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The United States and China are embroiled in a contest that might prove more enduring, more wide-ranging, and more intense than any other international competition in modern history, including the Cold War. In both countries, fears have grown that the contest might escalate into open conflict. In the past decade, the consensus in Washington has shifted decisively in favor of a more confrontational posture toward Beijing, a process that reached its peak during the Trump administration, which expressed open hostility to China and vilified the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The recent change in U.S. administration has produced a different tone, but not a dramatic shift in substance: the Biden administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, released in March, asserts that China “is the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system.” Many in Washington argue that this tougher new consensus on China has emerged in response to more assertive, even aggressive moves on Beijing’s part: in their view, China has forced the United States to take a firmer stance.
The CCP’s official line remains that bilateral ties should be guided by the principle of “no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation,” as Chinese President Xi Jinping described it in his first telephone conversation with U.S. President Joe Biden, in February. Nevertheless, just as American views on China have hardened in recent years, so have many Chinese officials come to take a dimmer view of the United States. The conventional wisdom in Beijing holds that the United States is the greatest external challenge to China’s national security, sovereignty, and internal stability. Most Chinese observers now believe that the United States is driven by fear and envy to contain China in every possible way. And although American policy elites are clearly aware of how that view has taken hold in China, many of them miss the fact that from Beijing’s perspective, it is the United States—and not China—that has fostered this newly adversarial environment, especially by carrying out what the CCP views as a decades-long campaign of meddling in China’s internal affairs with the goal of weakening the party’s grip on power. Better understanding these diverging views of recent history would help the two countries find a way to manage the competition between them and avoid a devastating conflict that no one wants.
It is not difficult to understand why U.S. officials see China as a competitor. Most analysts estimate that by the end of 2021, Chinese GDP will be equivalent to around 71 percent of U.S. GDP. In comparison, in the early 1980s, during the Cold War, Soviet GDP equaled less than 50 percent of U.S. GDP. Meanwhile, China has replaced the United States as the largest destination for foreign investment. Americans increasingly feel that in the contest with China, the momentum is with Beijing.
As China has grown richer and more powerful, U.S. politicians hoping to look tough have harshly criticized the CCP and have played on public fears about the U.S.-Chinese trade imbalance, China’s alleged hacking of U.S. institutions and theft of trade secrets, and illegal Chinese immigration. In 2020, President Donald Trump repeatedly accused China of spreading the pathogen that causes COVID-19, referring to it as “the China virus,” and suspicions that Beijing has misled the world about the virus’s origins linger. Under Biden, official U.S. rhetoric on China has become less belligerent but still reflects an antagonistic mood. China has “an overall goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world,” Biden said at his first press conference, in March. “That’s not going to happen on my watch, because the United States is going to continue to grow and expand.”
Suspicion of China is hardly exclusive to U.S. officials and elites. By last fall, a record-setting 73 percent of Americans polled reported holding a negative view of China, according to the Pew Research Center. This may in part reflect a generational shift. Older Americans tend to see their Chinese peers as students or junior partners, eager to learn from American experiences. Younger Americans, however, are confronting a far more assertive China, and they may be less patronizing—and, in a way, less sympathetic—to their Chinese counterparts. Meanwhile, the United States has witnessed an alarming spike in racially motivated violence and hateful speech directed against people of Asian origin, and some analysts believe this trend is related to the worsening U.S. relationship with China. More than five million people of Chinese origin live in the United States today, over three million of whom were born in China. And prior to the beginning of the pandemic, U.S. colleges and universities hosted nearly 400,000 students from the Chinese mainland. These people and the communities they form have often been viewed as a bridge between the two countries. Increasingly, however, their presence and the treatment they receive may become sources of friction.
Most Chinese observers now believe that the United States is driven by fear and envy to contain China.
In the United States, China’s rise is a source of neuralgia and anxiety. Unsurprisingly, in China, the country’s growing status is a source of confidence and pride. “As the world faces unprecedented turbulence,” Xi told a group of high-ranking CCP officials in January, “time and momentum are on China’s side.” Chinese officials seem to feel increasingly emboldened in confronting Washington. In March, Yang Jiechi—a Politburo member and a veteran Chinese diplomat—made headlines at a contentious high-level U.S.-Chinese meeting in Alaska, where he publicly rebuked the American officials in attendance for speaking to China “in a condescending way” and asserted that “the United States does not have the qualification . . . to speak to China from a position of strength.”
During the past year, China’s confidence has been buoyed by a series of stark contrasts with the United States. By mid-May, the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 was nearly 600,000, whereas China—with a far larger population—had lost fewer than 5,000, according to government figures. In recent years, the United States has supplied a steady drumbeat of stories about mass shootings, police brutality, and urban unrest—a degree of chaos and violence without parallel in China. And the controversy surrounding the 2020 U.S. presidential election, culminating in the January 6 assault on the Capitol by rioters attempting to overturn Trump’s defeat, revealed a high degree of social and political instability in the United States, especially compared with the order and predictability of the Chinese system. Against this backdrop, many Chinese analysts highlight the political dysfunction, socioeconomic inequality, ethnic and racial divisions, and economic stagnation that plague the United States and other Western democracies. They also point out that many developing countries and former socialist countries that emulated Western models after the Cold War are not in good shape, and they note how Afghanistan and Iraq, the two places where the United States has intervened most forcefully, continue to suffer from poverty, instability, and political violence. For all these reasons, many Chinese, especially the younger generation, feel fully justified in meeting U.S. pressure with confidence and even a sense of defiant triumphalism.
Underneath the recent hardening of Chinese views on the United States lies a deeper, older source of antagonism. In Chinese eyes, the most significant threat to China’s sovereignty and national security has long been U.S. interference in its internal affairs aimed at changing the country’s political system and undermining the CCP. Americans often fail to appreciate just how important this history is to their Chinese counterparts and just how much it informs Beijing’s views of Washington.
The CCP’s rise to power in 1949 wiped out U.S. political, economic, and cultural ties to the Chinese mainland. In response to Washington’s effort to contain and isolate China, Beijing forged an alliance with Moscow and soon found itself directly fighting the United States during the Korean War. At around that time, the CCP waged an ideological campaign to rid educated Chinese of the mindset of “being pro-America, fearing America, and worshiping America.” In the mid-1950s, the CCP took note when the United States and its allies supported anticommunist rebellions in Soviet-dominated Hungary and Poland. For the next two decades, guarding against Western subversion and preventing a “peaceful evolution” toward Western-style capitalism and democratization remained at the top of the party’s agenda.
In the late 1970s, the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s “reform and opening” policy ushered in a dramatic political transformation and led to the warming of U.S.-Chinese relations. Commercial activities and civil society links between the two countries boomed in the 1980s. Closer ties, however, also fed Chinese suspicions that the Americans intended to sow the seeds of dissent in China and eventually topple the CCP. The U.S. media’s intense coverage of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989 and the sanctions that Washington and its allies levied on Beijing in the wake of those events confirmed the party’s concerns about American intentions.
Ever since, anytime the CCP has encountered political turmoil at home, it has believed the United States to be a hidden hand. In the late 1990s, after Beijing cracked down on Falun Gong, an organization the CCP had identified as an “evil cult,” its leader and some followers fled to the United States and established a stronghold there, and the U.S. House of Representatives denounced China’s “persecution” of the group and its adherents. The United States has also hosted and given consistent support to a number of Chinese dissidents. In October 2010, Liu Xiaobo, a well-known intellectual and fierce critic of the CCP, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The U.S. House of Representatives congratulated Liu and called on China to release him from jail. It is widely believed in China that U.S. politicians pushed the Nobel Committee to award the prize to Liu.
Chinese officials are particularly irritated by what they see as American meddling in restive regions of China. In 2008, when a riot took place in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, the CCP saw the violence as the intentional result of long-term U.S. support for Tibetan separatists living overseas and led by the Dalai Lama, who was granted nine meetings with U.S. presidents between 1991 and 2008. Chinese state media in early 2009 asserted that “the Dalai clique has in fact become a tool for U.S. rude interference into China’s internal affairs and attempts to split China.” In 2018, Trump enacted a law that requires the U.S. Department of State to punish Chinese officials who bar Americans from traveling freely to Tibet, a move that China’s Foreign Ministry condemned as “grossly interfering in China’s domestic affairs.”
More recently, the western Chinese region of Xinjiang has become a major source of friction. Beijing charges that violent riots there in July 2009 were planned and organized from abroad and that Uyghur activists in the United States who received encouragement and support from American officials and organizations acted as a “black hand” behind the unrest. In 2019, human rights groups in the United States accused the CCP of engaging in the surveillance and torture of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities and of detaining at least one million people in camps in Xinjiang. In 2020, the U.S. Congress passed legislation requiring the federal government to report on abuses in the region. And in March, the Biden administration labeled China’s actions in Xinjiang a “genocide” and sanctioned Chinese officials in charge of security affairs in the region. Beijing has repeatedly denied that allegation and accused Washington of being “obsessed with fabricating lies and plotting to use Xinjiang-related issues to contain China and create [a] mess in China,” in the words of the spokesperson of the Permanent Mission of China to the UN.
U.S. policy toward Hong Kong represents another long-running source of Chinese mistrust. In 2014, a series of street protests that came to be known as Occupy Central (or the Umbrella Movement) occurred in Hong Kong in reaction to Beijing’s decision to reform the territory’s electoral system. Beijing believed that the U.S. government and U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations had helped stage the protests. When protests flared again in 2019–20 in response to proposed changes to the extradition agreement between the mainland and Hong Kong, security forces cracked down, and the Trump administration levied sanctions on a number of Chinese and Hong Kong officials. In March, the Biden administration added additional sanctions in response to Beijing’s imposition of a restrictive new national security law in Hong Kong.
Finally, no issue has bred as much Chinese distrust of the United States as the status of Taiwan. For decades, Washington’s “one China” policy has generally had the intended effect of preventing disagreement over the island from sparking a U.S.-Chinese conflict. But there have been many near misses, and the policy’s ability to paper over tensions is wearing thin. In 1995, as pro-independence factions in Taiwan gained momentum, the island’s leader, Lee Tung-hui, received a U.S. visa to visit Cornell University, his alma mater, where he gave a speech that irritated Beijing. In reaction, China conducted military exercises near Taiwan, and Washington sent two aircraft carrier battle groups to the area in the spring of 1996. In Beijing’s view, the crisis left little doubt that Washington would remain a major stumbling block to unification. During the administration of the Taiwanese leader Ma Ying-jeou, from 2008 to 2016, tensions between Beijing and Taipei subsided. But since 2016, when the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party took power in Taipei, Beijing’s stance has hardened again. China has steadily mounted political and military pressure on Taiwan to deter the DPP from making moves toward de jure secession. Meanwhile, in recent years, Washington has begun to push the envelope when it comes to Taiwan. In December 2016, when he was president-elect, Trump received a phone call from the Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen to congratulate him on his election victory, a conversation that provoked angry protests from Beijing. Although Trump himself did not seem particularly focused on Taiwan, he signed a number of pieces of legislation aimed at augmenting U.S.-Taiwanese ties and bolstering the island’s international position. In January, Biden became the first U.S. president since 1978 to host Taiwan’s envoy to the United States at his inauguration. Days after that, the U.S. State Department released a statement confirming Washington’s “rock solid” commitment to the island.
In Chinese eyes, the most significant threat to China’s sovereignty has long been U.S. interference.
The CCP believes that all these perceived U.S. attempts to foment dissent and destabilize China are part of an integrated American strategy to westernize (xihua) and split up (fenhua) China and prevent the country from becoming a great power. Beijing believes that Washington was the driving force behind the “color revolutions” that took place in the first decade of this century in former Soviet states and that the U.S. government has ginned up protest movements against authoritarian regimes around the world, including the Arab revolts of 2010–11. The CCP believes that those alleged U.S. interventions will supply a blueprint for Washington to undermine and eventually topple the party. The central government and Chinese official media acknowledge no distinctions among the U.S. government’s executive branch, the U.S. Congress, American media, and American-based nongovernmental organizations. The CCP views all American institutions and individuals that criticize or take action against Beijing as players in a well-planned, well-organized campaign of subversion, and the party brands any Chinese citizen or group that has in one way or another been backed by the United States or American organizations as a “stooge” or “political tool” of Washington.
China’s reactions to perceived U.S. interference have hardly been confined to angry rhetoric. In recent years, China has consolidated the CCP’s power base in society and further restricted the “politically incorrect” information its citizens can access, and Beijing has sanctioned U.S. officials, organizations, and individuals whom the party alleges are working against China. This vigilance against perceived U.S. interference forms one part of a comprehensive, long-term strategy to safeguard the CCP leadership, which also includes a number of laws and policies aimed at restricting the ability of Americans and other foreigners to encourage political dissent in China—activities that the party sees as threats to its legitimacy and authority. The CCP has also stepped up its “political education” among cadres and the general public at home and its propaganda efforts abroad.
The CCP’s concerns about U.S. meddling in China’s internal affairs have a direct connection to the tension between Washington and Beijing on a range of geopolitical issues, including territorial disputes in the South China Sea and finger-pointing over the origins of the virus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic. China’s increasingly assertive posture in these disagreements is in part a reaction to the CCP’s perception that the United States is attempting to weaken the country and delegitimize the party. The message is clear: China will not be intimidated.
The U.S.-Chinese relationship revolves around two orders: the internal order that the CCP maintains in China and the international order that the United States wants to lead and sustain. Until the current downward spiral in the bilateral relationship, which began in 2017, Washington and Beijing maintained an implicit understanding: the United States would not openly attempt to destabilize China’s internal order, and in turn, China would not intentionally weaken the U.S.-led international order. Within the framework of this mutual understanding, the two countries tremendously expanded their commercial and civic links—to the point of interdependence. They also started to coordinate and cooperate on various global issues, such as counterterrorism and climate change. The implicit understanding has now unraveled, however, as the United States seems determined to weaken the CCP and China appears intent on defying U.S. leadership of global institutions and Western values more broadly. The prospect of a vicious cycle looms.
To avoid open conflict, leaders in Washington and Beijing need to accept two fundamental realities. The first is that the CCP enjoys immense popularity among the Chinese people; its grip on power is unshakable. Despite challenges at home, such as an economic slowdown, an aging population, and an imperfect social welfare system, the party’s rule will remain unchallenged for the foreseeable future. External pressures on China to change its political system are likely to be futile and might even backfire by promoting unity and inflaming anti-Western sentiment. The second reality is that the United States will remain the most powerful actor in shaping the global order. The country’s problems are obvious: racial tensions, political polarization, socioeconomic inequality, and weakened alliances. Its strength, however, lies in its diversity, its culture of innovation, and the resilience of its civil society—and those attributes remain unchanged. Many countries might be frustrated by Washington’s hypocrisy, dysfunction, and flagging leadership, but few genuinely wish to see the United States depart from their region and leave behind a power vacuum.
Given these realities, both countries should abide by what the Chinese have long referred to as an approach of “mutual respect.” Washington should respect Beijing’s internal order, which has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and brought stability to the world’s largest country, and Beijing should respect Washington’s positive role in the existing international order, which has helped promote economic growth and technological advancement—and which has, in fact, greatly benefited China. The two countries will continue to compete in many areas: which government serves its people better, which country will recover sooner from the COVID-19 pandemic and keep its citizens healthier, which country is more popular in the world, and so on. But they should refrain from competing over which country can level the loudest and harshest criticisms of the other and which can produce the most formidable weapons.
If the United States and China fail to manage their competition, the world will face division, turbulence, and conflict.
To prevent competition from becoming catastrophe, two issues will require special attention. The first is Taiwan. The CCP regards the status of Taiwan as central to China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity; the U.S. government views Taiwan through the lens of its international obligations and security interests. Both countries, however, share a common interest: maintaining peace. As the veteran U.S. policymakers Kurt Campbell and Jake Sullivan observed in these pages in 2019, “Taiwan is not only a potential flash point; it is also the greatest unclaimed success in the history of U.S.-Chinese relations,” as a result of the flexible and nuanced approach historically adopted by both sides. If Washington sticks to its “one China” policy and refrains from openly supporting Taiwanese independence, Beijing will likely continue to seek peaceful unification with Taiwan, unless conditions specified in China’s Anti-Secession Law—such as the Taiwan authorities unilaterally claiming de jure independence by removing “China” from the island’s official name—push the mainland to use force.
The second crucial issue is U.S.-Chinese economic competition, and the problems it presents are both broader and thornier than the Taiwan dilemma. “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” and “the liberal international order” appear to be increasingly incompatible. Even before the trade war triggered by the Trump administration, the pattern of bilateral U.S.-Chinese economic exchanges was becoming unsustainable, because Americans had grown increasingly aggrieved over what they saw as China’s unfair trade and technology policies. The two economies have become so deeply intertwined, however, that economic and technological decoupling would incur myriad losses and foster unprecedented uncertainty.
At the moment, Beijing is emphasizing economic self-reliance and indigenous innovation, at the same time that Washington grapples with rising populist nationalism—an impulse that expressed itself in Trump’s “America first” approach and now partly inspires Biden’s “foreign policy for the middle class.” Both countries are eager to increase their economic competitiveness and disadvantage the other. In reality, however, neither economy will thrive unless both enjoy a strong recovery in the wake of the pandemic.
China needs to hasten reforms to allow for more foreign trade, investment, and technological know-how, which is what the new Chinese mantra of “dual circulation” is all about. Spurring domestic production and consumption, the thinking goes, would encourage foreign businesses to rely more on China’s industrial supply chains and consumer markets and foster what Xi has called an “open world economy.” Embracing international economic integration will in turn buttress China’s internal order, because a booming economy should boost the CCP’s popularity. China may continue to resist calls for remaking its political system, but it should abide by (or adjust to) international rules that will benefit its economy, aid social progress, and provide environmental security in the long run. The United States, for its part, should reconsider the possible consequences of buttressing the existing order. A truly liberal order would be more inclusive and take into consideration the values of non-Western societies and the interests of countries beyond Washington’s circle of like-minded partners. The failures of U.S. interventions in Afghanistan and the Middle East should serve as sobering reminders of the limits of American power.
If the United States and China fail to manage their competition, the world will face division, turbulence, and conflict. The first step to building mutual respect would be to try to understand the roots of their mutual mistrust. If leaders in both countries can understand how the other side views the past, they will have a better chance of building a better future.