The China-United States Scrimmage

June 4, 2019

Rising powers often feel as though they are entitled to a greater respect from other nations and thus command a greater influence in the region. This phenomenon is known as “Thucydides Trap,” in which the Greek historian Thucydides spoke on the rise of Athens and inevitable war from the fear that thus instilled in Sparta (Allison). This concept relates to the scrimmage of China and the United States, thus China’s rise in power threatens the established power of the United States. The established power feels insecure and is quick to jump to the defensive to protect itself and its image on the international stage (Allison). 

China and the United States reside in opposite spheres of the world, they follow differing political ideologies and maintain opposing economies. In domestic life, the citizens of the two countries have contrasting views of the position of the self in the familial sphere. In China the word for “individualism” or “gerenzhuyi” suggests the pursuit of selfish endeavors in one’s community, while in America “individualism” has the connotation of self-empowerment (Allison). China’s familial sphere concentrates its energy on the collective and organizes in a hierarchical pyramid, the group, rather than the individual. This translates into some of its foreign policy decisions — such as seeing China at the top of the pyramid, with other states beneath it (Allison). The Chinese nation has been around for more than 5,000 years, while the United States has yet to turn 250 years old. The relative ages and experiences of the countries is showcased in their differing concepts of time and how each country prioritizes its national interests (Allison). In the United States, lawmakers are quick to propose fast solutions to problems that often need more time for change to take place. While in China, the Chinese have a different understanding of time and patience. For example, with China’s perspective of Taiwan — which they consider to be ruled by Chinese nationalists — they have sought after a long-term strategy in which they tighten Taiwan’s economic ties to China and slowly bring the island back into Chinese influence. With time and patience, China will bring Taiwan back into their group. For the United States and China, their two opposing views and experiences with patience — or impatience — bring China and the United States to their own scrimmage. 

In the United States, lawmakers are quick to propose fast solutions to problems that often need more time for change to take place.

In the past, there have been instances of close calls between the United States and China, one of those being China’s first test of an atomic bomb in October of 1964. This test took place while United States-China tensions were high over the conflict in Vietnam and while China has troops near its border with Vietnam (Council on Foreign Relations). Other near conflicts mainly surround the disagreements between China and the United States on the status of Taiwan or the disputed islands of the South China Sea, or a 1999 NATO-run bombing of a Chinese embassy in Belgrade based off of United States intelligence mistakes. Then with the United States-China Relations Act of 2000, the two countries increased trade from $5 billion to $231 billion between 1980 and 2004 and China surpassing Mexico as the United States’ second largest trading partner (Council on Foreign Relations). Since Donald Trump’s United States Presidency, relations have declined from trade tariffs and the 2018 to present day trade war. Needless to say tensions have risen and fallen between the two major powers. Furthermore, estimates show that China will overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy by 2030, maybe even as soon as 2027 (Council on Foreign Relations). Considering the past, lays the ground for policy adjustments for the future.

With imposed tariffs on $34 billion worth of Chinese goods in 2018 and Vice-President Mike Pence saying the United States will from now on “prioritize competition over cooperation” with China, prospects for civil relations have declined. In May of 2019 tariffs of anywhere between 10 and 25 percent hit $200 billion worth of Chinese goods, and China retaliated with its own tariffs on United States goods. China is known to be one of the top manufacturers in the world, breaking off trade relations with China would affect American jobs and impact domestic and international business revenue. 

In recent bilateral trade negotiations the Trump administration has been pushing for major changes to China’s current trade policy, these would include addressing the questions of intellectual property theft, currency manipulation, industrial subsidies, and forced technology transfers, all implicitly in the United States national interest. One of the greatest issues with the current bilateral trade negotiations is, President Trump is pushing for policies that would alter China’s domestic policies, specifically in economics and trade policies that the United States regards as “unfair,” suggesting changes that would benefit the United States economy (Lawder). By May 1, 2019 China’s President Mr. Xi Jinping demanded substantial revisions to the agreement, after hearing feedback from his Communist party leaders. The party leaders told Mr. Xi that the agremeent currently on the table made China and Mr. Xi appear weak, like he was bowing to Western influences and pressure (Rudd). With the formation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the agreement was originally conceived for the United States to combat China’s influence in the East Asian and Asian Pacific region and therein gaining influence over a region that has been primarily dominated by China. Now without the United States in the final deal and an invitation from current signatories for China to join, the United States isn’t receiving the same relative gains (Londoño). A relative gain would have been, the comparative gain in Global Domestic Product (GDP) or imports/exports that the United States would have had comparable to China. A bilateral trade war affects the economies of China and the United States, if a resolution isn’t found United States GDP will be impacted.

Having two of the largest world economies in a trade war — a conflict of any kind really — could be the foundation to future conflicts. The inability to resolve other recent conflicts of East Asian security, Taiwan, or China’s military modernization, brings the more logical option to the forefront, not resolving their conflicts but managing them (Pei). A route of deeper engagement, rather than containment and pursuing a more liberal focused route of foreign policy with China, would be more inline with United States national interests, prioritizing national security. The United States and China don’t share overlapping security interests or political values. While the United States is looking to preserve the liberal order and establish the fundamentals of the American constitution in other countries, China strives for a world order without the United States and other Western powers ruling the international system (Pei). If the United States and China were to find a compromise in the middle, following the Chinese ideology of patience and paving the road to future resolution, rather than aiming to resolution all of the United States’ problems with China’s domestic policies in one treaty, the two nations may be able to settle on a deal.

A bilateral trade war affects the economies of China and the United States, if a resolution isn’t found United States GDP will be impacted.

Since the United States and China don’t have overlapping spheres of influence, they aren’t direct security threats to each other — without provocation. That is, until nuclear weapons and a tense relationship are considered. In Dennis C. Blair’s article, “Would China Go Nuclear?” in Foreign Affairs, Blair argues that a nuclear conflict between the United States and China would be highly unlikely with odds “somewhere between nil and zero” (Blair). Blair states a maritime campaign resulting from the disputed islands in the South China Sea would be the most likely conflict, if one were to arise. And before the onset of nuclear were to happen, the United States would take every other route, and China wouldn’t first-strike unless there was a sustained nuclear strike against them (Blair). 

In the case of United States security policy, Republicans and Democrats tend to agree on “the United States should dominate the world militarily, economically, and politically,” even when they are polarized on most policy issues (Posen). The United States has had a recent history of trying to contain “rogue states” that they have viewed as a threat to United States security, such as Iran or North Korea. Along those lines, the United States has also pushed for the non-use of nuclear weapons. However, being the international watch-dog has cost the United States lives, of American citizens and allies. Posen argues for the abandonment of the hegemonic strategy and to pull back from conflicts that are not our wars to fight, not unless it affects our national interest and therein our security. These continued efforts of containment have made more enemies than it have resolved conflicts. Keeping this in mind, the United States-China relationship should be pushed further towards an expansive policy.

Some scholars argue that the United States should lose some of its unnecessary security agreements — seeing as the United States is the largest military force and doesn’t need the power of other nations — while they rely on the United States — and would benefit from loosening its efforts of leading the liberal world order (Brooks, et al). In the past and recent years, China has regularly pushed against the United States for its liberal world order, attempting to combat Western powers and the preset of Western ideas saturating the international order. However, if the United States loosens its hold on its position as leader of the free world, it would give more room to Chinese expansion of power. In that there is also the possibility of China attempting to — and succeeding — in becoming the Eurasian hegemon (Posen). Although the likelihood in its success would be small, with uncertainty in the Chinese economy and the combined and individual power of surrounding East Asian states would impede that possibility, especially with the proximity of world powers such as India and Russia — both of which have nuclear capabilities (Posen). 

The United States has maintained the position of the global security force and leader of the free world for more than six decades, in which it has — rather successfully — promoted the liberal economic order and managed the security of the world (Brooks). For a future policy decision, if the United States were to take a more realist stance on relations with China and construct a more narrow policy, it would prioritize a strategy of containment, in which the United States would actively attempt to prevent Chinese influence from expanding. This kind of restriction on Chinese power would not play out well on the international stage, especially with enemies — or non-allies — of the United States and other Western powers. 

When considering whether to move forward in a more expansive direction with future United States-China relations, or a more narrow direction, it’s important to briefly acknowledge the growing relations between China and Russia. China-Russia relations have improved notably since 2014, following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s declaration of Russia pivoting its focus to Asia, after Western nations imposed economic sanctions (MacFarquhar). Trade between China and Russia has gone up by almost 25 percent in this last year alone, totally at about $108 billion. The two countries also support each other foreign policies issues such as: the Iran nuclear deal, North Korea’s nuclear program, and the Venezuela crisis (MacFarquhar). China and Russia have also been expanding their cooperation in a variety of fields including aviation, agriculture, transportation, energy, and space (MacFarquhar). Keeping all this in mind, it’s in the United States national interest to stay involved with China as these two international powers — China and Russia — grow their alliance and while they have such similar interests.

It would serve the United States national interest to pursue a strategy of deeper engagement, working to cooperate with China rather than attempting to compete and allowing domestic policy to suffer for it. It’s time for the United States to settle and build relationships, influencing Chinese foreign policy as a neutral state rather than competing for hegemony in a nonpolar world. The effects of the United States-China trade war is leaving other countries as the “winners” of the scrimmage, instead of the United States gaining relative advantage. Trade policy is affecting jobs and American markets now, making this is most crucial policy to address in relation to China-United States foreign affairs. A more expansive policy would be more realistic towards a major power such as China, this would be aligning closer with a liberal practice. As the United States and China are quite possibly the most powerful and influential states to date, it’s more beneficial for national security to grow side-by-side rather than combatting the risks of attempting to contain China’s sphere of influence.


Allison, Graham. “China vs. America: Managing the Next Clash of Civilizations.” Foreign Affairs,

Blair, Dennis C. and Talmadge, Caitlin. “Would China Go Nuclear?” Foreign Affairs,

Brooks, Stephen G., et al. “Lean Forward: In Defense of American Engagement.” Foreign Affairs,

Council on Foreign Relations. “Timeline: U.S. Relations with China.” Council on Foreign Relations,

Kissinger, Henry A. “The Future of U.S.-Chinese Relations: Conflict Is a Choice, Not a Necessity.” Foreign Affairs,

Lawder, David. “Trump Push for China Trade Reform Draws Wide Support at Home, Abroad.” Reuters,

Londoño, Ernesto and Rich, Motoko. “U.S. Allies Sign Sweeping Trade Deal in Challenge to Trump.” The New York Times,

MacFarquhar, Neil. “Xi Jinping’s Visit to Russia Accents Ties in Face of Tensions with U.S.” The New York Times,

Pei, Minxin. “How China and America See Each Other: And Why They Are on a Collision Course.” Foreign Affairs,

Posen, Barry R. “Pull Back: The Case for a Less Activist Foreign Policy.” Foreign Affairs,

Rudd, Kevin. “Trump Hands China an Easy Win in the Trade War.” The New York Times,

Trump, Donald. “Presidential Memorandum Regarding Withdrawal of the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Negotiations and Agreement.” The White House.

World Bank. “GDP Ranking, PPP Based.” The World Bank,

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