The Contest of the Century

How to navigate the U.S.-China relationship.

By , the editor in chief of Foreign Policy.
china-issue-foreign-policy-cover-jimmy-turrell-illustration-ed-note
china-issue-foreign-policy-cover-jimmy-turrell-illustration-ed-note
Jimmy Turrell illustration for Foreign Policy

Russia’s horrific invasion of Ukraine has already had a historic impact on geopolitics. Several commentators have called it “Europe’s 9/11.” Others have declared “the West is back” and announced an end to the post-Cold War era, pointing to a rejuvenated NATO and Germany’s dramatic change in defense and foreign policy as evidence.

With all the talk of the West coming together, it has been interesting to see how countries outside its orbit have responded to Russia’s aggression. Belarus, North Korea, and Syria, for example, unsurprisingly voted against a United Nations General Assembly resolution in March demanding an end to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The list of countries that abstained was more revealing: From Algeria to Zimbabwe, 35 countries chose to sit on the fence. The most important of these were India and China. The former’s hands are probably a bit tied: New Delhi still depends on Moscow for military equipment. But while India has always tried to avoid getting caught up in great-power politics, one can imagine Washington enticing New Delhi to hew to the U.S. worldview over time, especially if it can help India upgrade its Russian equipment for newer U.S. gear. Subsidies might help.

Russia’s horrific invasion of Ukraine has already had a historic impact on geopolitics. Several commentators have called it “Europe’s 9/11.” Others have declared “the West is back” and announced an end to the post-Cold War era, pointing to a rejuvenated NATO and Germany’s dramatic change in defense and foreign policy as evidence.

With all the talk of the West coming together, it has been interesting to see how countries outside its orbit have responded to Russia’s aggression. Belarus, North Korea, and Syria, for example, unsurprisingly voted against a United Nations General Assembly resolution in March demanding an end to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The list of countries that abstained was more revealing: From Algeria to Zimbabwe, 35 countries chose to sit on the fence. The most important of these were India and China. The former’s hands are probably a bit tied: New Delhi still depends on Moscow for military equipment. But while India has always tried to avoid getting caught up in great-power politics, one can imagine Washington enticing New Delhi to hew to the U.S. worldview over time, especially if it can help India upgrade its Russian equipment for newer U.S. gear. Subsidies might help.

China’s stance is the most important one. No matter how tough the rest of the world’s sanctions on Russia get, without China they are not close to being watertight. It could be, as Fareed Zakaria has argued, that U.S. foreign policy has brought Russia and China closer together. Instead of lumping the two together in a camp of authoritarian states, Washington should find ways to emphasize the differences between them.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has dominated the headlines this year. Yet even with all the human suffering and geopolitical turmoil he has unleashed, China remains the United States’ most important long-term challenge. That’s why we decided to focus our Spring 2022 print issue on the U.S.-China relationship. Andrew J. Nathan kicks things off with a masterful analysis of what exactly the Biden administration’s China policy is. If you want to know who is behind the White House’s China strategy, how they assess the China challenge, and what they see as the best way to respond, Nathan’s is the one piece you need to read this year.

It’s much less obvious how Beijing views U.S. President Joe Biden. Melinda Liu, who has lived in Beijing for many years, took on the unenviable task of finding out what Chinese President Xi Jinping thinks of his U.S. counterpart. She argues that Biden represents the worst of both worlds for Beijing: Not only is he as tough on China as Donald Trump was—which likely surprised Chinese diplomats—but he’s also less likely to compromise on democracy or human rights.

Could it be that we’re fooling ourselves in seeing China’s rise as limitless? Hal Brands examines the long history of claims that China has peaked. This time, though, Brands writes, there may be truth to the notion: China’s technological advantages are limited, it suffers from overused arable land and water scarcity, and its demographic pains are real.

That last point leads me to China’s Generation Z. What are they like? What do they want? How will they define the most populous country in the world? In “Generation Snitch,” Tracy Wen Liu delves into her childhood in China and combines that with research to show that young Chinese are remarkably confident—smug, even—about their place in the world.

Lastly, if you believe as I do that books and films truly reveal a country’s nature, don’t miss Rebecca Davis on two important works of Chinese propaganda this year.

Lots more in this issue, but I’ll leave it at that for now. I hope the rest of this year brings better news than it has so far.

As ever,

Ravi Agrawal

Ravi Agrawal is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RaviReports

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