US-China Conflict

    Last updated Mar 16, 2023
    Image credit: Getty Images [via BBC News]


    • History: After centuries as the world's largest economy, China fell behind in industrialization and lost wars, territory and concessions to Western and Japanese colonial powers starting in the 1800s, the so-called "century of humiliation." The US supported China against Japan in WW2, but when the 1949 Chinese communist revolution made the US-backed government flee to Taiwan, the US recognized it rather than the newly formed People's Republic of China (PRC) as the legitimate government of the Chinese state.[1]
    • Diplomacy: After the Sino-Soviet split, Nixon visited China in 1972, starting a PRC-US detente. By 1979, diplomatic relations were normalized and Washington let Beijing rather than Taiwan represent China at the UN. The US supported China's 2001 admission to the World Trade Organization, but during the Obama admin., the US pivoted toward the Asia-Pacific region to counter China's growing clout. The Trump admin. launched genocide accusations as well as tariffs on Chinese goods. Both have been maintained by the Biden admin., which deepened ties with Australia, India, and Japan, forming "the Quad" to curb China's rise.[2]
    • Economic Competition: The US overtook China as the world's largest economy around 1890, but now arguably risks losing this lead and its supremacy on the global stage. The global rivalry between the US and China and their divergent political and economic systems is often compared to the US-Soviet Cold War, but deep economic ties make the PRC-US rivalry more complex.[3]
    • Technology: One of the main areas of competition is the technological realm, as the PRC endeavors to supplant the US as the global leader in tech. The US has been working to decouple its supply chains from China, accusing Beijing of espionage and intellectual property theft and imposing sanctions on leading Chinese tech companies such as Huawei, as well as limiting the sale of semiconductors to China. In response, China has reaffirmed its ambitions to achieve self-sufficiency in tech.[4]
    • Human Rights: The US has long accused the PRC of committing human rights abuses. Beijing has dismissed this as propaganda and leveled the same criticism against the US. While Washington shines a light on the alleged persecution of ethnic minorities, including denouncing what it calls a genocide against Muslim Uyghurs, Beijing argues that COVID figures, gun violence, poverty and corruption show the indifference of the US establishment toward its people's wellbeing.[5]
    • Taiwan: Although Nixon's 1972 visit produced a joint US-China communiqué stating that "Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China," differing interpretations of this "one-China policy" have made Taiwan a major flashpoint. Although the Island has been self-ruled since 1949 and democratic since 1996, the PRC insists that it belongs to China and should eventually be reunified. In contrast, the US supports Taiwan's right to self-defense, and has a policy of strategic ambiguity as to whether it would defend Taiwan militarily against a Chinese invasion. Tensions are regularly inflamed by Chinese naval drills and military flights near Taiwan, as well as by US "freedom of navigation" exercises, arms sales and visits by high-profile politicians.[6]


    Anti-China narrative

    The Chinese communist party has crushed Hong Kong's democracy, created Orwellian surveillance and perpetrated human rights abuses including Uyghur genocide. The PRC is a security threat to every democratic, freedom-loving country: it seeks to dominate the world through military aggression, economic and technological espionage, and corruption of foreign politicians to spread its dystopian authoritarian model across the globe. The US must counter these threats and contain China.

    Pro-China narrative

    The US is trying harm China's economy, discredit it and draw it into regional conflicts. US talk of democracy and human rights are mere excuses for this, since it supports many non-democratic governments. The real reason is that Washington fears losing its hegemony and wants to distract from domestic problems by scapegoating China. Chinese weakness let Western colonialists humiliate it in the 1800s, and China won't make that mistake again.

    Cynical narrative

    All this talk about defeating China is irrelevant, as a conflict wouldn't benefit either side. In fact, US policies to counter the PRC increasingly expose the fact that the American political establishment is seeking to follow the Chinese model, not promote US values.

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