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A more assertive Beijing raises new questions for U.S.-China relations

President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping leave a business leaders event at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in November 2017. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)

If President Xi Jinping and President Trump meet at next month’s G-20 summit, the two may be discussing a long list of issues. Earlier this month, Vice President Pence made clear the Trump administration’s growing concern with China’s moves “to advance its influence and benefit its interests in the United States.” The vice president’s speech echoed sections of the December 2017 National Security Strategy, which explicitly anticipated a new era of great power competition.

Other recent developments, from trade tensions to naval maneuvers in the South China Sea to allegations of Chinese hacking and industrial espionage, have provoked questions about the present and future of U.S.-China relations. Has the relationship turned irretrievably in a more competitive direction?

U.S.-China relations have been generally positive

As I have argued elsewhere, relations between the United States and China in past decades have been more cooperative than many would expect. The U.S. military hedged its bets by preparing to confront a more aggressive China, but the U.S. also maintained economic ties that have enriched China, ultimately providing the foundation for the expansion and strengthening of the Chinese military.

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American and Chinese time horizons facilitated this cooperation. The U.S. focused on immediate threats like post-9/11 terrorism, paying less heed to any potential long-term threat posed by China. Cooperation with China benefited the U.S. economy and allowed Washington to focus on conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

At the same time, Beijing adopted a grand strategy of “biding its time,” patiently concealing its long-term intentions until it grew more capable. China benefited from economic exchange with the United States and others, while a more aggressive short-term oriented strategy would have raised alarms about the nature of China’s long-term intentions. The combination of short American/long Chinese time horizons facilitated mutually beneficial cooperation between the two countries.

These time horizons are now changing

In recent years, both of these time horizons appear to be shifting in ways that augur poorly for U.S.-China relations. The absence of other acute immediate threats left the Trump White House with time to focus on the longer-term threat potentially posed by China.

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Meanwhile, Beijing has grown more assertive, seemingly abandoning its patient approach. China’s efforts to assert control over the South China Sea has heightened military tensions. Other projects, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, come across alternatively as simply an economic development project, or a more ambitious geopolitical strategy to exert Chinese influence across the globe. And the economic exchange that has long been the foundation of U.S.-China cooperation is now in danger of being “weaponized,” raising tension in the relationship.

What happens now? 

My research into past cases of rising great powers suggests that this emerging combination of Chinese and American time horizons will lead to lasting competitive relations. Whether because of domestic political pressures, increasing capabilities or the provocation of other regional powers, China has recently sought opportunities to capture interests in the South China Sea or to exploit emerging cyber technologies despite the long-term risk that behavior may pose to Sino-American relations. There is little reason to expect those interests to abate, especially as Chinese efforts have largely been succeeding.

In the absence of other, more immediate threats to core American interests, U.S. leadership will remain focused on provocative Chinese behavior and what it portends about longer-term Chinese intentions. For better or for worse, the emergence of some other pressing threat to American interests would likely relieve pressure in the bilateral relationship.

But this turn in U.S.-China relations raises important new questions:

1. What is at stake in U.S.-China competition?

It is easier to appreciate the rising tension between Washington and Beijing than it is to identify what exactly they are competing over. Some analysts claim China wants to remake the “international order,” but it remains unclear exactly what transformations China would like to encourage. The post-World War II system of liberal trade has benefited China as much as the United States.

China surely is no fan of efforts to promote liberal democracy, but such efforts also appear to have had little success penetrating China. Even as outrage grows over China’s treatment of its Uighur minority, it is less clear what tools the United States has to influence China’s internal behavior. And, inasmuch as international institutions have been a central part of the post-World War II order, such institutions may actually prove to be a valuable tool for Chinese revisionism.

The U.S. and China are playing a dangerous game. What comes next?

2. How might contemporary great power competition resemble the past, and how might it be different?

The United States and China have been competing in conventional military ways, but the full range of ways in which the two may compete now warrants careful attention. Great power economic competition, including industrial espionage, is nothing new, but we still have much more to learn about how cyberwarfare, artificial intelligence and other new technological tools might influence the nature of competition between the United States and China. Will such tools make conventional military conflict either more likely or, alternatively, unnecessary?

3. What would a successful U.S. strategy toward China look like, and what might a successful Chinese strategy toward the U.S. look like?

China is the world’s most populous country, with a large economy and a growing military. The ability of the United States to rein in China’s growth in the future is likely constrained, even if China is not necessarily predestined to overtake the United States as the world’s most powerful country.

So what should be the goal of U.S. strategy toward China in the future? On the flip side, what is China likely to try to achieve in its relationship with the United States — and what are the key indicators of a changing Chinese approach to the United States? And, perhaps most importantly, can the United States and China avoid strategies that create a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy of increasing animosity?

The recognition that great power politics has returned to a central role in international politics is only the beginning of the conversation. Understanding the factors that may lead to more or less competition and conflict in the future is the critical next step.

David M. Edelstein is vice dean of faculty in Georgetown College and an associate professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. He is the author of “Over the Horizon: Time, Uncertainty, and the Rise of Great Powers” (Cornell University Press, 2017). He tweets at @dmedelstein.