Confrontation between the United States and China Seems Unavoidable for Now

It appears the United States believes confrontation-readiness is the best hope of convincing China to move on a path toward a competitive and cooperative future.

Last week, President Joe Biden held a virtual summit with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping. The summit was intended to put relations between Washington and Beijing on a predicable footing, but except for platitudes the meeting produced nothing new for U.S.- China cooperation. Apart from wastage of time, the meeting questions the true nature of the U.S.-China relationship.

Earlier this year, U.S. secretary of state Antony Blinken stated that U.S. policy toward China includes a mix of “cooperation, competition, and confrontation.” Well, he was just about one-third right.

Despite all the talk in Washington about great power “competition,” the sobering truth is that the relationship between two great rivals is increasingly dominated by confrontational elements.

The term “great power competition” became a mantra in Washington after the publication of the 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy. The document admitted that the previous U.S. strategy to cultivate China as a responsible stakeholder in a rules-based global framework had failed and that a tougher approach was needed. The Biden administration has updated this term to “strategic competition,” promising to prioritize the strategic areas of competition.

But competition is not the best word in either case. Competition implies that participants play, and are bound by, the same rules. Firms compete for market share and athletic teams vie for a championship title within defined and enforceable boundaries.

The U.S.-China rivalry, however, cannot fairly be described as competition because the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) violates at every possible opportunity the accepted international laws and norms. Moreover, China systematically pounces on the global economic system in total defiance of its World Trade Organization obligations. It steals intellectual property, subsidizes domestic businesses, and restricts foreign businesses operating in China. Beijing contravenes international humanitarian laws by engaging in “crimes against humanity” and “genocide” against Muslim Uighurs. Beijing seizes territory from its neighbors under some centuries-old doctrine, including islands in the South China Sea, despite the Hague Tribunal’s rulings dismissing China’s bogus claims.

Even in areas where analysts look for engagement, the relationship is characterized by confrontation. Look at what is happening on climate change; China is the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, accounting for about 28 percent of global emissions — nearly double the amount that the U.S. emits and more than all the developed countries put together. As Washington and other powers cut their emissions, Beijing promises to continue increasing emissions until 2030.

In global public health, China is also a major problem. Its initial delay in reporting Covid-19 turned a local breakout into a global pandemic, and Beijing continues to block to this day any meaningful investigations into the origin of the disease, and thus not helping to prevent its future reoccurrence.

The story is similar in arms control. China is engaging in an across-the-board nuclear arms expansion that includes building: hundreds of nuclear missile silos in the desert, new nuclear bombers and submarines, and hypersonic missiles. Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump both desired arms control talks with Beijing, but Xi Jinping declined to even come to the table. Will Biden have better luck?

However, there remains some desirable cooperation between the two super powers. Washington would like Beijing to continue purchasing American agricultural produce, for example. And Beijing explicitly wants Washington to continue honoring its commitment to a “One China” policy with regard to Taiwan. But even these elements of cooperation are also increasingly becoming subjects of uncertainty.

The U.S. government, the public, businesses, and allies and partners need to understand that this is an increasingly confrontational relationship, and they need to get tougher with China when it breaks the rules.

This is not to say that Washington should choose confrontation with China. Clearly, there should be a much more cooperative relationship. But that does not appear possible so long as Xi Jinping remains in power. The United States and its allies, therefore, should push back hard on China’s rule-breaking methods and to show China’s leaders that violating and flouting rule-based international treaties is costly for Beijing, and ultimately not in China’s own self-interest.

To bring China to respect international treaties, World Trade Organization, The Hague Convention etc. will require Washington and its allies to do more to confront China on its unfair trade practices, poor human rights practices, pollution, expansionist military policies, unauthorized activities at seas, and nuclear arms buildup. Xi Jinping will find cooperation more attractive when he learns that his confrontational approach has backfired.

With regard to China’s nuclear buildup, for example, Washington should augment its own deterrent, including with theater nuclear forces in the Indo-Pacific, to demonstrate to Xi that his aggressive arms expansion will only make China less safe. Seeing his security situation deteriorate may be the only way to persuade Xi to engage in arms control talks. Hoping for cooperation alone will not produce the desired result.

Some will argue that confronting the CCP will lead to more aggressive Chinese behavior and an increased risk of military conflict. They have it backwards. A resolute policy of confrontation now is the United States’ best hope of eventually convincing Beijing to change course and put us on a path toward a genuinely competitive and cooperative future.



I am Binay, writer, author, and editor. I am an electrical engineering graduate.,, and many newspapers have published my articles.

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Binay Srivastava

I am Binay, writer, author, and editor. I am an electrical engineering graduate.,, and many newspapers have published my articles.