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Foreign Policy

What the U.S. Means by Competition

Nov 11, 2021
  • Zhou Xiaoming

    Former Deputy Permanent Representative of China’s Mission to the UN Office in Geneva

The United States characterizes its relationship with China as one of competition, in the words of President Joe Biden.

“We’re in a competition with China to win the 21st century,” he said in his first speech to Congress in April. In Switzerland in October, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan described America’s relationship with China as “intensive competition.”

What do they mean by “competition”? They have yet to define it, but it’s possible to divine some things from its actions.  

To start with, Biden’s approach to competition with China often deviates from the rulebooks he demands that all should observe. America is loath to be bound by international agreements it’s not fond of. For example, while asking China to abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Washington refuses even to ratify it. In addition, Biden continues to keep punitive tariffs, imposed by his predecessor, on some $360 billion of Chinese imports, despite the fact that an expert panel of the World Trade Organization ruled in October last year that the broke the rules of the world body by imposing them in the first place, hiking American import tariff rates on Chinese goods to 19 percent from 6 percent.

Second, Washington’s approach to competition at times shows little moral value or constraint. It is often necessary in our modern society to curb one’s burning desire to win with human decency and respect for others. To beat one’s rival by hook or crook opens one to accusations of barbarism little different from shooting an adversary in the back. Washington, however, has acted on a dubious concept of competition, unconcerned with the risk of crossing ethical lines.  

Rather than being open and above board, the Biden administration has resorted to falsehoods to counter China. It fabricated and perpetuates disinformation about forced labor in Xinjiang, a lie that places itself in the same category as the accusation by Hitler against the Communists in the Reichstag Fire in 1933. The Biden administration also slanders as a debt trap China’s efforts to contribute to economic development in other countries through its Belt and Road Initiative, which has been embraced in much of the developing world.

Further, in an attempt to deal with China from a so-called position of strength, the Biden administration attempts to gang up on China through small cliques. It conspires with Britain and Australia to form a security alliance — AUKUS — with an eye on China. And it works hand in glove with Japan, Australia and India in the Quad grouping to isolate and encircle its Asian rival.      

In addition, to decimate Huawei, China’s top 5G provider, Washington even employs state power, a rare act by any government in the world against a company. It cooked up and spread unsubstantiated national security concerns against Huawei, halted the supply of critical components and lobbied and pressured other governments to prohibit the use of Huawei’s 5G equipment. In October, the U.S. Congress passed the Secure Equipment Act of 2021, with the specific purpose of prevent the Federal Communications Commission from issuing equipment licenses to the Chinese company.

A third trait in Washington-style competition is its destructiveness and divisiveness, which have had a serious negative impact on the well-being of the world at large. The Biden administration’s continuation of Trump’s decoupling policy disrupts global supply chains built on market principles over many years and is a contributing factor to the current supply shortage worldwide. By replacing the invisible hand of free trade with the “strong hand” of the U.S. government, Washington’s policy brings inefficiency and chaos to the global economy.

Likewise, Washington’s technology blockade against China — blacklisting hundreds of Chinese technology companies, restricting Chinese companies’ ability to invest in the U.S., tightening export controls on dual use products and restricting exchanges and cooperation between Chinese and U.S. scientists and engineers — undercuts global technological innovation and progress. These actions deny multinationals access to the world’s manufacturing powerhouse and its largest consumer market, not to mention a huge pool of talent, thus discouraging investment in R&D.

In addition, the Biden administration’s attacks on China’s effort to supply badly needed vaccines to other countries as “vaccine diplomacy” and its politicizing of origin tracing of COVID-19 have undermined global solidarity in mankind’s combat against the pandemic. At a time when all countries should have joined forces to fight their common enemy, the Trump and Biden administrations turned their guns toward what should have been its comrade in arms, opening the door for the deadly disease to come in and resulting in countless premature deaths and huge economic losses.

All of this was just “competition,” according to Biden. Washington has come to see China as its single biggest strategic threat. Seized by irrational fear of a Chinese intention to topple its globally dominant position, the U.S. stops at nothing to try to keep China down, short of war. Biden has claimed on several occasions that he hoped competition would not veer into conflict. But given the acrimonious nature of the competition, one may wonder if he expects China to blink first.

Clearly, Washington’s competition with China means a race to the bottom, and it also means the U.S. profits at the expense of other nations, which makes the world worse off. It is, according to John Mearsheimer, professor at the University of Chicago, a new cold war, and one that will only intensify with the passage of time.

The Biden administration has tried to downplay the confrontational nature of its strategy. The reason? Washington’s aggressive and menacing China policy has not gone down well with the great majority of countries around the world. Many of them hate to be pushed by the U.S. to choose sides, let alone serve as a pawn for American interests. They see China’s economic development as an opportunity rather than a threat. Consequently, few countries, U.S. allies included, are eager to jump on Washington’s anti-China wagon. The moniker of “competition” was designed as a cover for Washington as it tries to avoid being shunned by a large number of countries. Confrontation in the guise of competition is still confrontation, and it may lead to destruction. 

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