By now, everyone is familiar with President Trump’s “America First” philosophy and its effects on U.S. foreign policy. Recently, Trump’s most fervent target has been China, which he claims has been participating in unfair trade policies for years. Through strong rhetoric and escalating tariffs, Trump and the United States have effectively provoked China into an all-out trade war. While the world carefully watches its two great superpowers battle out this new conflict, it’s worth pointing out that this is more than just a trade war — it is a war for control, power, and stability.
The foundations of tension between the two countries isn’t economic; it’s cultural. The U.S. and China have never had stable relations, though they certainly have tried. Ever since the People’s Republic of China was first established in 1949, both countries have often found themselves opposing each other in wars, issues, ideals, and more. Politicians have often found themselves trying to tiptoe around these differences and in order to find the best way to accommodate them. China’s exponential rise since its establishment has made American politicians worried about the implications for America’s global presence and influence. Arguably, the current trade war is just another manifestation of this tension as an attempt to subdue any potential influence China may have and keep it inferior to the United States.
The first instance of this clash was the Korean War, which began only a year after Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China. This war foreshadowed the ongoing cultural and ideological battle we see today, and was possibly the first event that showed how powerful China could be. The United States found itself not only fighting North Korea, but also China, which supported the communist North. China’s support for communism and its current affiliation with the ideology is just one source of continued conflict. The United States failed in its mission to stop the spread of communism in the Korean Peninsula. The Korean War was crucial in protecting “the infant People’s Republic of China,” as President Xi Jinping said in a 2010 speech. This successful military fight was also a successful defense of their common ideology. Mao Zedong and China emerged out of the Korean War stronger than ever. China’s ability, especially as a new nation, to aid North Korea in thwarting the United States indicated how much power the country truly had.
Since then, the dominant foreign affairs narrative has been the United States versus China, which is ironic considering how much the two countries actually depend on one another. Oftentimes, when justifying harsh sanctions or policies against China, American politicians will argue that they aim to stop China from undermining Western values. As China embraces more Leninist-Stalinist philosophy and Maoist politics, it’s labeled as inherently “anti-American” or “anti-Western.” They cite policies like stricter censorship of the Internet and social media and suppression of freedoms as examples. They portray the rise of China as a threat to our national security and economy. The United States expected the downfall of the U.S.S.R. at the conclusion of the Cold War to cement its position as the dominant superpower. China’s rapid rise severely complicates this.
However, this view of China is extremely influenced by obviously biased Western media. It can be argued that China is not trying to directly compete with the United States or any other Western power, but instead is trying to maintain their cultural identity in the world and promote China as a country that should be respected. China has been at a disadvantage because the global world order is structured around the Bretton Woods institutions, which are inherently Western. This can be seen especially today in President Xi Jinping’s new political doctrine, “Xi Jinping Thought.” Any actions perceived to be against the West are defensive actions.
Take the Korean War, for example, or today’s trade war. This new, assertive approach to global politics is more about preservation of China’s global rise, through tactics like modernizing the military and investing in other areas of the world. China has strategically used “soft power” and economic investments to lure other countries into its sphere of influence. China’s One Belt One Road Initiative is famous for investing in infrastructure developing in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Just last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping promised $60 billion in aid to Africa without any political concessions required. China has also increased its presence in Australia through heavy investments and a large Chinese diaspora. From the Western perspective, these actions are threatening and are proof that China is trying to undermine Western institutions; however, from the Chinese perspective, these actions are arguably just to maintain its rising position in the global world and protect its cultural identity.
Whether or not the United States wants to position itself close to China because of cultural differences, there’s no denying the fact that both countries heavily rely on the other economically. By 2008, China had surpassed Japan as the largest holder of U.S. debt, indicating the growing interdependence of the two economies. As a result, the United States typically imports more from China than vice versa; by 2011, the trade deficit had hit an all-time high of $295.5 billion.
This sets the framework for the current strife between China and the United States: the trade war. In March 2018, Trump enforced his first round of sweeping tariffs on Chinese imports worth almost $50 billion and since has imposed two more rounds that could subject all Chinese imports to tariffs. He justifies this as a response to what he believed was China stealing U.S. technology and intellectual property. Trump later proposed a quota on the number of Chinese students allowed to come study in the States, highlighting the fact that this is more than just a trade war. China has not been passive. They have accused Trump of starting “the largest trade war in economic history,” and imposed tariffs on $110 billion worth of U.S. goods. They have been strategic in what products they target: most come from Republican districts.
The United States and China will always have a contentious relationship. If they aren’t fighting over trade and finances, they’re fighting over deeper issues like differing ideological principles and trying to stop one from overtaking the other. As China continues to rise and potentially surpass the United States, the world pays close attention to the shifting nature of their attitudes towards one another. U.S.-China relations reach beyond the two nations. The stability of the world order rests on how well the two superpowers interact with one another. Thus, “U.S. versus China” debacle is more than just a trade war. It is an economic war, a cultural movement, and the determining factor for how the rest of the world will fare for decades to come.
Categories: Foreign Affairs