The Security Issues in US-China Strategic Competition

UDC 327
Publication date: 09.07.2019
International Journal of Professional Science №7-2019

The Security Issues in US-China Strategic Competition

Khlopov Oleg Anatolyevich
PhD, Political Science, Associate Professor,
Department of American Studies
Russian State University for the Humanities (Moscow)
Abstract: The articles analyses security issues between The United States and China that have become a key factor in their bilateral relations due to their global and regional completion strategies. The US is concerned about the consequences of China’s regional economic diplomacy, while the Peoples’ Republic of China views the US strategy as a policy aimed to deter China’s development and power. These issues receive a new dynamic under the D. Trump administration. However, the United States and China face serious obstacles in achieving their regional ambitions, neither side can eliminate the strategic advantages of the other. Thus, mutual restrictions give some hope for the possibility to establish and maintain strategic stability in US-China relations.
Keywords: security dilemma, military strategy, economic cooperation, geopolitical completion, USA, China, world politics.


Since the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the United States in 1979, bilateral relations have passed through different times.  The first 30 years of theses interactions experienced four major crises caused by political or security incidents: Tiananmen riots in 1989, Taiwanese leader Lee Teng-hui  visit to the United States in 1995, NATO’s bombardment of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, and  a clash between a Chinese fighter and an American spy plane near Hainan Island in 2001.  After each crisis, Beijing and Washington were able to establish and normalize their relations in a short time.  In 2003, when China and the United States had deep cooperation in various areas, including the global fight against terror and denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, high-ranking officials on both sides said that bilateral relations were «at their best time in history». President George W. Bush and his family attended the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics that also reflected stable, friendly bilateral relations.  In general, from 1979 to 2008 the US-China relations followed a steady path with limited fluctuations for better or worse.

From 2009 to 2018 US-China relationship experienced a gradual but prolonged decline. During these 10 years this relationship shifted from a balance between cooperation and disagreement to a slide into strategic competition and rivalry.  Bilateral security and diplomatic relations have moved from peaceful coexistence, while at the same time controlling tensions on specific issues, to wider rivalry; bilateral economic ties no longer served as a stabilizer, but became obvious friction. The humanitarian and cultural exchanges were undermined or even reversed due to increased mutual political suspicion.  By the beginning of 2019, more and more Chinese and American observers are sounding warnings that the two countries may turn to long-term, full-scale confrontation [14].

The Sino-American relationship went through three successive stages of deterioration over the past 10 years: 1) deepening strategic distrust from 2009 to 2012; 2) frustrations in establishing a “new model of major power relations” from 2013 to 2016; 3) definition China by USA   as a strategic adversary since 2017.

As D. Trump took office in 2017, the policy of his administration towards China has deviated from the course of previous administrations, which usually involves simultaneously cooperation and competition with China. Administration D. Trump unveiled his National Security Strategy in December 2017, after which the documents of the Ministry of Defense, such as the National Defense Strategy, Nuclear Posture Review and the Missile Defense Review were published. They called China a «strategic competitor», a revisionist power» and «threat to the security and prosperity of the United States” 10].

As it discussed in this article the problems of bilateral relations have grown with strategies that have both countries. The strategic competition between China and the United States is growing, and there is less chance that economic interdependence and cooperation on major global issues will fulfill the pacifying roles they once performed.  While this result is partly due to a structural shift in power in the Indo-Pacific region, this competition  can also be explained by the growing Sino-US security dilemma, usually defined as a desire for security by one state, which is perceived as a threat from the other [15].

 The fundamental problem is that both sides question the other side’s motivations for implementing their regional strategies.  China’s strategy based on diplomatic and economic incentives for its neighbors is seen in US circles as facilitating the Chinese-centered regional order in which US interests and values ​​are marginalized.

Political analysts  and experts in both countries identifies various factors that have contributed to this problem in recent years, including China’s limited military transparency [7], nuclear power modernization in both countries [8], different views on international law,  the US perception about the Chinese «self-confidence» and the US military activity near the borders of China.

 «The Belt and Road Initiative» (BRI) has raised US concerns about how countries can fall into China’s influence through “debt trap diplomacy” or by other means [15].  The Trump’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Region” strategy has raised China’s concerns about strengthening US alliances throughout the region. As it is  to be expected from the point of the security dilemma  both sides are weighing the response steps in order to maintain their influence and reduce the influence of his opponent.


Security Dilemma in US-China Relations

The most accusations against China from the United States associated with its armed forces. The initiative of China’s modernization of its defense systems  was perceived by US analysts as a desire for «regional hegemony in the Indo-Pacific region in the future» and «to displace the United States and to reorient the region to their advantage» [9].

Suspicion and hostile assessment of the Chinese military actions lead to assumptions about the «Cold War» between the US and China and the fall into the «Thucydides trap», a term which has entered into international-political analysis   to describe a political situation in which the reason for the war is the fear of the mighty power before increasing power of his rival [1]. In international political science this situation is called «security dilemma» — the growing power of one state, calls of concern from other as it leads to decrease power and strength.

Despite the relentless diplomatic impetus for expanding social exchanges, the United States began to accumulate resentment at the tightening restrictions in Beijing regarding academic freedom, journalism, social networks and NGO activities in China.  For their part, many Chinese political elites believed that the pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong in 2014 were a US conspiracy against Beijing. From 2014 to 2016 the National People’s Congress of China adopted the Law on Counterintelligence, the Law on State Security and the Law on the Management of the Internal Activity of Foreign Non-Governmental Organizations.

In 2017 and 2018 the United States and China experienced a rapid downward  in almost all dimensions. Despite bilateral efforts to foster ministerial dialogues in four areas – diplomacy, security, economy, law enforcement and cyber security, only humanitarian activities by the end of 2018 remained active.

Underlying the tension and instability in Sino-American military ties are conflicting interests on Taiwan, maritime security, regional force posture, defense relations, and China’s role in the regional security architecture and more profound geostrategic competition [17].


Approach of D. Trump’s Administration to China

During his presidential campaign, Trump has often criticized the trade behavior of China, accusing China in the «the benefits from the US economy» and «stealing jobs from Americans.»  The Trump administration began an investigation into alleged «theft of intellectual property» by China «and enforced technology transfer», which makes the technological competition is the center of trade frictions. To some extent, Trump seeks to scapegoat China for America’s economic problems[3]. Maintaining a tough stance on China could help the Tramp to keep the support of their constituents at home, when he will be eligible for a second term.

Under the Trump administration, the United States dramatically changed its attitude and policy toward China, issuing several authoritative documents [10], in which China was defined as a “revisionist power” and a “strategic competitor of the United States”. For example, the 2018 National Defense Strategy [9] classifies China as a “revisionist power” that “wants to shape the world in accordance with their authoritarian model”, and defines “the revival of long-term strategic competition” from China and Russia as “the central challenge to the prosperity and security of the United States».

While many Chinese observers find such a change in US policy and relations alarming and perplexing, Chinese officials continue to argue that «the common interests between China and the United States far exceed their differences». President Xi Jinping said in a telephone conversation with the president.  Donald Trump on December 29 2018 stated that «China is ready to promote China-US relations based on coordination, cooperation and stability, and allowing the development of bilateral relations to benefit more two nations and people around the world» [2].

The Trump administration imposed massive tariffs and investment restrictions on Chinese goods and companies to ensure “reciprocity”, forcing China to compromise on issues related to market access, IP protection, technology transfer and industrial policy.  The US political community is also particularly wary of the Chinese “political influence operations” in Western and developing countries.  For the first time in the history of US-Chinese diplomatic relations, the US government accused China of interfering in US domestic policy [12].  The Trump administration is also taking unprecedented measures to retaliate against China’s alleged misconduct, such as canceling Chinese scientist  visas to US and tightening control over exchange programs sponsored by China. After almost a 10-year boom period, bilateral cultural and technological exchanges  become more politicized.

It is noteworthy that such a shift towards tightening US policy toward China reflects a consensus in the political spectrum and government, including democratic and republican parties, the Congress, the media, as well as business and academic circles.  Although many representatives of the American business community disagree with the Trump administration’s trade war against China, they strongly oppose what they see as “unfair treatment” in the Chinese market, and are asking for real changes to level the playing field  [13].

 American scholars are frustrated with domestic political events in China, especially with regard to academic freedom, human rights and ideological  processing and express concern about the implications of Beijing’s foreign policy.  Many US non-governmental organizations were forced to cut or stop working in China due to the country’s legislative restrictions.


Changes in International Environment

World politics in recent years has entered a new phase.  While globalization and   integration were the leading trends after the end of the Cold War, world politics at this new stage is now largely “divided”.  Globalization not only has contributed to global economic growth and cooperation, but also intensified global economic inequality and the social differences. The expansion of world immigration has increased the split among people and nations on the ground of race, ethnicity, religion, social class and nationality.  Identity policy has an unprecedented strong influence on national and international affairs. As a result, populism, anti-immigration or even xenophobic nationalism have spread throughout the world.

These two trends unite forces and strengthen each other in many countries.  Disappointed with the existing political systems and elites, the populists and nationalists want the return of authoritarianism and the policy of a strong man.  After the Cold War, democracy, multiculturalism, and peace were the dominant values ​​in world politics.  Recently, however, we have witnessed a turn towards a strong government and tough diplomacy.  Consequently, geopolitical competition between countries is increasing. Technological innovations have improved people’s lives, but at the same time they are often used as tools to tighten censorship and limit personal freedoms and also increased social inequalities and geostrategic competition.

All these changes in world politics are manifested in various symptoms of domestic politics in China and the United States.  As Dr. Richard N. Haas, a leading US strategist and president of the Council on Foreign Relations, explains, “foreign policy begins at home” [4]. In other words, foreign policy is essentially a continuation of domestic policy.  Changes in USA-China   relations are the result of the internal development of the two countries.

In the USA there have been two mass public movement against the backdrop of slowing economic growth after the global financial crisis of 2008. One was a short-lived left movement «Occupy Wall Street» and the other longer right-wing  «Tea Party». The latter is the combined political force of populism, racism and nationalism  and served as an important social base for the presidential campaign of Donald Trump and his election victory in 2016.

In the context of growing political polarization and socioeconomic and ethnic tensions in the United States nationalism «America first» was the principle of «political correctness» in its attempts to keep Americans together. Since international terrorism no longer posed a serious threat to America’s national security, many in the US have identified fast-growing China as the next enemy of the country. Today for the American political mainstream  China is undoubtedly an «ideal enemy».


China’s Strategic Approach to US Foreign Policy

China is very concerned about the serious problems caused by the international situation and a number of events in world politics, including the «color revolutions» in the former Soviet bloc, the “Arab Spring” in the Middle East, as well as political upheavals in countries such as Syria, Zimbabwe and Venezuela. In all these cases, China has seen the Western’s interfering in the internal affairs of countries to change political order and stability.

In China it is widely believed that the main source of tension in world politics is the contradiction between developed and developing countries, in particular the persistent political interference from the Western world under the US leadership in developing countries. Beijing still well protected from any attempts of the West to destabilize China. As pointed out by XI Jinping in 2015, «conspiracy» color revolution by «Western countries usually begins with attacks on the political system especially the party system to a target country. They make every effort to use the media to influence public opinion and the publication of sensational reports. They call to change political and party system of the country that differs from their own, and incite its people to resort to street protests. In the modern world an ideological war without the smoke of gunpowder everywhere, and the struggle in the political arena without shooting never stopped» [16].

Many Chinese political elites believe that the United States cherish the plans to sabotage the political system of China, and they found the scheme of the United States, aimed at strengthening anti-government activities in China over the past 10 years. According to reports, the United States also encouraged or even helped to organize the incidents of violence in Lhasa, Tibet in March 2008 and in Urumqi, Xinjiang in July 2009 [8]. Consequently, Beijing has increased censorship and began an ideological campaign to prevent any such activities [5].

The result of China’s policy toward the United States seems paradoxical. On the one hand, China is wary of any attempts by America to destabilize its internal policy, to disrupt the path of development, or to restrain its rise. On the other hand, Beijing recognizes that a stable China — US the relationship will be beneficial for long-term security and prosperity of China.

In international relations China seeks to maintain international peace and promote economic development. In recent years, Beijing has occupied a high position in international affairs and became more assertive in protecting its interests. From the point of view of China, military operations in South and East China Seas, deterrence, aimed at the suppression of the forces for independence in Taiwan and the suppression of political division in Hong Kong — all attempts to protect national sovereignty and territorial integrity. In the face of growing internal problems these actions served to consolidate the power at home and to strengthen the global standing of China.

 China quickly narrowed the gap with the United States, in terms of economic power, military power, technological advances and global influence over the last 10 years. Along with the growing national strength, national pride and confidence China has also reached an unprecedented level.

 However, in reality, despite the fact that the soft power of America and its ability to foreign intervention really are depleted, hard power is still huge and growing. The inequality of power between the United States and almost every other country, except for China, India and party Russia also continues to grow. Due to this fact the US still are positioning themselves as superior to «preacher» in China. American politicians are trying to use punitive measures to force China to yield on key issues, including bilateral trade and technological competition [6].

Currently experts outline the two lines of American thinking toward China  [14] . One school of thought focuses on external behavior of China that requires an effort to «push» the expansion of Chinese power and influence abroad, or that Americans perceive as the desire of China to replace the United States in the Asia-Pacific region and, ultimately, the global hegemony. The other school of thought is looking more on the internal politics of China and hopes to change the dynamics in China toward America, believing that differences in political values between the two countries lay the foundation of bilateral relations. Beijing’s reaction to this congruence is simply the resistance to American pressure on all sides because it has no desire to change their external behavior, or to change the direction of its internal tendencies. Therefore, a strategic confrontation between the two giants is developing quickly and inevitably.

US-China tensions in the areas of geo-strategy, ideology, trade and economics and international security are growing and intensifying [18].  Such trends cannot be reversed by sincere desires for a stable relationship. Since these two countries are more likely to become long-term strategic rivals, they should make an effort to avoid falling to the tragedy of “the traps of Thucydides”, because   a direct confrontation between them will be disastrous for both countries and the whole world.



There is no doubt that the strategic competition between the Unites States and China is intensifying, in which the security dilemma plays a key role.  Both countries believe that their regional strategies provide positive results for regional security.  China and the United States are seeking to develop new markets and tap into the region’s enormous economic potential.  The result was a continuous process of strategic adjustment, as both states seek to preserve their own interests on the background of understandable threats from each other.  Nevertheless, the intensity of strategic competition and rivalry can be reduced thanks to the understanding that regional dominance in the present conditions is a mirage: hegemony is unlikely because of internal constraints and because of the problems that China and the USA are facing.

At the same time, economic interdependence and cooperation on such important global issues as climate change and non-proliferation of nuclear weapons can stabilize the bilateral relations. However, the intentions and doubts of both parties regarding the need and ability to outsmart the other will remain. Although some analyzes may overestimate the ability of the other side to implement their strategy, experienced observers in both countries express balanced views on the parties’ abilities to achieve something approaching regional hegemony.

 Thus, American and Chinese leaders need to be aware of the actions and reactions that come from each other, as both sides interpret the strategies of the other as a threat and think thoroughly about the response steps.  This requires constant dialogue  between  both states to understand what types of behavior each side can and cannot undertake.


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