The relationship between China and the US is one of the defining features of twenty-first century international relations. How these two countries cooperate and compete on the world stage has a profound impact on the international system and on the way in which the relations between states unfold. But how have their ties evolved over the years? What are the main areas of competition and cooperation between the two? Are we heading towards a “New Cold War” between Washington and Beijing? Here’s all you ever wanted to know about US-China relations in five talking points.
1: How have bilateral ties evolved over the years?
Three key phases in ties between Washington and Beijing have led to the development of the relationship between two world superpowers as we know it today.
First, after years of virtually non-existent relations, in 1971 then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made a secret trip to China, shortly followed by the United Nations’ recognition of the People’s Republic of China. In February 1972, Richard Nixon made the first ever visit of a US President to China, and met with Chairman Mao Zedong. The two countries signed the Shanghai Communiqué aimed at improving Sino-US relations.
The second critical juncture in the US-China relationship resulted from China’s opening up under former President Deng Xiaoping. In the 21 years between 1979 and 2000, this process brought about China’s emergence as the world’s factory. As a result of this key trend set in motion in the late 1970s, the two countries went on to normalise their trade relations, when US President Bill Clinton signed the US-China Relations Act of 2000. This granted Beijing permanent normal trade relations with the United States and paved the way for China to join the World Trade Organization in 2001.
Third, as China’s rise became increasingly prominent, in 2011 then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, announced a “substantially increased investment – diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise – in the Asia–Pacific region” as one of the US’s strategic priorities for the following decade. Defined as the Obama’s administration’s “Pivot to Asia”, this policy made clear that in the context of a rising China, the Asian theatre was at the core of US interests.
2: What are today’s key issues?
Several flashpoints frequently recur in Sino-US relations. These include human rights, the treatment of ethnic and religious minorities (especially the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang), and territorial disputes (Taiwan, Tibet, and the Himalayan border with India). But one aspect that has really epitomised China’s rise and potential challenges to the global order is Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This project was rolled out by President Xi Jinping in September 2013 and aimed at reviving the ancient Silk Road from China to Europe, through infrastructural investments in more than 126 countries that have so far signed cooperation agreements with China.
The BRI has been at the heart of very polarised debates, with scholars, analysts and policymakers debating China’s motivations. Some see it as China’s quest for global domination and as an attempt to undermine the US-led liberal order. For others, the BRI represents a much-needed resource of infrastructural development and opportunity to rethink global development. Regardless of motivations, the BRI represents a potent reminder of the competition between the two countries and their attempts at vying for global influence.
3: Strategic competition or economic interdependence?
Many discussions around the shift in power from Washington to Beijing revolve around economic and military might. From a strategic standpoint, the Trump administration has viewed China’s rise in zero-sum terms, assuming that any gain for China represents a loss for the US. This logic has prompted a containment approach to China’s expansion in Asia and beyond. In December 2017, the US’ National Security Strategy described China as a “revisionist” power that “seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favour”. Along similar lines, the summary of the National Defense Strategy issued in 2018 by the US Department of Defense declared that “China is a strategic competitor”. It accused China of “leveraging military modernization, influence operations, and predatory economics to coerce neighbouring countries” and achieve regional dominance having as the ultimate ambition the “displacement of the United States to achieve global pre-eminence in the future”.
Beijing has constantly rejected these claims, and has instead criticised the US’s arms sales and political support towards Taiwan. Moreover, in its 2019 Defence White Paper, Beijing noted how the US “provoked and intensified competition among major countries, significantly increased its defence expenditure, pushed for additional capacity in nuclear, outer space, cyber and missile defence, and undermined global strategic stability”.
The economic situation is similarly complex. The US and Chinese economies have grown interdependent trade-wise and in terms of supply chains, as demonstrated by the COVID-19 pandemic and by the US’s reliance on China for the supply of pharmaceutical products and face masks. However, the Trump administration has sought to decouple American economic interests from those of China, thereby reversing a policy of ever closer economic ties that was initiated from China’s opening up onwards.
President Trump has engaged in a trade war with China that was aimed at weakening its economic firepower and at pushing back against the process of transformation rolled out by Chinese President Xi Jinping with the “Made in China 2025” initiative. This aims to transform China from a low-cost manufacturing country to a great innovation power, thereby presenting China as a competitor for the US in key technological sectors, ranging from robotics to clean energy vehicles. But for all the attempts to decouple the two economies, this is far from an easy process given the size and existing links that have solidified over the years.
4: What about 5G?
The “Made in China 2025” strategy aims at making Beijing the powerhouse of technological advances for the years to come, thereby trying to supplant the competitive advantage the US has in this field. One of the key areas of competition is 5G wireless technology. Close links between government and private companies in China have led to concerns in the US about allowing Chinese tech giant Huawei – which on its part denies any government backing – to develop 5G critical infrastructure.
While key US allies, like the UK, have ordered the complete removal of Huawei’s kit from the entire 5G network by 2027, China is likely to move ahead with its plans for developing digital infrastructure abroad. The Digital Silk Road is already part of the Belt and Road Initiative, and with the deployment of digital tools (e.g. contact tracing) to fight the COVID-19 pandemic globally, this will continue to represent a growing arena of great power competition.
5: Looking ahead: the future of the international order
What does this all mean for the global order? Are we heading towards a “New Cold War” as some observers are claiming? In the power shift from West to East, is conflict inevitable? Scholars and policymakers have been grappling with these questions for years now. The US and China are competing over the rules, norms and institutions that govern international politics. While the US accuses China of deliberately undermining some of the key principles behind the liberal international order, including human rights, Beijing responds to these allegations that its only aim is to create a “community of shared destiny” and it accuses the US of having double standards in its conduct of foreign policy.
A popular view is that the result of this competition will end in what Harvard scholar Graham Allison defined as the “Thucydides's Trap”. The parallel is with the Peloponnesian war between Sparta and Athens, that according to Greek historian Thucydides was caused by “the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable”. Whether the US and China are on the same collision trajectory is difficult to tell. What is clear is that in recent years, US presidential administrations across the partisan divide have increasingly placed China at the centre of their strategic calculations. Despite differences in their preferred tone and tactics, the centrality of China to US foreign policy is set to continue.