From Economics to Politics: Growing Frictions Between China and the U.S.

Authors: Yao Jiahui &Yang Yizhong

Chinese consulate in Houston ordered to close the U.S. in Houston, Texas, by July 24, in only three days. Different departments from both China and the U.S. have speculated on the reasons for this confusing move, yet the international media statements on its trigger are also disparate. The move was described as “political provocation” by Beijing, while according to the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the decision was taken because China was “stealing” intellectual property. Shortly after a U.S. government closure order for the mission took effect at 4 p.m. Central Time (2100 GMT), a group of men accompanied by a US State Department official was seen forcing open a door at the Chinese consulate in Houston on July 24.

In response, China ordered the United States to shut its consulate in Chengdu on July 24, Friday, which was described by The Washington Post as “another escalation in the dispute between the world’s two largest economies”.[1] The Chengdu consulate of the United States opened in 1985, while the Houston Consulate of China opened as one of the first consulates in the U.S. Regarding its location in southwest China, Chengdu Consulate’s service targets include Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou, Tibet and Chongqing. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China stated at a press conference on July 24 that some personnel of the U.S. Consulate General in Chengdu engaged in activities that were incompatible with their status, interfered in China’s internal affairs and harmed China’s security interests, which is well aware by the US.

Such “diplomatic reciprocity” raised by the U.S. are not unheard as Mike Pompeo officially announced on the 23rd that the US-China Engagement Policy has “failed” and proposed a “distrust and verification” strategy to encourage The “Free World” joins forces against “Communist China”, in front Nixon Library, of whom was the 37th US President to break the ice of Sino-US relations and stimulate the Policy of Engagement with China. Although it was certain that Nixon had a good reason to start contact with China in the past, and claimed that Nixon’s goal was to “lead China’s transformation,” Pompeo insisted that Nixon’s engagement policy “would benefit China more than the United States.” The engagement pursued did not transform China as the kind of Nixon hoped, but the opposite. Regarding the Trump administration’s new strategy, Pompeo took Reagan’s “Trust, but verify” treatment of the Soviet Union as an example, and proposed to “distrust and verify” China. He believes that the “free world” should guide China’s behavior changes in a “creative and decisive” way.

In recent years, China’s rapid development in the realms of technology, economy, and diplomacy has been witnessed by western countries. On July 23, China’s Tianwen-1 mission launched atop a Long March 5 rocket from Wenchang Satellite Launch Center at 12:41 a.m. EDT (0441 GMT), and the probe is expected to reach Mars in February 2021. As the second-largest economy in the world, such achievements are regarded by the United States as a great threat to its “world hegemony” status.

Therefore, the current US-China situation is often described as the “Thucydides trap” of the 21st century. According to the defense correspondent Johnathan Marcus, it is clear that the Trump administration is determined to step up its very public calling out of Beijing. In the midst of a presidential re-election campaign and with the US economy and society battered by the Covid-19 pandemic, Trump has determined that there is a political advantage in playing the China card.[2]

Currently, rising protectionism and global market contraction become obvious. therefore, the developing mode of economic circulation between domestic and international becomes a significant way to participate in the economic globalization. A brand new development pattern between China and the U.S. is considered to emerge, is the new “Thucydides’s trap” inescapable? Thucydides’s Trap here refers to the dynamic between rising and ruling powers that drive events toward war.[3] However, the connection between China and the United States is different from other cases and there is a great opportunity for both sides to avoid the “destined war”. Considering the various aspects of economy, politics, military and technology and so on, United States is the strongest ruling power, and China is the most spectacular rising power. The rivalry between the two is like a rising state accelerating towards the most comprehensive and determined ruling power, or an unstoppable force accelerating towards an immovable object. Anticipate the grandest collision of all time.

Nobody in Washington thinks they can achieve their goals by having a war with China, nor decision-makers in Beijing. But if the drama ends in a war, there must be some factors from the following three dynamics.

First, the material reality of the seesaw between the U.S. and China shifts to an insatiable position that one side may feel blundering. What if China’s economy continues to grow while the United States keeps stagnation? What if the United States economy reblooms while China slides into a middle-income trap? Second, perceptions and misperceptions, understandings and misunderstandings politics may result in a war, “the historical record has demonstrated that the cause of the war between rising and extant dominant powers is much more complex than the neo-realists have explained. There is nothing foreordained about such a war. Some of them were mainly the result of misperception and the failure of statesmanship, as even the arch-realpolitik practitioner”, argued Henry Kissinger.Third, Third-party action is possibly an inducement for the final war, as discussed before, when one party feels the responsibility to respond to the defiant provocations, the two parties will be dragged into a war that both don’t want. When taking care of US-China competition, both sides should look carefully at potential third-party provocations.

Under these three dynamics, U.S. and China are taking care of the fragile relationship cautiously. How could the US and China escape Thucydides’s trap and avoid a possible collision? The following two juxtaposing approaches are believed apposite and feasible for both sides.

On the one hand, both United States and China should recognize the fact that systematic vulnerability of the international system that a possible destined war may be the end of the relationship between the status quo state and the rising state. Therefore, it is reasonable for both to reinforce their communication on many levels, including Head Summit, Ministry level and dialogues between armies. Both the United States and China should possess joint scenarios for the coming crisis, so that they could prevent the crisis from happening, and even if the crisis is unavoidable, they could manage those crises immediately. The two great powers shall be very much cautious about a possible third party that could drag them into a war, like Taiwan province, Korean peninsula, East or South China Sea countries, etc..

On the other hand, aside from externalizing problems and communication, a rivalry partnership is almost certain for both sides to deal with the intricate and complex relationship. They have to acknowledge that their relationship is a mutually beneficial connection, and necessary competition is inevitable. But they need to collaborate on their common interest.

[1]China tells U.S. to shut consulate in Chengdu, in retaliation for Houston closure, ByAnna Fifield, Carol Morello and Ellen Nakashima. July 24, 2020, The Washington Post.

[2]Chinese consulate in Houston ordered to close by US, 23 July 2020. BBC News

[3]Allison, Graham T. 2017. Destined for War : Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Yao Jiahui
Yao Jiahui
Master's of Environmental Policy, Cornell University.; B.A of Public Administration and Spanish, Rutgers University. NGO consultant at the Uniten Nations ECOSOC. Assistant Secretary-General at Biodiversity and Green Foundation. Policy revisor of: Agreement under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Marine Biological Diversity of Areas beyond National Jurisdiction (2023); China Green Bond Endorsed Project Catalogue (2021 version, White Paper), etc. Pi Alpha Alpha Member -National Honor Society for Public Affairs and Administration. Special Recognition for contributing to the United Nations Earth Charter’s Movement.