Stabilizing U.S.-Chinese Relations

written by On October 10, 2018 in Asia, China, Defense and Security, The United States, WIIS Blog

Stabilizing U.S.-Chinese Relations

Written by: Amanda Spencer

The relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China is more fragile than at any time since the normalization of relations in 1979. Bilateral tensions continue to rise as disagreements loom over potential trade wars, growing strategic competition, and cyber espionage. Re-establishing a strategic partnership and building credibility are imperative, for the fruits of their coordination do not merely benefit the regimes but the global community as well.

For example, with North Korea, nothing brings together rivals more than facing bigger rivals or shared problems. The United States and China’s recent commitment to facilitate North Korea’s denuclearization process offers an opportunity for a diplomatic breakthrough. The mutual interest in managing the agenda can broaden communication and coordination between Beijing and Washington. Nevertheless, a successful partnership is necessary to repair this union. These observations lead to some salient questions: What are the underlying issues within U.S.-Chinese relations? How beneficial is a strengthened relationship to both countries and the international community?

Underlying issues between the United States and China .

The trade war between the United States and China continues to escalate, with the Trump Administration imposing three rounds of tariffs on Chinese goods this year. With current tariffs in place and threats of more to come, arguably more cycles of imposed tariffs by both countries can negatively impact the economic development of both countries. For the United States, the trade war comes at a time when the economy is in good shape, but retaliation can potentially flatline economic growth, sending the country into a recession. For China, ​repercussions of a trade dispute will be significant,​ as China’s leaders are facing various economic issues, including a decline in exports, investment, and economic growth compared to last year.

However, Sino-U.S. tensions run deeper than just trade. Other underlying variables include: growing strategic competition, lack of strategic trust, and dissimilarities in political systems and values.

Growing strategic competition. Over the past three decades, China has transformed itself from a self-imposed isolated nation mired in poverty to an emerging superpower. The rise of China has been multidimensional—its extraordinary economic and military growth and active diplomacy are transforming East Asia. Growing Chinese influence and power is troubling to the United States as China continues to challenge U.S. dominance in the region. Outright control of the South and East China Seas is at the forefront of Beijing and Washington’s agenda, and both regimes are competing to strengthen alliances with other Asian nations (i.e. Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam). Dominating the oceans provides sovereign power over regional and global trade. Moreover, Sino-U.S. competition for influence has moved beyond the Asia-Pacific region as the battle for stronger economic and political power extends to Africa, Latin America, Central Asia, and the Middle East.

Lack of strategic trust. Despite this competition, the United States and China understand that they have one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world. Yet, distrust of each other’s long-term intentions continues to sabotage the alliance. ​While the United States has the largest military in the world, two decades of double-digit growth in China’s defense budget have narrowed the gap. ​Cyber operations are an instrument in the strategic competition between Washington and Beijing. The United States has accused the Chinese government of frequently hacking U.S. military computers, and China has built anti-satellite systems and anti-ship ballistic missiles to counter U.S. strengths in space and on the high seas. China has also accused the United States of cyber espionage against significant government and business targets. Given competing strategic visions in the Asia-Pacific region, confidence-building measures to reduce tension will be hard to achieve.

Dissimilarities in political systems and values. ​ The vast differences in political systems and values are also an integral component in the heightened mistrust and competitive impulses. On one side, China’s newly strengthened Communist Party perceives the United States as a crusading liberal democratic hegemon that aims to force its system and ideology on other regimes and refashion the entire world in its own image. China’s opposition to adopting democratic traditions, and the failure to integrate China into existing international institutions, has driven American suspicion about Chinese intentions and objectives. Reflecting China’s dictatorial powers, reports indicate that average citizens are not granted the freedom of speech, freedom of worship, and voting rights found in democratic systems of governance.

The benefits of a strengthened Sino-U.S. relationship

It is evident that issues between the United States and China are many and resist easy solutions. Nonetheless, there is potential for cooperation between the long-standing rivals so long as each other’s core interests and major concerns are respected. If accomplished, a strengthened U.S.-China relationship can reduce the number of critical security threats, rebalance economic and political ties, and broaden coordination to further global stability and growth.

Reduce the number of critical security threats. With all the ominous issues in U.S.-China relations, the shared challenge of managing the North Korea threat offers a rare light of optimism. By remaining focused on outcome, the regimes can shift a significant defense problem into a diplomatic success. The denuclearization of North Korea can lead to enhanced U.S.-China security cooperation, rooted in the ongoing process of mutual threat reduction. This might include, among others:

  • Curtailing cyber threats and attacks by the Chinese military on U.S. targets;
  • Negotiating China’s maritime disputes in the South and East China Seas;
  • Managing other issues such as cyber-terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and energy insecurity.

Rebalance economic and political ties to ensure stability and mutual prosperity. As​ China’s economic development slows and growing uncertainty shakes up the global economy, continued U.S.-China economic interaction becomes more urgent. Expanding their Chinese investments will provide U.S. companies an opportunity to increase access to the Chinese marketplace and spur job creation for hundreds of thousands of Americans. Moreover, in reinforcing economic ties with China, the United States stands to achieve something more: ensuring a competitive level playing field. For China, larger U.S. investments will boost employment rates, create higher value products, and expand China’s tax base. Additionally, Chinese entities would gain a boost in confidence while considering the risk and benefits of investing in the world’s largest and most competitive market.

Strengthening the investment partnership in both countries would showcase each country’s commitment to restoring the U.S-China relationship. Accomplishing this will be critical in building trust among leaders and gaining better insights into each country’s political and economic development. But current trade tensions and the threat of further escalation raises serious questions about whether such cooperation is possible.

Broaden coordination to further global stability and growth. The​ relationship between the two countries has a significant impact on the evolution of global governance and prospects for world peace. Finding ways of reaching consensus on common values can promote greater collaboration through infrastructure-based development (i.e. transportation, communication, sewage, water, and electric systems) in developing countries. Establishing the fundamental capacity to focus on the challenges facing global civil society—including education, public health, gender equality, peace and security, and business and trade—is critical for global stability and growth.


The development of Sino-U.S. relations is a defining strategic issue for both countries and the international community. Deep discussions regarding the underlying issues are necessary to build a shared understanding and greater overall trust and effectiveness in the relationship. It is essential that Sino-U.S. relations settle into a relationship where mutual respect, joint interests, and an understanding of the negative consequences of an antagonistic relationship bind the two together. Further discord is not an option for either country, for it will be detrimental to global stability and growth, both politically and economically.

Amanda Spencer is a Global Financial Crimes professional in New York City. She has firsthand understandings of U.S. sanctions and embargoes, terrorist financing, and risk management. Amanda is a geopolitical researcher, her studies specialize in emerging international security issues. Amanda is also the founder of Her Global Insights, a blogging platform striving to bridges the gap between ambition and achievement for globally-minded millennial women. Her work can be found on


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