-China relationship. The 2008 global financial crisis highlighted China’s growing economic influence, further accentuating the competition. In recent years, actions taken by both countries concerning human rights issues, territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and geopolitical rivalries in the Indo-Pacific have added to the complexities and tensions in the relationship.
In general, the historical context of US-China relations reflects a journey from limited engagement to a complex mix of cooperation, competition, and conflicts, with significant implications for the international order. Starting in the late 20th century and continuing into the 21st century, the US-China relationship experienced a shift toward competitive dynamics. As China’s economy and influence grew rapidly, it posed both economic opportunities and challenges to the US. Issues such as trade imbalances, intellectual property theft, and market access became points of contention. The competition for technological supremacy, particularly in areas like artificial intelligence and 5G, further intensified the rivalry (WTO, 17 September 2001).
Drivers of Escalating US-China Competition: Economics, Geopolitics, Technology, and Ideology
The escalating competition between the United States and China is driven by a combination of factors. Economic rivalry and trade disputes play a central role, with conflicts over trade practices and intellectual property theft contributing to deteriorating economic relations.
Geopolitical and strategic interests are also at play, as both nations vie for influence and dominance in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond. The race for technological supremacy, encompassing AI, 5G, quantum computing, and cybersecurity, further intensifies the competition, with profound implications for economic and military power.
Additionally, ideological differences and human rights concerns add to the complexity, as the US promotes liberal democracy while China adheres to an authoritarian system. Issues such as China’s treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang and actions in Hong Kong have drawn international attention and strained relations. These interconnected drivers present multifaceted challenges, shaping the evolving dynamics of the US-China relationship and exerting significant influence on global politics and stability (Siripurapu & Berman, 2022).
The significance of examining the unhealthy ramifications
The close economic ties between the US and China are facing erosion due to escalating tensions and increasing decoupling efforts. Despite record levels of bilateral trade in 2022, the trading relationship is becoming less interdependent. Rising tensions are driving investors from both countries away from each other’s markets.
The most consequential aspect of this decoupling is in technology, with security competition embedded in domestic industrial and technological development. Both economies will suffer, and the global implications are profound. Technological decoupling is intensifying, with export restrictions and efforts to freeze China’s current level of technological development. This shift raises concerns about global growth in the short and long term, as it can lead to reduced trade flows, resource misallocation, and less cross-border knowledge diffusion.
Both the US and China must address techno-nationalism for rational policy formulation, but the political realities in both capitals pose significant challenges (The Diplomat, February 10, 2023).
Looking Ahead: Navigating a Complex Future
U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s recent visit (July 6, 2023), to China, was aimed at improving U.S.-China relations after a period of escalating tensions. During her four-day trip, Yellen had “constructive” and “substantive” meetings with Chinese officials, discussing various issues such as the global economy, export controls, and national security. Yellen’s visit is part of ongoing diplomatic efforts to stabilize the relationship between the two countries. Her trip follows a recent visit by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, indicating a concerted effort by the U.S. administration to engage with Chinese officials and address areas of contention.
The diplomatic efforts may lead to a potential meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of two upcoming summits: the G-20 leaders’ summit in New Delhi in September and the APEC leaders’ summit in San Francisco in November. Such a meeting would be significant, as the two leaders last met in Bali the previous year (CNBC, July 9, 2023). Overall, Yellen’s visit and the potential for high-level meetings indicate a willingness from both sides to de-escalate tensions and find common ground on key issues affecting the bilateral relationship and the global economy.
Scenarios for the future of US-China competition
The concept of “unhealthy competition” is viewed by both China and the United States, and how their differing perspectives contribute to gridlock in their relations. China sees unhealthy competition as strategic containment aimed at suppressing its development, particularly in the context of economic-technological sanctions imposed by the US, such as restrictions on microchips and exports.
On the other hand, the US perceives unhealthy competition through the lens of free market principles and views China’s state interventions in the economy as a trigger for such competition. Both countries accuse each other of unhealthy competition, leading to increasing suspicions and jostling to portray the other as the instigator of regional tensions. As neither side is willing to step back or change their policies first, engaging in healthy competition becomes difficult. The divergent views and mutual accusations create gridlock in their relationship, limiting the potential for constructive engagement and cooperation (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, China, July 03, 2023).
Geopolitical and strategic interests
Obstacles to achieving healthy competition between the United States and China. It highlights the historical context of the US-China rapprochement in 1972, which emphasized the importance of building confidence gradually and working towards shared goals. However, in the current context, both countries have not effectively engaged in confidence-building measures, leading to deep political and ideological cleavages that hinder progress.
The deteriorating relationship is influenced by issues like China’s human rights concerns and the US challenging China’s policies in areas like Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet. This contamination of the relationship makes confidence-building increasingly difficult. Healthy competition is understood as both countries’ responsibility to ensure that their competition does not undermine cooperation on global issues such as climate change. The Biden administration seeks to confront and compete with China while seeking cooperation on common interests. However, China rejects this approach and argues that cooperation on global issues should not be expected while the US challenges its policies elsewhere (SOAS, January 22, 2022). Overall, the complexities and challenges in achieving healthy competition and cooperation between the US and China in the current geopolitical context.
The article expresses concern about the prospects for healthy competition between the United States and China. It suggests that the absence of healthy competition is a cause for great worry for the international community. If the competition between the two nations turns unhealthy and escalates further, there is a risk that they could end up in direct confrontation. The potential consequences of such a confrontation are deemed to be too drastic for the international community to bear. In essence, the article underscores the importance of fostering healthy competition between the US and China to avoid catastrophic outcomes that could have far-reaching implications globally.
About the authors:
- Balinder Singh (Ph.D. Scholar), Department of Political Science, School of Social Sciences, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharmshala, India. Email: [email protected]
- Prof. Jagmeet Bawa, Head Department of Political Science, School of Social Sciences, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharmshala, India. Email: [email protected]
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