The US-China relationship has faced many intractable issues in recent years, ranging from trade and tariff wars to technological rivalry and alleged spying. Mutual distrust has characterized the tensions between both states. The current administration in the White House has implemented the previous administration’s policies more systematically to limit China’s peaceful rise.
The tensions are already at a simmering point, and with the introduction of the recent US National Security Strategy, have taken a step further, and defined China as ‘the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and increasing the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to advance that objective.’
The year 2023 was expected to provide a period for stabilization of the US-China relationship. However, their tone is markedly different in large meetings, academic conferences, and public commentaries. The closely monitored meetings between officials of both states were expected to produce positive outcomes and ease the mounting tensions. Still, hard stances on various issues reflected a deep sense of mutual mistrust and suggested that the road ahead would be challenging.
Chinese Defense Minister’s remarks at the 2023 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore showed concerns about the significance of US behavior regarding respecting China’s internal affairs and avoiding interference. The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent two-day trip to China to improve bilateral relations did not lead to any significant breakthroughs or agreements, and both sides appeared to be digging in their heels. Dialogue was held amid a tense atmosphere where the US was meddling in China’s internal affairs.
President Joe Biden’s public criticism of Chinese President Xi Jinping as a ‘dictator,’ immediately after Antony Blinken’s speech, and comments on the country’s economic challenges deepened the rift. US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen visited as the second senior Washington official, but the signs since Blinken’s visit do not look promising. Chinese Ambassador to the US, Xie Feng, hoped the two countries would eliminate interference and strengthen dialogue. However, considering the strained relations between both states, progress on the issues of discord is a complex and continuous process that requires constant dialogue and the will to collaborate.
The US-China competition has become multi-dimensional, manifested across multiple geopolitical regions worldwide, from conventional areas of military modernization to new technological domains, including artificial intelligence. Such developments will have consequences. It is worth mentioning that the US-China relationship has hit a standstill due to other long-standing issues.
Economically, the Biden administration has taken significant steps to restructure global supply chains to isolate China. Additionally, a total export ban on semiconductor technology to China has been imposed to hinder the country’s tech sector.
Besides, regional security concerns include the US presence in the East and South Pacific, and strong US military relationships with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines. Taiwan is one of the likely flashpoints in US-China relations. Tensions have deepened over this issue, with China perceiving Washington’s increased engagement with the island and reducing the prospects for peaceful reunification. The US continues to clamor about human rights as an opening to interfere in China’s internal affairs. The strategic competition between Beijing and Washington, which was confined to political and economic domains, has now turned into a military dimension.
The US has frequently sent warships and planes through its so-called freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, which China views as a threat to its security and maritime rights. The US has also stepped up its activities in the South China Sea and started two ‘large-scale’ military exercises, including one in the Indo-Pacific region with its allies. Furthermore, Quad and AUKUS seek to counterbalance China’s regional reach and influence.
The nature of US-China relations is hybrid, comprising diverse cooperative and competitive elements. So far, the ongoing war of words has created an environment where leaders might have to take tough stances. This escalation of rhetoric, combined with increasing nationalistic sentiments, might hamper the prospects of meaningful negotiations.
The two states’ power asymmetry and deep interdependence will continue to shape global politics, economic trends, and governance.
Managing this complex relationship will be a crucial task for policymakers on both sides as well as the international community, involving greater competition-cooperation, and consequent effects. For a durable and actionable approach, they must focus on common interests while acknowledging and managing areas of disagreement. A nuanced and well-calibrated strategy is needed to navigate the complex relationship between the US and China in the best interests of both nations and the world.
Amna Saqib is a Research Officer at the Center for International Strategic Studies, Islamabad.
Syed Ali Abbas is an Associate Research Officer at the Center for International Strategic Studies, Islamabad.