Assessing the Competition Between the US, China

By Bonnie Evans
Bonnie Evans
Bonnie Evans
July 5, 2020Updated: July 6, 2020

News Analysis

As the United States moves to understand China as an adversary, rather than as a competitor, the competition between the two powers is receiving renewed scrutiny.

On June 24, the U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission heard testimony from a variety of experts on “the Chinese view of strategic competition with the United States.” Their recommendations included enforcing a principle of reciprocity with Chinese media outlets, enhancing the technological capabilities of the U.S. Navy, and challenging China in international institutions to deflect and diminish Chinese influence in defining human rights and universal values.

Cold War Mentality, Reciprocity

Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping has “profoundly tortured views on the United States,” journalist and author John Pomfret said.

Those views, in part, account for Xi’s determination that has put China on a “full-scale strategic competition with the United States,” he said.

That competition, “across a vast array of fields,” is evidence, he said, of China’s Cold War mentality and behavior, which the Chinese government entered into “years before a large percentage of Americans began to worry about the strategic challenge presented by China.”

Ironically, it’s China that regularly accuses the Western world of Cold War thinking, particularly Americans, he said.

He advises the U.S. government “to seek far more reciprocity in its relations with China than before.” And where the CCP isn’t willing to reciprocate in the relationship, the United States should simply let those aspects “founder.”

One key area in which the United States must require China to reciprocate the access that the United States gives to China is media, Pomfret said.

“If China is unwilling to allow American reporters to work in China, the U.S. government must contemplate asking all Chinese reporters in America to leave. If China continues to block the websites of American media companies in China, the United States should consider closing the operations of Chinese-funded media outlets in the United States,” he said.

Universal Values

The United Nations is an emerging battleground for influence. By China’s attempts to “steer it away from its founding principles,” China is trying to use the United Nations as “a vehicle for advancing its narrow foreign policy aims,” Kristine Lee of the Center for a New American Security said.

The CCP is using the United Nations to “make the world safe for the CCP,” she added.

In the U.N. and among its various agencies, China is trying to “tighten its vise on countries, NGOs, and even individual political activists that challenge” China, while promoting its own GONGOs (government-organized nongovernment organizations) that are in line with its interests, Lee said.

One of the Chinese regime’s key strategies is to undermine the concept of universal human rights in order to justify its disregard for individual or minority claims. This allows China to justify its repression of minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang, according to Lee.

The concept of universal values, known as “pushi jiazhi” in Chinese, began to be openly debated in the Chinese media and within Chinese academia shortly after the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, which killed more than 80,000 people, according to The Economist in a July 2010 article.

Shortly after the earthquake, to which then-Premier Wen Jiabao arrived on-site within hours of the disaster, a move of personal involvement rare for a senior CCP politician, a newspaper in Guangdong praised the government’s response, saying that it had “honored its commitments to its own people and to the whole world with respect to universal values,” The Economist reported the Chinese article as saying.

Wen himself came close to referencing the existence of universal values in an essay published in China on March 3, 2007, during his 10-year tenure as premier. The China Daily English translation quotes Wen as saying that “science, democracy, legal system, freedom, and human rights are not something peculiar to capitalism. Rather, they are common values pursued by mankind in the long historical process and they are the fruit of human civilization created by mankind.”

So widespread did the permission and popularity of the discussion over universal values become in China that the then-chairman of Merchants Bank, Qin Xiao, in his commencement speech to graduates of Tsinghua University’s business school in Beijing said, “Universal values tell us that government serves the people,” and “assets belong to the public.”

He went on to exhort the graduates to resist worldly things and to pursue universal values of freedom and democracy, reports say.

Ten years on, however, Beijing is using “its growing profile” in the U.N. Human Rights Council to “aggressively silence criticism of its human rights record” and to “dilute concepts of universal human rights,” Lee said.

Foreign Relations

Although China’s relations with Europe are a “challenge to internal cohesion with the European Union,” they are also a challenge to the EU’s relationship with the United States, commissioners heard.

Janka Oertel of the European Council on Foreign Relations also believes that “access to Europe’s market and political cooperation with the economic bloc are crucial for realizing China’s expanding global ambitions.”

Europe is the “key battleground” for China in its fight to achieve “economic and technological supremacy” over the United States, she said.

However, China has recently been facing an EU that, like the United States, has become tougher with China on its trade policies, and more demanding of reciprocity in its relations, Oertel suggests.

Back on its doorstep in Southeast Asia, China faces another set of challenges in its strategic competition with the United States.

China’s key core interests and motivations are twofold, Satu Limaye of the East–West Center said.

First, China seeks territorial integrity, and that means coming out on top in its wide-ranging disputes—many of them initiated by China—with its neighbors.  The second and well-known core interest is “national reunification” with Taiwan.

Many of the territorial disputes can be found in the waters that surround China, which include the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and the Yellow Sea.

But China has a significant land border dispute, as well, as recent events on the India–China border have shown.

“China’s strategic motivations and military strengths are currently primarily directed towards East Asia or the western Pacific,” Limaye said.

Despite China’s aggressiveness in the Indo-Pacific overall, however, those countries “are more than capable of coolly calculating global and local geopolitical balances and navigating between and among them. … They are experienced in the comings, goings, and rivalries of great powers. Indo-Pacific countries have far more agency, maneuvering room, and tools than usually realized,” he said.

Limaye believes that China’s neighbors, either on their own or through a coalition, “can frustrate China achieving territorial integrity and reunification.”

He’s also confident of America’s alliances in the region, and China’s posture in the region reinforces those partnerships, he said.

“Headlines do not capture fully the strengths of deeply institutionalized alliance mechanisms, habits, and networks of cooperation resulting from decades of hundreds of annual exchanges and engagements between allied militaries and their American counterparts (and among each other),” he said.

In Latin America, China’s trade has “grown from $12 billion in 2000 to $278 billion in 2017,” R. Evan Ellis of the U.S. Army War College said. “Chinese companies have invested over $122 billion in the region between 2000 and 2018.”

Military Challenges

But more importantly for America’s backyard, “Chinese security engagement in the region … includes helping the PRC to operate effectively in the Western Hemisphere, if China decides to do so, in the context of a future conflict with the U.S.”

“Just about every South American country sends some of their military to military school in Beijing,” Ellis said.

“China has companies and people increasingly in Latin America, so they want to protect them.”

But Michèle Flournoy, former under secretary of defense for policy, cautioned when asked if U.S. Naval power is sufficient to counter China, or even as important as it used to be.

“Trends going forward are worrying,” she said.

“Today, the U.S. Navy is unmatched and unrivaled.  But China now has offensive capability in the first island chain, and some in the second [of the South China Sea].  If the U.S. Navy remains unchanged our advantage would erode.”

She advised that the United States should invest in technology that “make our ships more survivable” and that enhance Naval capability to project power.

“Naval power will be extremely important in the future,” she said.

Analyst Alison Kaufman, senior Asia policy researcher at the think tank CNA, offered another perspective on the military component of the U.S.–China strategic competition.

“We need to make sure that China doesn’t underestimate us.  I think that the risk of miscalculation is high,” Kaufman said.

“A rather persistent mismatch is what China and the U.S. see as escalatory. … But this should be an area where we can talk.”


American businesses are beginning for the first time to realize that they are working “against their own self-interest,” said Barry Naughton of the University of California–San Diego.

“We’re seeing a sway in public opinion” away from and against China, he said.

Limaye said that when it comes to decoupling, also known as “managed de-integration,” it’s crucial to realize that “much of Asia is in the supply chain, so their interest and equity is enormous in how we decouple.”

Among others, the automotive, electronics, and computer chip sectors are all affected throughout Asia, he said. But there is an opportunity to create investment flows into those countries, away from China.

Japan and South Korea have key roles to play, he said, but “by my own reckoning, decoupling is going to be extremely difficult, especially on middle players in the supply chain because they a) don’t make the rules and b) their relative shares are quite small and therefore, they cannot manage outcomes and will be at the mercy of big players,” he said.