Five T's for Understanding U.S./China Relations By Jun Kwon and Sung Jang
The bilateral relationship between the U.S. and China is more crucial and consequential than any other for international stability and peace.
Trade disputes are accelerating, while other contentious issues, like the dispute in the South China Sea, contribute to the deteriorating relationship between the two superpowers.
There is no doubt that China is rising. Five T's help illuminate U.S. perceptions and policies surrounding this development.
Power is shifting from West to East, more specifically from the U.S to China. 20th century belonged to the U.S. and 21st century may belong to China. A pessimistic view of China rising and its relationship vis-à-vis the United States is mainly rooted in so-called “Thucydides Trap” which refers to a Greek historian Thucydides’ explanation on the Peloponnesian War that “it was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.”
This idea runs very simple. The China rising is disrupting the balance of power and thus causing instabilities in the system. With its growing power, China demands changes to reshape an international order underpinned by the U.S. over the last several decades. The U.S. is so fearful of the China rising that it overreacts by implementing "containment" policies, enhancing the possibility of conflict.
The tension in the South China Sea exemplifies this pessimistic prospect. China pursues the restoration of its power status in its own backyard, causing disruption to the stability in the South China Sea and posing security threats to South Asian neighbors, who have enjoyed peace under the American predominance in the region. The U.S. response is aimed at containing the Chinese power by reinforcing its alliance with countries in the region.
Tension is ratcheting up between the U.S. and Chin in dispute over tariffs. U.S. imposed tariffs on Chinese has become a prominent issue in recent weeks (examples here and here). China responded swiftly with retaliatory measures to target American imports such as agricultural products.
The U.S. and China have enjoyed mutual benefits from voluminous trade over the last several decades; however, U.S. critics of China rising have now realized that China is gaining much more than the United States. This has resulted in greater emphasis on the question of “who gains more?” than “do both the U.S. and China gain?”
A more optimistic view of the U.S.-Sino relationship focuses on mutually beneficial ties of economic cooperation. Both countries are intertwined through voluminous trade and investment. The context of economic interdependence creates shared interest in avoiding military conflicts. It is natural that tensions over trade exist, but those will not be escalate into some form of military conflicts because both do not want to forfeit mutual benefits from bilateral economic exchange.
Taiwan has been under the U.S. protection since 1949. The Nationalists government (KMT) led by Chiang kai-sheck fled to the island after losing the Civil war to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the Mainland. The U.S. has used Taiwan as political leverage against China in the framework of Taiwan Relations Act, despite very strong objections from Mainland China, which views Taiwan as inseparable part of China,
President-elect Trump accepted a congratulatory phone call for his victory from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and later fueled controversy by saying that that “everything is under negotiation including one China.”
President Trump recently signed Taiwan Travel Act that facilitates and expands high-level visits and exchanges between senior officials in Washington and Taipei. This has exacerbated already strained relations between the U.S. and China regarding Taiwan.
China has never veered from its adamant principle that Taiwan is part of China and that Taiwan and Cross-Strait relations is an unequivocal Chinese domestic issue that should not be interfered or influenced by other countries. There is no doubt that Trump’s approach on Taiwan is seen by the Chinese as foreign attempts to intervene into the Chinese domestic affairs, which upsets them greatly.
Tibet and Tiananmen
Tibet is one of the most sensitive sources of social instability in China, raising the "ethnic minority" issue. In particular, two notable minorities that have expressed their independence sentiments are Tibetans and Uyghurs (Turkish speaking Muslims residing in Xinjiang Province). China has accused the U.S. of supporting the Dalai Lama who has been demonized by China as a separatist from the mother land.
Tiananmen refers to students’ protests in 1989 which were oppressed by force. Democracy and human rights are one of the contentious issues between the U.S. and China. The U.S. has criticized that China has not respected human rights with the lack of democracy while China fights back to advise the United States not to play as a “human rights judge.”
This is an uncertain time between the world's two largest superpowers. President Trump campaigned on disrupting the status quo. U.S. foreign policy toward China has increasingly reflected this theme.
Jun Kwon is Chair of International Studies and Assistant Professor of Government at Utica College. Sung Jang is government student at Utica College.