By Rachel Rochford (‘23)
Under the Trump administration, relations between the United States and China continued to sour. With Biden’s recent inauguration, many wonder how the new President will approach U.S.-Chinese relations. The two nations have recently been at odds concerning trade, technology, espionage, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Atop all this, one must wonder about potential clashes over core aspects of foreign policy such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In order to guess at what is to come in 2021, it is necessary to examine all of the events that have already transpired.
Trade exploded as an issue between the U.S. and China under the Trump administration. The administration’s stance was that China employed unfair trade practices that may have been contributing to the trade deficit between the two nations. Thus, 2018 saw the use of tariffs and trade barriers against China by the United States. China retaliated with its own tariffs and policies and so began the trade war. A preliminary deal between the two nations was recently signed to smooth out economic relations. The deal fails however to resolve some of the most important factors behind this dispute and many expect this issue to continue during Biden’s Presidency.
Espionage and Technology have also been driving factors in the conflict between the two nations. The term espionage generally evokes thoughts of high-speed chases, daring escapes, and covert meetings. This definition may be a bit dated though as the spy world of today has quite a lot more to do with technology than manilla folders. Increasing accusations of stealing tech secrets have been directed at China by the U.S., and they are not entirely unfounded. The Center for Strategic and International Studies lists ten high profile cases of Chinese espionage in the past year alone. It’s not as if espionage between the nations is a one-way street but the number of cases that have come to light recently has had a negative impact on relations. The best example of this being the July 23rd closing of a Chinese consulate in Houston by the United States. Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the consulate “was a hub of spying and intellectual property theft.”
Hong Kong has been another hot button issue for the two nations. Last year, China moved to take control of Hong Kong, a nearby island that China has long stated claim over. The island previously held the special trade status of “fully autonomous from the People’s Republic of China.” This allowed Hong Kong to become a thriving center of trade. The economic relations between Hong Kong and the U.S. had been strong because of this special status. China imposed a new national security law on Hong Kong which gave near unchecked power over the island to China. When the People’s Republic did this, the U.S. changed its policies toward Hong Kong. The United States decertified Hong Kong, no longer affording it the classification of being independent of China. The U.S. also announced that it would no longer be selling military equipment to Hong Kong. China had hoped that by enforcing this new national security law, it would be able to turn the island into a highly beneficial technology hub. The U.S. move to change its treatment of Hong Kong following the new law may create problems for China and is just another conflict point between the two.
Taiwan is another island off of China that the People’s Republic would very much like to have full authority over. Historically, China views Taiwan as a breakaway province that will eventually be part of China once more. Only 15 nations currently recognize Taiwan as an independent nation. The U.S. is not one of these countries but it does support Taiwan’s membership in various international organizations such as the World Trade Organization. After its actions in Hong Kong, China turned toward Taiwan and the likeliness of a conflict has increased. In response, the U.S. approved 1.8 billion dollars in weapons sales to Taiwan, something that China was not exactly happy over.
These are just the main problems that already exist. Some aspects of China’s foreign policy also have the potential to cause a rift with the United States. China’s main policy is its Belt and Road Initiative, which sees China increasing its diplomatic relations by offering to help economically disadvantaged nations construct infrastructure. Many in the U.S. view this initiative as China’s means of taking advantage of these nations while also spreading its influence globally. The U.S. has certainly not been shy about spreading its own influence in the past which is why this initiative could lead to further conflict. With both nations working to export very different systems of governance to the rest of the world, conflict would not be surprising.
It will be interesting to watch the progression of U.S.-China relations. Avoidance is not possible with each nation having so large of an economy. Thus, the two nations have the choice as to whether they will work together or apart in the coming years.