Competition: The new normal in U.S.-China relations

For decades, the U.S. administrations had mumbled about welcoming China’s “Peaceful Rise.” What, in fact, the previous administrations really meant was that Washington did not know how to stop Beijing from becoming a great power, great enough to challenge America’s global hegemony.

Not anymore. The Trump administration is making it abundantly clear that the United States is no longer afraid to confront with China, and in dealing with a rising China, there is more at stake than trade.

The United States sees its relationship with China as a “competition,” Matt Pottinger, senior director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council, told Chinese ambassador to the U.S. Cui Tiankai, “In the United States, competition is not a four-letter word. We at the Trump administration have updated our China policy to bring the concept of competition to the forefront. It is right there at the top of the president’s national security strategy.”

“U.S.-China relations,” noted Keegan Elmer of South China Morning Post, “have already taken a turn for the worse since a trade war broke out earlier this year between the two countries. But the message delivered by Matt Pottinger, one of President Donald Trump’s top Asia policymakers, was unusually direct. And it was all the more remarkable because it was delivered at an event celebrating the 69th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.”

“It takes nerve for a White House official to pick a fight with China’s government,” reported the Economist, “Matt Pottinger did just that with a speech at the Chinese embassy in Washington on Sept. 29. Mr. Pottinger urged his audience to take seriously the Trump administration’s decision to brand America and China as competitors… It was quite a moment. Read between the lines. A Trump aide was declaring an end to years of warm words about welcoming China’s rise.”

To further unfold the administration’s intensified offensive on China, Vice President Mike Pence delivered a landmark speech at the Hudson Institute on Oct. 4 and called China America’s foremost threat.

“I come before you today because the American people deserve to know,” declared Pence, “as we speak, Beijing is employing a whole-of-government approach, using political, economic, and military tools, as well as propaganda, to advance its influence and benefit its interests in the United States.”

“Under President Trump’s leadership,” continued the Vice President, “the United States has taken decisive action to respond to China … In our National Security Strategy that President Trump released last December, he described a new era of ‘great power competition.’ Foreign nations have begun to, as we wrote, ‘reassert their influence regionally and globally,’ and they are ‘contesting America’s geopolitical advantages and trying to change the international order in their favor. In this strategy, President Trump made clear that the United States of America has adopted a new approach to China … to reset America’s economic and strategic relationship with China … America will stay the course. China should know that the American people and their elected officials in both parties are resolved.”

“Vice President Pence’s accusations in a stinging speech warning of a tougher approach toward Beijing may have been familiar to China’s leaders,” writes Jane Perlez of New York Times, “but until now, such remarks were delivered in private, in fairly decorous terms, and rarely threatened direct action. The surprise this time for Beijing was the magnitude of alleged offenses piled up in one public indictment, ranging from suspected interference in American politics to China’s stomping on the freedoms of its own people. Nor had the United States ever before told China: ‘We will not stand down.’ Pence’s remarks probably left few doubts among China’s leaders that Washington was embarking on a Cold War that would force the country to dig in for a prolonged multi-front battle with the United States.”

And this time, the administration “is not just acting as a deal-maker seeking greater leverage for market openings,” says Fred Kempe, President of the Atlantic Council, rather, “a shift is afoot in Washington to more fundamentally address the Chinese challenge.”

The U.S.-China relationship is one of the most important, if not the most important, relationships of the 21st century. The relationship is at the most challenging point since 1989. The Trump administration’s new China strategy, warns Kempe, carry with it “considerable risks, which ultimately may be greater than during the Cold War years.” After all, great power competitions rarely begin with direct military conflict; they often end that way.

Xiaoxiong Yi is director of Marietta College’s China Program.

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