The trade war between the United States and China launched by President Donald Trump has been escalating in recent weeks with Trump threatening to raise tariffs on all Chinese imports and declaring a national emergency shutting Huawei out of the U.S. market. Observers of U.S.-China relations have become increasingly concerned about the future of this most consequential bilateral relationship. Why has the relationship deteriorated? What exactly went wrong? And how can the two powers step out of the dilemma?
First of all, it is wrong to assume that Trump is solely responsible for the current status of the U.S.-China relationship. He exacerbated the tensions but did not start it.
Since President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China in 1972, a general consensus within the United States has been that an open and prosperous China is in the U.S. interest. This provided the foundation for engagement with China since then. Major setbacks in the relationship such as the 1989 Tiananmen incident, the 1999 U.S. bombing of Chinese embassy in Belgrade, and the 2001 EP-3 mid-air collision in Hainan did not derail the relationship. Along the way, there has been a genuine American hope that China will become “more like us” as it is more integrated into the U.S.-led liberal international system. As China quickly emerged to be the second largest economy by the end of the 2010s while maintaining its one-party authoritarianism, Americans began to feel disappointed, uneasy, and threatened. The new consensus is that China has become a grave challenge, even a threat to the United States.
During President Barack Obama’s second term, the United States began to seriously address the China challenge. A “pivot” or “rebalance to Asia” was Obama’s hallmark approach to China. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was a key architect of this approach. For this reason, as well as her loud criticism of China’s human rights record, the Chinese government and many Chinese people preferred Trump to Clinton in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Trump is bent on “fixing” the problems between China and the United States, but he has narrowly focused on economic and technological competition from China without addressing the root causes of the problems.
Second, the relationship has become more competitive than cooperative due to structural conflicts as both sides are struggling to adjust to changes in the international system.
The American discourse about China has become highly hostile. Beginning with Vice President Mike Pence’s strident anti-China speech at the Hudson Institute in October 2018, various administration officials have taken a hawkish line towards China recently, such as FBI director Christopher Wray’s warning about Chinese spying and State Department Policy Planning director Kiron Skinner’s “civilizational clash” remark. Their frustration about China is palpable, but they add more heat than light.
In the current deadlocked trade negotiations, Trump is basically trying to impose his demands upon China. It reflects Trump’s lack of understanding of Chinese culture, in which face is highly valued. In addition, with little knowledge of China’s humiliating history since the Opium War, it is hard for Trump to understand why Xi Jinping will stand firm and not yield to U.S. pressure. Trump cannot keep calling Xi his friend while stabbing a knife in Xi’s back.
A trade deal that reflects the interests of both nations will perhaps be reached sooner or later, but the competition between free market economy and state capitalism will continue. As the two powers put their own national interests first, one wonders whether they can co-exist peacefully, like the proverbial two tigers sharing the same mountain.
Third, the most difficult challenge for the United States and China is to manage the global power transition as a result of China’s rise. Right now, U.S. strategy seems to be aimed at slowing down China’s development and prolonging U.S. dominance. Trump may think he is winning the trade war, but when American consumers realize that they have to bear the brunt of the tariffs, domestic support for him will begin to evaporate.
Both countries need to adjust to the new reality in which China has emerged as a peer rival of the United States in many aspects. The United States will continue to dominate the international system, but China is quickly closing the gap. China plays long term, and there will be more shadow boxing in U.S.-China interactions.
Is the United States willing to accommodate China’s rise? Will China attempt to elbow the United States out of the top spot in the world? These are tough questions, especially when the trust level is low between the two powers.
Despite its pledge not to seek hegemony, China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) spans much part of the world. The United States sees it as a direct challenge to its global supremacy, especially in its traditional spheres of influence. Washington’s knee-jerk reaction has been to resist the BRI. Washington’s policymakers may wish to think out of the box: joining the BRI and working with China to enhance its implementation based on transparency and equality.
The world is entering an era of great uncertainty as U.S.-China competition intensifies. Bystanders often see things more clearly than players. As Singaporean foreign minister Vivian Balakrishnan remarked in Washington recently, the United States should accept China’s rise and allow China to have a greater say in shaping global rules in order to avoid a prolonged clash. When defending the now defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership, President Obama once said, the United States, not China, should write trade rules. It is time for the United States and China to write trade and other rules together to ensure a more just and reasonable international system, in which both powers will play a constructive leadership role.
Zhiqun Zhu is professor of political science and international relations at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania and a visiting senior fellow at the East Asian Institute of National University of Singapore.