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Foreign Policy

Sino-U.S. Great Power Competition: Risks and Prospects

Nov 07, 2018
  • Jiao Liang

    Research Fellow, PLA Academy of Military Sciences

Recently, Sino-U.S. relations have been negatively impacted by their increasing bilateral economic, military, political and diplomatic disputes, which has caused much concerns across the world. Pessimists consider the remarks on US policy toward China made by U.S. Vice President Michael Pence last month equivalent to the Iron Curtain Speech delivered by Winston Churchill more than seven decades ago. Thus, they believe that there will be an unprecedentedly intense confrontation between the two major powers, with the full-scale competition spiraling out of control. Optimists, however, argue that a couple of factors will prevent China and U.S. from initiating another Cold War. Ultimately, they can avoid falling into the Thucydides Trap.

It seems that if China enjoys sound and sustained development in the near future, and continues to narrow the gap with the U.S. in terms of comprehensive national strength, their deep-rooted structural imbalance is bound to become even more acute, which is reflected in the following three ways.

First of all, disagreements on national development are on the rise. Defying the expectations of U.S. political elites, China is pursuing its own development path rather than following a Western development model to integrate into the global order dominated by the United States. To be sure, China will unswervingly adhere to socialism with Chinese characteristics, as it has been clearly stated in the 19th CPC National Congress Report, a grand blueprint for China’s future development. This prospect really frustrates a majority of U.S. politicians who believe that Western liberal democracy will thus be eroded. In the American National Defense Strategy released early this year, China is defined as a revisionist state with the ambition to “shape a world consistent with its authoritarian model.”

Secondly, a further rise in China’s international influence is even harder for the United States to accept. In the second decade of the 21st century, China plays an increasingly important role in the international arena with greater contributions and a louder voice. The Belt and Road Initiative has been put forward and witnessed remarkable progress, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank has been set up and become operational, and the G20 Summit in Hangzhou and the BRICS Summit in Xiamen have been hosted successfully. Though it’s the only superpower in the world, U.S. is far from what it was in the aftermath of the Cold War with regard to global influence. In the coming years, with the rapid development of China and its insistence on multilateralism, the U.S. will be more reluctant to see its influence decline.

Thirdly, China’s expanding security interests are increasingly inconsistent with the U.S. concept of absolute security. China will stand firm in safeguarding national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Any attempt to harm those interests is certain to meet with resolute opposition. Nevertheless, the U.S. is concerned about homeland security, and its commitment to allies or partners. Any measure taken by China that’s perceived as unfavorable to its allies or partners will be viewed as a threat. The different security concepts and requirements will lead to growing estrangement between China and the United States.

Under such circumstances, competition and tension is the new norm for Sino-U.S. relations in the near future. Meanwhile, it should be remembered that there are also positive factors which will prevent their competition from escalating into full-scale confrontation.

China has neither the capacity nor the intention to challenge U.S. supremacy. As a matter of fact, its overall military strength is far inferior to that of the U.S. in terms of military spending, weaponry and equipment, combat experience, and global presence. Most importantly, China prefers to develop a relationship with no conflict, no confrontation, and win-win cooperation. Therefore, it will endeavor to avoid a new Cold War with the United States as much as possible.

The U.S would also get hurt, though to a lesser extent, if a new Cold War breaks out. Both will suffer from confrontation, but benefit from cooperation. Their common interests on such pressing issues as North Korea denuclearization will make them deal with their differences in a rational manner.

With regard to the rest of the world, the majority of nations are opposed to a full-scale confrontation between the two major powers, which will inevitably result in instability and insecurity to the international community. According to the Global Economic Outlook released by the World Bank in June 2018, global trade volume is expected to fall by 9% by 2020 due to the impact of Sino-US trade friction, with the most damage done to developing economies. Pierre Moscovici, the Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs and the Euro, indicated that the EU will not support any kind of trade war between China and the U.S., and avoids taking sides.

To sum up, the strategic competition between China and the U.S. will intensify in the near future, but this will not necessarily bring about disruptive consequences. Confrontation and cooperation remain two pillars of the Sino-U.S. relations in the short term. The assumption of a new Cold War is nothing short of misinterpretation and misjudgment.

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