Analysing the United States – China Conflict 2007-2024

International conflicts occur when there is a conflict of interest between two or more countries that can also arise between organisations and individuals that have an impact on international affairs.

International conflicts occur when there is a conflict of interest between two or more countries that can also arise between organisations and individuals that have an impact on international affairs. For a conflict of interest to be classified as an international conflict, it must involve verbal confirmation, the cutting of diplomatic, economic, or political ties, the imposition of sanctions or economic siege on the other country, threats of violence or military action, or the declaration of war against the other party. 

International conflict is defined as “A controversy, disagreement, quarrel or warfare between or among two or more nations or countries, often requiring involvement or monitoring by other members of the global community.”[1]

Also, it’s the power dynamics that are based on the enduring and ubiquitous character of international rivalry among divergent interests and ideals.[2]

Thus, there are a few conditions for it, this includes that the opposing countries or groups have different interests and goals, that all parties have the awareness and the will to be in that conflict, and that one party acts in a way that communicates the disagreement. 

Regarding the dispute between the United States and China, it has been going on for a while, but in 2007 China’s growing economic and military power that the United States perceived it as a threat to the international system order, this conflict reasoned between the conflict of national interest, Ideological differences and arm racing, while the conflict didn’t take a violent term, it has involved a variety of strategies, including diplomatic boycotts, economic and trade disputes, threats of sanctions, and the formation of organisations to lessen the influence of the other nation.  

In this conflict, both countries aim to undermine the influence and power of its opponent in order to achieve its interest and objectives whether through the preserving or altering the structure of international system order.

To determine whether the situation between the United States and China after 2007 qualifies as a conflict, and if so, what kind of conflict it is, we must first grasp the distinctions between the various types of international conflicts.

Types of international conflict:

There are two types of international conflicts, armed international conflict and non-armed international conflict.

First, armed conflicts are conflicts between two or more countries or in with one country between different groups, this conflicts often involves violations of human rights, loss of human life, Sexual violence, starvation and disease, and displacement.[3]

This type of conflict is divided into two categories, International Armed Conflict, and Non-International Armed Conflict, International Armed Conflict is defined as “all cases of declared war and other de facto armed conflict between two or more States, even if the state of war is not recognised by one of them and/or the use of armed force is unilateral”. [4] This includes Hegemonic war, Total war, and Limited war.

First, Hegemonic wars are armed conflicts initiated by a country or a group of ailing countries in order to change or control the international system order such as World War I and World War II.[5]

Total Wars are an international armed conflict initiated by a country or more with the purpose of taking over another country in order to install their own government or replace the current government with another from the same country.[6]

Furthermore, Limited war is military operations intended to achieve a goal other than replacing the opponent country’s government or taking over the capital, this includes the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and 1991 Iraq war.[7] 

On the other hand, Non-International Armed Conflicts also known as internal conflicts are “protracted armed confrontations occurring between governmental armed forces and the forces of one or more armed groups, or between such groups arising on the territory of a State. The armed confrontation must reach a minimum level of intensity, and the parties involved in the conflict must show a minimum of organisation”.[8] This type of Non-International Armed Conflict Includes Civil wars, and Guerrilla war.

Civil wars are defined as “war between factions within a state trying to create, or prevent, a new government for the entire state or some territorial part of it. The aim may be to change the entire system of government, to merely replace the people in it, or to split a region off as a new state”. This includes the ongoing Sudan civil war since 2023, and Syria civil war. While Guerrilla wars are “ certain kinds of civil wars, it is warfare without frontlines. Irregular forces operate in the midst of, and often hidden or protected by, civilian populations. The purpose is not to directly confront an enemy army but rather to harass and punish it so as to gradually limit its operation and effectively liberate territory from its control.”. [9]

In addition to armed conflict other conflicts also exist that don’t require the direct usage of military force by the main opposing countries including economic conflict, environmental conflict, wars by proxy, Diplomatic conflict, electoral Interference, Domestic destabilisation and Cyber Warfare.[10]

First, economic conflict also known as trade conflict  happens when a government’s tries to weakening another country’s economy whether for political reasons or give their own companies a competitive advantage over foreign ones, through the utilise of quotas, which set strict limitations on the amount of a commodity that a country can import, or tariffs, which are levies on imports, to penalise other nations, trade embargoes, boycotts, or sanctions.[11]

Second, environmental conflict happens when a country or a group of countries purposefully hurt other countries or profit from the tampering of common ecosystems.

Third, wars by proxy is an indirect war that happens when opposing countries that don’t want to go in a direct war with one another support and fund two opposing countries or rival groups operating in a third nation.

Fourth, Diplomatic conflict occurs when a country limits or cuts off diplomatic ties with another country’s government, this includes summons the ambassador for questions, or expelling diplomats.

Fifth, electoral Interference happens when a government or an individual tries to sway another country’s election in favour of a specific candidate or tries to foster citizens’ suspicion of the process.

Sixth, Domestic destabilisation is a way that countries use to meddle in internal affairs and promote instability Inside another country.

Seventh, Cyber Warfare is defined as “the actions by a nation-state or international organisation to attack and attempt to damage another nation’s computers or information networks through, for example, computer viruses or denial-of-service attacks. RAND research provides recommendations to military and civilian decision makers on methods of defending against the damaging effects of cyber warfare on a nation’s digital infrastructure.”[12]

International Conflict Indicators:

There are several ways to indicate that there is an international conflict between two or more states, this includes verbally assaulting the other country, limiting or cutting diplomatic, economic, or political ties, sanctioning the other country or putting them under an economic siege, threatening violence, military assault or declaring war against the other party.[13]

Azar’s 13-Point Interval Scale, developed by Professor Edward Azar to analyse cooperative and aggressive behaviour between countries, will be used in this article instead of one of the many indicators available to gauge the degree of conflict between two countries. The 13 points are divided into three sections: the first six points describe cooperative behaviour between two countries; the seventh point is a midway point where the behaviour can shift to either category; and the remaining points describe aggressive behaviour between the two countries.[14] 

  • Cooperative behaviour between two countries:
  • Nations A and B merge to form a new nation state.
  • Nations A and B establish their own regional organisation.
  • Nation A extends economic aid to nation B.
  • Nation A and B establish a friendship agreement.
  • Nation A receives support for its internal and/or external policies.
  • Nations A and B communicate regarding issues of mutual concern.
  • Midway scale point:
  • Nation A experiences limited internal political difficulties.
  • Aggressive behaviour between two countries:
  • Nation A makes a protest directed against nation B.
  • Nation A increases its military capabilities.
  • Nation A encounters domestic politico military violence.
  • Nation A initiates subversion in nation B.
  • Nation A and B engage in limited war activities.
  • Nation A engages in an all-out war against nation B.

The history of the United States and China relations:

In his remarkable piece on the topic, prof Anis H. Bajrektarevic noted the following: “Americans performed three very different policies on the People’s Republic: From a total negation (and the Mao-time mutual annihilation assurances), to Nixon’s sudden cohabitation. Finally, a Copernican-turn: the US spotted no real ideological differences between them and the post-Deng China. This signalled a ‘new opening’: West imagined China’s coastal areas as its own industrial suburbia. Soon after, both countries easily agreed on interdependence (in this marriage of convenience): Americans pleased their corporate (machine and tech) sector and unrestrained its greed, while Chinese in return offered a cheap labour, no environmental considerations and submissiveness in imitation. Both spiced it by nearly religious approach to trade.”[15]  But let us elaborate on it further on:

The complicated international relation between the United States and China started when the U.S. sent a trading ship to china in 1784, the relation between the two countries deepened with the U.S. supporting the Chinese Nationalist Party during the 1927 Chinese civil war, as well as, the U.S. and its allies supporting China in the second Sino-Japanese War against the Japanese in 1937, Furthermore, this support expanded to a militarily support in 1940, the military support increased more after the bombing of pearl harbour in 1941.[16]

After the end of World War I with the defeat of Japan, another civil war started in China in 1946 that ended with the defeat the Nationalist government,  the People’s Republic of China was established by Mao Zedong In 1949, which resulted in the United States limiting its relation with China, this continued for decades with the U.S. criticising China’s practices in the Korean War, Taiwan Strait, and Tibet,  over its even threatening a nuclear attack in 1955, the tension deepened after China developed an atomic bomb in 1964.[17]

After Henry Kissinger visited China in 1971, the United Nations recognized the People’s Republic of China and its government took a seat in the United Nations Security Council, later in 1979, the US- China normalised its relations and formed diplomatic ties. However, the relation between the U.S. and China stayed unstable due to Beijing’s Tiananmen Square demonstrations, Chinese embassy bombing in Belgrade by NATO, and the U.S. Spy Plane situation, even after the normalising economic reaction between the two countries.[18]

Fear of China on a global scale started to escalate to a new phase after the nation started increasing its military spending by eighteen percent in 2007. The Chinese government argued that this increase is the result of training and other minor advancements within the army, but this didn’t sit well with the U.S. government, which viewed the increase as irregular and unreliable despite China’s claims of peaceful rise. The U.S. government’s concerns grew even further as a result of China’s economic clout when it became the US’s largest creditor in 2008.[19]   

In 2010, China officially entered the international economic leadership race when it became the second largest economy behind the United States, with even experts expecting it to win that race and becoming the largest economy in 2027, resulting in the change of the U.S. foreign policy “Obama’s pivot to Asia”, and sparked the trans-pacific partnership “TPP” with Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, Singapore, Australia, Vietnam, Peru, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, and Mexico as a way to contain china’s growing international economic influence, Later the U.S. stationed military personals to Australia as a deterrence mechanism. 

Even after, Sunnylands Summit between the U.S. and China’s Presidents, the situation continued to escalate over the years from the South China Sea issues, the U.S. boycotting Olympics in Beijing, the U.S. threatening sanctions against China in case of China military supported Russia’s conflict with Ukraine, Nato labelling China as a security threat and U.S.  House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visiting Taiwan and the continuous trade war between the two countries.[20]

Can the escalating situation between the United States and China be called a conflict?

Yes, looking at the history of relation between the United States and the People’s Republic of China since 2007, some of 6 points in Edward Azar’s Aggressive behaviour can be identified easily while the cooperative behaviour points are almost non-existing.

The aggressive behaviour between the two countries includes arm racing and increasing the military spending, diplomatic boycotting, threats of sanctions, creating organisations to limit the other country’s influence such as trans-pacific partnership and BRICS, and espionage.

While examining the types of conflicts, the United States and China are considered in an economic/ trade conflict, cyber warfare, war by proxy, and diplomatic conflict.

Each country aims to undermine the influence and power of its opponent in order to achieve its national interest and goals whether to preserve or change the international system order.

To understand the reasons for the current conflict between the United States and China, one must take into account the national interests of both countries, their opposing ideologies, and the uncertainties resulting from the arms race that both of them participate in.

National Interest Reasons:

Any international conflict starts due to an interest contradiction between two or more states or groups, in the case of the United States and China, it’s a zero-sum game, while China is trying to challenge the international system order and raise as an economical and political leader, the United States interest is to preserve the international system order as it is under a U.S.  leadership. 

Ideological Reasons:

The United States refusal for any country that adopt a different ideology than liberal capitalism to raise in the international system is one of the factor that causes this conflict, while the United State had no issues with Japan begin its largest creditor as it follows liberal capitalist ideology but voiced out its concerns of China’s economic clout when it became its largest creditor in 2008.

Arm Race Reasons:

This conflict started to take a serious turn in 2007 when the United States preserved China’s decision to increase its military spending by eighteen percent as an that contradicts their claim of a peaceful rise of China, looking from a realist point of view, with the anarch state of the world that revolves around uncertainty and predicting the worst, both countries would continue to arm themselves out of fear of each others intentions, However, the two countries have been in the nuclear world club since 1945 and 1964, which somehow act as a deterrence factor for both of them from escalating the conflict into a violent one that might lead to a devastating consequences on the entire world.

In the end, while it’s highly unlikely that the United States and China’s conflict will turn into an armed conflict, this conflict is a zero-sum game that will only end when one country achieves its interests and the other fails to do so, or if the two countries negotiate a more favourable outcome, which is highly unexpected from them.

[1] General Multilingual Environmental Thesaurus, “international conflict”, EEA and Eione, Accessed at: 14 March 2024, Available at:,members%20of%20the%20global%20community

[2] Ho-Won Jeong, “Understanding Conflict and Conflict Analysis”,SAGE, London, 2008, pg.5.

[3] United Nations Economic and Social Council, “Armed conflicts and their consequences”, United Nations, Accessed at: 14 March 2024, Available at:

[4] Prevention Web, “International Armed Conflict (IAC)”, UNDRR, 2020, Accessed at: 14 March 2024, Available at:

[5]  Goldstein, Joshua S., Pevehouse, Jon C., “International Relations”, Pearson, 2011, ed 10, pg 153-155

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid

[8] Prevention Web, “Non- International Armed Conflict (NIAC)”, UNDRR, 2020, Accessed at: 14 March 2024, Available at:

[9] Goldstein, Joshua S., Pevehouse, Jon C., Ibid.

[10] World 101, “What Is Interstate Conflict?”, World 101, 16 May 2023, Accessed at: 15 March 2024, Available at:

[11] Ibid

[12] RAND, “Cyber Warfare”, Rand, Accessed at: 15 March 2024, Available at:,denial%2Dof%2Dservice%20attacks.

[13] R.J. Rummel, “UNDERSTANDING CONFLICT AND WAR: VOL. 4: WAR, POWER, PEACE”, University of Hawaii system, Available at:

[14] Childre, Jr, Donald E., “EDWARD E. AZAR’S EARLY WARNING MODEL – DOES IT WORK?”, Air Force Institute Of Technology, Master Thesis, 1 September 1990, Pg. 24-26.

[15] “Unavoidability of Sino-American rift: History of strategic decoupling”, Anis H. Bajrektarevic, AEI Insights: An International journal of Asia-Europe relations, Vol.7 N0.1 (2021): AEI INSIGHTS

[16] U.S. Mission China, “HISTORY OF THE U.S. AND CHINA”, U.S. Embassy & Consulates in China, 15 June 2018, Accessed at: 17 March 2024, Available at:

[17] U.S.-China Policy Foundation, “U.S.-China Relations: A Brief Historical Perspective”, U.S.-China Policy Foundation, Accessed at: 17 March 2024, Available at:

[18] Council on Foreign Relations, “1949-2023 U.S.-China Relations”, Council on Foreign Relations, Accessed at: 17 March 2024, Available at:

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

Fatma Tawfik
Fatma Tawfik
Fatma Tawfik is an international researcher pursuing a master's degree in political science. She has previous experience working for non-governmental organizations.