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Foreign Policy

Observations on China-US Strategic Competition and its Development Trend

Mar 14, 2019
  • Zheng Yu

    Professor, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

The US policy to contain China, leading to all-round deterioration of China-US relations since the spring of 2018, was implemented with the support of both the Democratic and Republican party, as well as various American think tanks. Because containing China is in the interest of the majority of American institutions, American policy towards China will not go through any material changes, regardless if there are any changes in the positions of the two parties. Any policy change will hardly affect American’s public opinion towards China in the foreseeable future as well. With the US demonstrating dominance in the current China-US relationship, this context gives much predictability future trends.

First, positioning China as America’s No. 1 strategic competitor will hardly change in the short term. Although three official strategic documents published recently by the US list both China and Russia as strategic competitors, China is still regarded as the biggest challenger of the US, and seen to pose the biggest threat by the US strategic community. This is because China has a population ten times and a GDP about eight times that of Russia, and industrial and technological levels much higher in many areas. More importantly, unlike Russia, China has a socialist system and value system considered antithetical to the values and systems of the US-led western world. As such, instead of a contest for a leadership position, the challenges presented by China are more powerful, comprehensive and disruptive in terms of its basic system and values. Notably, the report, Russia is a Rogue, Not a Peer, China is a Peer, Not a Rogue, published by the RAND Corporation in October 2018 even argues that the balance of power between the US and China is tilting towards favoring China. The prevailing view that is held in both the US government and US public that China alienates and excludes the existing international order seems unlikely to change in the near future. It is impossible for the US to undertake a strategic switch to go ‘beyond containing China.’

Second, China-US strategic competition takes place mainly in the geo-economic field. It is agreed within the US that unlike Russia, which uses military power to challenge the existing international order, China’s rapid rise has taken place through economic power. Although the US Navy has increased the frequency and intensity of ‘Freedom of Navigation’ operations in the South China Sea in the past two years, China has, while asserting its sovereignty, made efforts to avoid military conflicts with the relevant countries. Although the US has enhanced bilateral relations with Taiwan, the Chinese government has accumulated more means to peacefully suppress Taiwanese independence by deepening economic ties between the mainland and Taiwan. As a result, the risk of US going to war with China in a regional military conflict has not increased. Moreover, China still relies on trade, investment and development aid to increase its international influence. The US government is gradually increasing its effort to engage in geo-economic competition against China. The new African strategy released in December 2018 is designed to counter the ‘disturbing effects’ (John Bolton, Trump’s National Security Adviser) of Chinese investments in Africa. While meeting the Polish Foreign Minister on February 12, 2019, Secretary of State Pompeo vowed that the US will compete against China and Russia for influences in Central and Eastern Europe. It is said that the US is making a new Central Asia strategy. It is rather predictable that after this round of China-US trade negotiations, no matter how it concludes, the Trump administration will as a basic policy strengthen bilateral and regional cooperation with countries participating in the Belt and Road Initiative.

Third, 5G telecommunications technology and artificial intelligence will be the primary battlefield in high-end industrial and technological competition. The two areas are obviously the engine driving the emerging industrial and technological revolution. The US now goes all out to suppress the Chinese telecommunication company, Huawei. With China publishing the New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan in July 2017 and President Trump signing the American AI Initiative on February 11, 2019, strategic competition in these two core areas have already began.

Fourth, the US has started locking China into the position of a suppression target in the armament field. Economic stagnation and recession has gradually reduced the advantages of Russian military technologies. As the US strategic gravity center remains in the Asia Pacific region, the Trump administration regards China as a main competitor in military technology. The US has demanded on various occasions that China be part of the negotiation for a new INF treaty. The new Missile Defense Review published on January 17, 2019 expressly calls for development of space defense weapons to counter the hypersonic weapons and new cruise missiles pursued by China and Russia.

In short, the era of comprehensive strategic competition between China and the US has come, and is against China’s will.

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