The 5 Ways U.S.-China Competition Is Hardening
The pandemic has accelerated preexisting tensions—and there’s no slowdown in sight.
That U.S.-China relations have plummeted over the course of the pandemic is no secret. An internal Chinese government think tank report, which leaked this week, even warned China’s top leaders that there was increasing risk of the U.S.-China relationship sliding into conflict.
But why exactly is U.S.-China competition hardening at this moment? After all, foreign-policy analysts often argue that despite their tensions, Washington and Beijing should still be able to cooperate on global issues where their interests align, such as pandemics and climate change. The COVID-19 crisis has ravaged both countries; that it should cause their strained relationship to spiral further was not a foregone conclusion.
Of course, before the coronavirus pandemic, experts in the United States and China appeared to be converging around the idea that the other would be its primary political competitor for decades to come. Major international shocks can break prior trends of this sort, changing the course of events. But they can also intensify forces already in motion—and that is precisely what has been happening in at least five areas in which competition was already substantial, with few countervailing and stabilizing forces in sight.
1. Military competition
Before the coronavirus, Sino-American military competition was already acute. Once content to shelve territorial disputes with its neighbors, Beijing has used its decades-long economic expansion to build up a formidable military arsenal. China has intimidated neighboring states, seized disputed territory, interfered with freedom of navigation close to its shores, and raised the risks to the U.S. military of operating in Asia. Many U.S. officials believe Beijing intends to weaken U.S. alliances and eventually expel U.S. forces and bases from Asia altogether.
The pandemic already appears to be intensifying the Sino-American military rivalry. Beijing recently announced new administrative districts in the South China Sea, trailed Malaysian and Philippine vessels, and conducted dangerous maneuvers seemingly intended to intimidate Japan, Vietnam, and Taiwan. With its rivals hobbled and its neighbors overwhelmed, Beijing appears to see the pandemic as an opportunity to press its advantage and more forcibly assert its authority. In Washington, these actions are intensifying beliefs that more needs to be done to deter China in Asia. In early April, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command submitted a $20 billion list of proposed defense investments to Congress. While they have yet to hammer out the specifics, the desire to bolster U.S. capabilities and reassure nervous allies facing an increasingly assertive China has bipartisan backing. And although the pandemic’s economic shock will likely constrain the overall defense budget, the military and legislators are likely to agree on the need to preserve resources allocated to military competition with China.
2. Economic decoupling
Before the pandemic, there was a growing debate about whether the U.S. and Chinese economies had grown too interdependent, with many believing that economic entanglement created risks to supply chains, U.S. jobs, and to national security—particularly where Chinese companies were linked to the central government or could use foreign data for national gain. These concerns led policymakers to consider whether to “decouple” the U.S. and Chinese economies, what steps Washington would need to take to constrain Chinese investment in sensitive industries, and how the United States could keep its own economy competitive.
The pandemic has given these questions new urgency, revealing shortages of critical life-supporting equipment and materials. As the United States and other countries recognize their dependency on China for pharmaceutical products, medical masks, and other health care supplies, preexisting debates have shifted from a focus on higher-end technologies and investments to lower-end manufacturing. A bipartisan bill to reduce U.S. reliance on China for the production of pharmaceuticals is now advancing through Congress, and talk of national industrial planning is gaining traction. Economic ties were once seen as the ballast of the U.S.-China relationship, but the pandemic will fray them.
Before the pandemic, Washington and Beijing were competing in a number of emerging technology areas, including digital surveillance, artificial intelligence, and most notably 5G wireless technology. Thanks to government subsidies that allowed Chinese companies to offer digital infrastructure more quickly and cheaply than U.S. or European counterparts, telecommunications giant Huawei was poised to dominate the 5G market, although it denies government backing. Because China’s political system makes it impossible for the private sector to reject government requests for data, the United States argued that Huawei’s 5G networks could never be fully secured, but the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump had largely failed in its efforts to persuade other countries not to work with Huawei.
This problem will be amplified in post-coronavirus tech competition. The Chinese government has already made clear that it will press ahead with its effort to dominate new technological spaces. As part of its economic recovery plan, the Chinese Communist Party announced an expansion of its efforts to roll out 5G networks and data centers around the world, while U.S. allies reconsider whether they should work with Huawei at all. Moreover, it would not be surprising to see China place more emphasis on digital infrastructure; its Belt and Road Initiative relies on state-owned enterprises and state-linked banks, and digital projects are cheaper than energy or transportation projects. China is also one of several Asian countries using digital surveillance technology for pandemic management, which it may well seek to export as part of its Digital Silk Road reinvigoration. Particularly if the United States fails to adopt its own digital solutions, China’s increased digital push may intensify technological competition.
4. The future of order
Before the pandemic, the United States and China were in a competition over the future of the international order—the norms, rules, and institutions that govern international politics. As China has continued to rise, U.S. strategists have worried that Beijing is seeking to undermine or erode components of the liberal international order. They pointed to China’s weakening of human rights norms, its violation of maritime laws and rules in the South China Sea, and its sprawling, opaque Belt and Road Initiative, which spreads a Chinese model of development that puts recipient states at a disadvantage. Chinese thinkers, for their part, believed the United States to be a hypocritical leader of global order, abiding by rules and norms only where it suited its interests and unwilling to make more space for China; they championed a new concept, the “community of shared future,” which would make the international order friendlier for nondemocracies.
The early weeks of pandemic crisis leadership were, themselves, a competition over the future of the international order. After China brought its own domestic outbreak under control, it sprang into international action, with offers of medical supplies and coordination to foreign countries. It touted its COVID-19 response as a success of the Chinese political model and resurrected mothballed global health slogans. Meanwhile, when it has asserted itself, Washington has seemed more committed to blocking Beijing than to advancing a positive recovery agenda. It thwarted action at the G-7 summit and U.N. Security Council, insisting on the use of divisive virus terminology, and has suspended funding to the World Health Organization because of alleged Chinese influence at the height of the epochal global health crisis. If international organizations and high-level groupings remain venues for Washington and Beijing to assert their prerogatives, this will accelerate perceptions that prevailing forms of order are failing, and Washington and Beijing will point to the other as the guilty party.
5. Information competition
The United States, accustomed to thinking its system and liberal values had universal appeal, has long promoted them to the world. Meanwhile, as it has risen Beijing has touted the benefits of modern authoritarianism, pointing to China’s rapid economic growth and social cohesion—if not its social controls. In 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared that China “offers a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence.” Experts debate the extent to which Xi’s is a fully developed political model, but there is little question that China has increasingly sought to make the world safer for autocracy, and to use strategic messaging to further its case.
But China’s information approach appears to have shifted significantly during the pandemic, too. Though it has long been focused on spreading narratives favorable to the Chinese Communist Party and suppressing those that are unfavorable, China’s strategy has recently become much more assertive and global. Some Chinese officials are now using Russian-style disinformation campaigns that seek to create confusion and make the truth unknowable, as with the outlandish claim that the novel coronavirus was planted by the U.S. military. Despite his early praise for Xi’s pandemic leadership, Trump has also shifted to blaming China for the virus’s spread, likely with the hope of deflecting from his own domestic mismanagement before the November election. With both the U.S. and Chinese leaders seeking to obscure their own governance failings, the cycle of mutual recriminations seems likely to continue.
Where does this end?
Strategic competition should not preclude necessary cooperation to combat the pandemic. Although they will continue to see themselves as competitors, the United States and China share incentives to facilitate a global economic recovery, because neither of their economies can return to full strength while the world remains hobbled. The G-20 pledge for debt relief to low-income countries is a small step in the right direction if China adheres to it. And while the United States and China perceive themselves to be competing in their search for the COVID-19 vaccine, neither country will be safe as long as outbreaks continue anywhere, so both share an interest in a global vaccine.
But neither should this cooperation obscure the reality that competition will endure. The contests for economic advantage, military dominance, technological prowess, and ideology will be part of geopolitics for years to come. The pandemic has only made this more clear. Recognizing that the competition between the United States and China is here to stay, Washington will need to find a way to navigate this reality through the pandemic and beyond.
Charles Edel is senior fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and co-author of The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order.