US-China: From strategic partners to strategic competitors

    As competition between the two powers (the United States and China) intensifies, should we be worried?

    “International strategic competition is on the rise,” is how China’s latest defence paper released in 2019, described the political landscape. One can consider this China’s perception to a radical shift in American national security and defence strategies ranging from counterterrorism to strategic competition.

    The Trump administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy has identified Russia and China as revisionist powers seeking to undermine US global interests and depicted a world marked by increasing geopolitical rivalry and competition.

    Likewise, the Pentagon’s 2018 National Defense Strategy highlighted the “re-emergence of long-term strategic competition.” It contends that the strategy is aimed at restoring America’s competitive military advantage to deter Russia and China from challenging the United States.

    In May 2020, the White House released a new report detailing the US strategic approach to China. It has two objectives: first, to improve the resiliency of institutions and alliances against challenges; and second, to compel Beijing to reduce harmful actions against the US and its allies’ vital interests.

    The Covid-19 pandemic and protests in the US have brought information warfare to the fore.

    As part of the competition to control of information, the US announced that four more Chinese media companies including China Central Television and the People’s Daily will be designated as foreign missions requiring them to report their staffing and real estate holdings in the US. US officials claim that that these outlets are the propaganda wings of the Chinese Communist Party.

    Criticising the latest US move as political suppression of media, a Chinese official stated that “it also further exposed the hypocrisy of the so-called freedom of press and speech boasted by the US.”

    China, meanwhile, has joined other countries in condemning the police brutality and injustices in the US while trying to build an image of solidarity with the global community.

    Additionally, Chinese state media outlets have extensively covered the protests, and Chinese diplomats criticised the US for applying double standards in tackling the protests. Reflecting this, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian asked “Why did the US glorify the so-called pro-independence forces in Hong Kong as heroes, but label the protesters disappointed with racism in the US as rioters?

    Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called it “laughable propaganda” and stated that China’s attempt represents merely a “callous exploitation” of George Floyd’s death to “justify its authoritarian denial of basic human dignity.”

    Analysts in the US contended that the protests gave a priceless opportunity for China to divert attention from its human rights record and present a positive image of China while undermining the US position as a champion of democracy and human rights.


    In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, the US strategy towards China was characterised by engagement and dialogue. Hence, the US attempted to integrate China into international institutions and multilateral forums with the hope of making China a lesser threat to the liberal world order.

    In this regard, China’s accession to the World Trade Organisation in 2001 marked a crucial point for US perception of China becoming a “responsible stakeholder” within the international community.

    Defining himself as “America’s first Pacific president”, Barack Obama came to the presidency with a foreign policy agenda primarily concentrated on Asia-Pacific. The Obama administration sought to improve mutual interests with China to create a win-win situation.

    However, China’s continuing economic ascendance led to the adaptation of a “Pivot to Asia” strategy. The strategy aimed at countering China’s pre-eminence through increased military deployment in the region and exclusion of China from strategic economic frameworks such as the TPP while maintaining dialogue and partnership in bilateral economic activities with China.

    However, this strategy has been rebuked by the Trump administration as it has failed to ‘contain’ China’s rise. Trump’s strategy document noted that “These competitions require the United States to rethink the policies of the past two decades—policies based on the assumption that engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners. For the most part, this premise turned out to be false.”

    As such, with the Trump administration, competition with China has become a central theme of the Trump presidency.

    Competition during the pandemic

    Washington has accused China of intentionally covering up the outbreak of the pandemic at its onset and giving false information to the World Health Organization. Additionally, by calling Covid-19 the “Chinese virus”, Trump implied China’s responsibility for the pandemic and claimed that the virus came from a lab in Wuhan.

    In response, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian tweeted that “it might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan.” Moreover, China has engaged in a global propaganda campaign to promote its model as a success story in the fight against the pandemic, while framing the US government’s slow response as incompetency.

    The pandemic has also accelerated the competition for global leadership. US unwillingness and inability to lead a global response to the pandemic has created a vacuum, which has been filled by China through significant aid campaigns to countries in need.

    The strategic rivalry has intensified between the two nations at a time when the world needs genuine cooperation to fight a deadly pandemic. The resulting mistrust between both parties is fanning the flames of new tensions and putting additional pressure on an already strained relationship.

    Competition without confrontation

    After studying sixteen historical incidences where great power competition took place between the ruling and rising powers, American political scientist, Graham Allison, found that 12 of them ended up at war. Hence, they conclude that the possibility of conflict is more likely than not.

    The world is heading towards a dangerous arms race. Both countries have started to modernise their military, improve their nuclear capabilities, and apply cutting-edge technologies and artificial intelligence for military purposes. They have also adopted new military doctrines.

    For the most optimist of observers, however, competition does not necessarily lead to confrontation or conflict. During the Cold War, a direct conflict between the US and Soviet Union was avoided through the use of well-functioning conflict management mechanisms.

    Today’s situation requires both the US and China to put in place arms control treaties and precise rules guiding their relations.

    Given the difficulty of distinguishing the true intentions of another country, misperceptions and miscalculations can happen, leading to unintended and dangerous consequences. Increased communication and dialogue are essential to manage expectations and prevent wars.

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