No relationship shapes the planet more. And no relationship boils, through such a vast and consequent set of issues, with more tension and distrust.
The United States and China strongly disagree on how people and economies should be governed. The two powers compete for influence beyond their own shores, compete in technology, and maneuver for military advantages on land, in space and in cyberspace. But they are also major trading and trading partners, making their rivalry more complex than that of the Cold War, to which it is sometimes compared.
This complexity was in full swing when President Biden held a virtual summit with China’s top leader, Xi Jinping.
Antony J. Blinken, US Secretary of State, called the management of relations with China “the greatest geopolitical test of the 21st century”. Yet China has upset American policymakers ever since Mao’s armies took control of the nation – “liberated” it, in Communist Party parlance – in 1949.
In the decades that followed, the party drove the economy to ruin. Then the government changed course and China got much, much richer. Now, Xi, ruler of China since 2013, wants to restore the nation’s primacy in the world order.
“The East is rising,” Xi said, “and the West is declining.”
Here are the main fronts of the contest that defines this era.
Dominance around the Pacific
The United States has used its naval and air power to enforce order in the Pacific region since the end of World War II. This is not a situation that China will accept in the long run.
As China has increased its military presence in the region, the Biden administration has sought to expand US alliances with Australia, Japan, India and other countries. Beijing regards such actions as dangerous provocations intended to ensure American “hegemony”.
A major potential flashpoint is Taiwan, the self-governing democratic island that the Communist Party considers Chinese territory. Xi pledged to achieve the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” a project that includes bringing Taiwan under Chinese control. China has flown more and more warplanes in the airspace near Taiwan, recalling that it has never ruled out annexation of the island by force.
US Presidents have long been vague about how forcefully the United States would defend Taiwan. This “strategic ambiguity” aims to avoid provoking Beijing and to signal to the leaders of the island that they must not declare their independence with the idea that America would support them.
Despite this, the administrations of Mr. Biden and former President Donald J. Trump have stepped up US support for Taiwan. American warships sailed the Taiwan Strait. Small teams of troops trained with the Taiwanese army.
When asked in October whether the United States would protect Taiwan, Biden replied bluntly: “Yes, we are committed to doing that.”
The White House was quick to say his remark did not represent a change in US policy.
Strength in trade
The trade war unleashed by the Trump administration is technically on hold. But the Biden team continued to protest China’s economic policies that led Mr. Trump to start imposing tariffs on Chinese products, including Beijing’s extensive support for steel, solar cells. , computer chips and other domestic industries.
“These policies have strengthened a zero-sum dynamic in the global economy,” Katherine Tai, US trade representative, said in October, adding that “China’s growth and prosperity comes at the expense of workers and workers. economic opportunities here in the United States ”.
The cycle of tariffs and counter-tariffs that began in 2018 has shown just how interconnected the economies of the two countries are – and how vulnerable they remain if either party goes further for ” decouple ”.
The tariff fight prompted Xi to declare that China’s economy must be driven primarily by domestic demand and local innovation and only secondarily by exports, in what he calls a “dual circulation” strategy.
Beijing officials say this does not mean China is closing the door on foreign investment and foreign goods. But the climate of economic nationalism has already sparked new interest and investment in local brands. Chinese consumers are increasingly intolerant of foreign companies that do not follow the party line on Hong Kong, Tibet and other hot issues or are otherwise seen as disrespectful to China.
As a result, Hollywood studios have all but stopped producing movies with Chinese villains. One of China’s biggest recent blockbusters, a government-sponsored epic, celebrates a bloody victory over Americans in the Korean War.
The Internet giants of Silicon Valley have mostly been excluded from China for years. The latest to leave was Microsoft’s LinkedIn, which in October gave up trying to run its service under Beijing’s censorship demands.
Many other US tech companies are still doing big business in China, including Apple, Tesla, Qualcomm, and Intel. It fuels all kinds of worries in Washington: that Chinese agents are siphoning off technology and corporate secrets; that the products they manufacture in China are vulnerable to cyber intervention; that they compromise the professed values by respecting the rules of Beijing.
It’s a vicious circle. The paralysis of Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant, by the Trump administration has made Beijing more aware of how easily the United States can use its economic clout to limit China’s access to advanced technologies.
“Technological innovation has become the main battleground of the global strategic game,” Xi said at a conference in May. China, he has said repeatedly in recent years, must achieve “self-sufficiency”.
That, in turn, made American officials even more careful to prevent sensitive American know-how from ending up in Chinese hands. Washington agencies are taking a closer look at Chinese technology investments in the United States. Chinese-born scientists working in America have been arrested on charges of concealing ties to the Chinese state, although the Justice Department has dropped some of the cases.
Human rights and freedoms
Communist Party leaders have bristled for decades at outside criticisms of their authoritarian governance, calling them intrusions into national sovereignty. But as the party led by Xi has doubled down on its cut-throat approach to dissent, China’s confrontations with the United States over values and freedoms have become more frequent.
Washington has imposed sanctions on Chinese authorities for Beijing’s brutal response to the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. The Commerce Department has restricted U.S. exports to companies involved in the Chinese crackdown in Xinjiang, the northwestern region where hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities have been held for re-education and indoctrination.
Beijing officials insist America doesn’t need to view China’s rise as a threat. In September, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry that America’s “great strategic misjudgment” was at the root of the deterioration of relations between the two countries.
Mr. Wang quoted a Chinese saying: “Whoever has tied the knot must untie it. “
“The ball is now in the US court,” Wang said.