Once partners, the US and China are now each other’s chief adversaries. Over the past decade, relations between these two powerful nations have deteriorated due to opposing governance styles, human rights concerns, and practices – like economic activities – which do not abide to the rules-based order that the US and many western countries advocate for. Geopolitical tensions and interstate competition have been rising and the international risks are broad and deep.
The two world superpowers are locked in interstate competition within their great power politics. Their efforts signal attempts to maintain and gain dominance as well as protect national interests. President Xi Jinping’s long-term goal has been China’s “national rejuvenation” by 2049 and after unprecedentedly extending his rule to a third term, we will only see him “strive harder” to achieve this. Central to this in terms of relations with the US, is the mission to create a new global order, with China in its ‘rightful’ place as chief global player. China sees the US as an obstacle to this quest; Xi believes his western rival is determined to suppress China’s expansion to maintain the US’s own predominance. A vital interest of the US is to maintain the liberal international order and the international rules-based system, with their position at the apex of this. Now that the US’s unipolar power has ended, China is the largest threat to this existing system.
Great power rivalry is inherent in relations between US and China as two assertive global superpowers and this contributes significantly to tensions. Symptoms of this competition are the policies enacted on both sides which have played a large role in causing the rift. From China, we have seen Xi’s aggressive pursuit of contested territorial claims in the South China sea, predatory industrial programs, and Xi’s friendship with Vladimir Putin. To Xi, Putin is an ally in his mission to undermine the US-led global order and this friendship has been more controversial over the past year as it persists despite the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The US, however, are not blameless. In 2018, Trump ordered sweeping trade tariffs, worth at least $50 billion, due to claims of Chinese intellectual property theft, which sparked an economically damaging a trade war. More recently, President Biden has added to rising tensions in the South China Sea, by declaring the US’s military defence of Taiwan in the event of an attack. As well as this, Biden enacted the CHIP Act in October of 2022, ordering export controls on semiconductor technology to China, because of concerns that such technology could be diverted to advance military capabilities. The US policies nod towards containing China’s expansion in domains that threaten the US’s national interests and security, particularly whilst in the backdrop of heightened geopolitical tensions. Such policies, however, fuel tensions further as to Xi they are a continuation of the US’s scheme to suppress China’s rise.
With the pattern of US-China weakening relations and competitive dynamics, there is a risk “we [the US and China] are locked in a pattern that is going to lead to a conflict…a conflict no one really wants”, as Michael Schuman feared in The International Risk Podcast. With tensions rising between the two nations, the most worrisome hotspot is the South China Sea, with Taiwan as a flashpoint. These areas are two key drivers of bilateral friction; China sees ensuring control of the South China Sea, and in particular Taiwan, as key to its “national rejuvenation”. While Taiwan gained independence from China in 1949, Beijing continues to view it as part of its territory and has promised to “unify” Taiwan with the mainland, as it aims for “national rejuvenation”. Beijing has been brazened about its all means necessary approach, where it will employ their armed forces, to take back control of Taiwan. The US flex their military prowess in the South China Sea, operating here as means of deterrence in China’s mission to undermine the US-led international system. However, as tensions and competition heighten, to China such activities are, again, indicative of suppressing China, here in its sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific, as well as perhaps more having more hostile intent.
In the South China Sea, competition could be moved into the military domain. While there are fears that an armed attack on Taiwan by Chinese forces will result in a military standoff between the US and China, such an attack is most likely not imminent. However, with relations as strained as they are, currently the most significant risk is one of miscalculation or accident; the Taiwan Strait, as well as the South China Sea more broadly, are heavily militarised by both Chinese and US forces. In this area, both sides attempt to assert their military dominance. Whilst the US and China are distrustful and suspicious of each other, particularly in the context of lessening diplomatic interaction, the risks of miscalculation and misperceptions spike. An added risk here given the current political climate is escalation into military conflict.
The international risks associated with a political crisis between the US and China, are severe, but those associated with a military conflict would be devastating, particularly with the combined risk of nuclear weapons use. With this continued pattern of competitive relations, the US and China are falling into the security paradox, whereby through continuously reacting to each other and pursuing security maximisation the two nations are becoming increasingly insecure. The fear and risk here is that if this pattern continues the situation is doomed to escalate. Thus, stabilising relations should be on the top of the agenda for US and Chinese officials. The most recent development, with Blinken, the US Secretary of State, cancelling his diplomatic trip to China over a Chinese surveillance balloon hovering over the East Coast of the US and several sensitive sites is not hopeful. Such a trip would have been an opportunity to ease tensions and have open and meaningful dialogue about interests, aims and concerns. The risks that the US-China relations pose must mitigated by committing to a pragmatic approach with increased, meaningful dialogue between state actors.