The Present State of the Sino-American Competition

By Thomas Pigatto

            To even the most casual observer of international relations, the ongoing Sino-American competition for global influence has become increasingly apparent over the course of the 21st century. With China’s unprecedented rise in military, economic, and diplomatic power continuing under the leadership of Xi Jinping, the official rhetoric of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has placed a notable emphasis on the idea of “national rejuvenation”, representing a fundamental departure from the Marxist-Leninist paradigm on which the CCP was founded in 1949. On the other hand, American attitudes towards China have grown increasingly sour as China’s rise threatens to dislodge American hegemony, with President Trump launching a policy of aggressive competition with China that seems to be continuing under President Biden. With both sides seemingly set on maintaining and/or reclaiming a perceived great power identity, American allies have been caught in the middle, being forced to make difficult choices and take sides on everything from economic and defense partners to internet and social media accessibility. In many cases, they have not chosen the United States. This short report will identify several key drivers of the present Sino-US great power competition, and how these factors have increasingly forced American allies to “pick a side” between the status quo of American-led neoliberalism, and the “China model” currently being exported by Beijing.

            Under the Presidency of Donald Trump, the United States’ decades-long policy of attempting to turn China into a “responsible stakeholder” in the international community was scrapped for a more aggressive, direct style of competition. In the past several years, disputes over trade and currency manipulation, intellectual property, the COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese incursions into the South China Sea, and human rights violations in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong have led many U.S. officials from both parties to believe that the Chinese government “threaten[s] the rules-based order that maintains global stability”. Furthermore, the Chinese government’s creation of new institutions and trade networks such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and Xi Jinping’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) represent a direct threat to American-backed institutions such as the United Nations (UN), International Monetary Fund, and World Trade Organization, among others. With China showing blatant disregard for the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea in the South China Sea (SCS), and allegations of dishonest trade practices and currency manipulation, President Trump—in order to help “Make America Great Again”—implemented harsh tariffs on many Chinese imports and reaffirmed American support of Filipino and Taiwanese claims in the SCS. President Joe Biden has more or less continued this policy of direct confrontation, albeit with a much larger emphasis on multi-literalism as a method to contain China. 

            To quote Henry Kissinger, from the Chinese perspective, China envisions its rise not as “an unnatural challenge to the world”, but a “return to a normal state of affairs”. Historically freighted rhetoric dominates the rhetoric of those such as Xi Jinping, who in a speech to the 19th National Congress of the CCP framed China’s rise in global power as a triumph over its history of internal turmoil and foreign aggression and vowed to continue China’s “historic mission of national rejuvenation” by making China a “global leader” by 2050. In order to fully understand the effect of this history on the Chinese national consciousness, one must understand the devastating effect of China’s “Century of Humiliation”. Prior to the First Opium War in 1839, China considered itself to be the “heavenly middle kingdom” and controlled much of East and Southeast Asia through a network of tributary states. In 1839, China produced nearly a third of the world’s GDP; by 1949, the nation’s share of world GDP had fallen to a mere 4.2%. From 1839 until the Communist Revolution in 1949—a politically convenient end to this era—China suffered perennial defeat and domestic unrest, enduring endless rebellion, two Opium Wars, three wars with Japan, and several “unequal” economic treaties imposed on China by the Western powers. Since the reign of Mao Zedong, the stated mission of the CCP has been to return China to prosperity and its perceived rightful place atop the global hierarchy, a goal coined the “China Dream” by now-President Xi Jinping. The historically rooted ideas of the “China Dream” and “national rejuvenation” have been used by the CCP to motivate and justify Chinese territorial ambitions in Hong Kong, the “nine-dash line” claim to the SCS, and China’s plan to restructure global trade infrastructure around itself with the BRI. Attempts by foreign powers to stop China from pursuing its foreign policy aims are framed as attempts to humiliate and subjugate China à la the “Century of Humiliation”. For this reason, the CCP feels increasingly vindicated, righteous, and nationalistic about its competition with the United States, motivating Chinese officials to engage in direct competition with the United States.

            As the Sino-American competition grows closer and more intense, many American allies have had to make tough decisions about the merits of pursuing closer diplomatic and economic ties with China. China’s Belt and Road Initiative trade project has already enticed many traditional American allies—such as Italy, Greece, and South Korea—to embrace closer economic ties with China despite American protest. Many authoritarian countries around the world are now looking to the Chinese for financial support and foreign direct investment, as Chinese support offers an alternative to the often liberalizing and democratizing American-backed global financial institutions.  With Chinese influence spreading throughout the world, the Chinese model of global governance and trade seems to be presently succeeding in its goal for a post-hegemonic, multipolar international system. While Chinese ambitions do not represent an existential threat to the United States, China’s promotion of its economic, political, and institutional models do threaten America’s status as the world’s sole economic and military superpower.  Therefore, if America wishes to uphold its values and institutions throughout the world, then it must find a way to appeal to the international community and demonstrate the viability and superiority of the American system over that promoted by China. 


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