Opinion: Turning Outwards

A consideration of U.S.-China relations

With so much happening within the U.S., let alone right here in Portland, it is difficult to keep track of what is going on in our own backyards. So a call to extend our field of vision beyond the confines of our national boundaries, themselves wracked by conflict and controversy, may seem strange and even misplaced.

But turn our eyes outward, we must. Over the past several months, the relationship between the U.S. and China, the world’s two foremost economic superpowers, has experienced a frighteningly rapid decline. Barely a day passes without some tit-for-tat exchange of actions or accusations designed to make life difficult for the other country or exalt the superiority of their respective political institutions. It is hard to deny that the U.S.-China relationship has far-reaching and incredibly consequential implications both for American and Chinese citizens, but also the broader, international political order. Some, including former President Barack Obama, have suggested that U.S. involvement in Asia and its relations with China will come to define the course of the 21st century. But policy analysts have claimed that the U.S.-China relationship has sunk to their lowest point since Washington and Beijing formed diplomatic ties four decades ago. 

The causes of the deepening rift are complicated and varied. Part of the blame can be attributed to Trump, whose recent actions against China have been perceived by some as nothing but an opportunistic attempt to cover for his administration’s mishandling of the coronavirus and drum up nationalistic support for his 2020 election bid. Even if this is the case (and it certainly is), it would be shortsighted to dismiss the deep, and real, divisions that exist between the two countries—or, at the very least, that exist between their respective political regimes. Tensions between the U.S. and China have grown as a result of the coronavirus, but the points of contention between the two countries extend far beyond the pandemic. Whether it be issues relating to trade, technology, human rights, or defense, there seems to be little that the U.S. and China seem able to agree on. As Jeffery Bader, fellow at the Brookings Institute, recently wrote, “The differences between the United States and China on political, economic, ideological, technological, and security issues are real.” 

Points of contention are almost too numerous to count. Analysts have warned that, without proper caution, territorial disputes in the South China Sea could erupt into open, military conflict. Worries over national security spurred the Trump administration to sanction the Chinese-owned app TikTok in a move that experts say may lead to retaliatory measures by Beijing against American technology firms in China. In July, the Trump administration abruptly ordered China to close its consulate in Houston; in retaliation, the Communist Party of China (commonly referred to as the Chinese Communist Party or CCP) forced the U.S. to close its consulate in Chengdu. And Trump has floated a proposal for a blanket ban on travel to the US by the 92 million members of the CCP, a move which, if realized, would undoubtedly invite retaliation against American travel and residency in China. Topping off the long, but incomplete list, in June, the U.S. issued a ban on all Chinese graduate students with ties to the Chinese military, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently revealed that Trump was weighing banning all Chinese students from studying in the U.S. 

That’s not all. Putting aside political and economic disputes, ideological conflicts over human rights and liberal values continue to drive a deep wedge between the two global superpowers. The recent passage of the National Security Act in Hong Kong, and the CCP’s subsequent crackdown on democratic activists and newspaper outlets, invited international consternation and sanctions. Reports have shown that the CCP has detained between one to three million Uyghur Muslim minorities in mass internment camps in northwestern China. Beijing claims that these camps are nothing more than vocational training centers, but reports suggest that some Uyghurs have been tortured and subjected to forced labor. 

The U.S. and China appear to be caught in a spiraling escalation of tensions with no clear end in sight. Some policy experts and analysts have already begun to use the phrase “cold war” to describe the relation between the two superpowers. Even those prone towards optimism suggest that the presence of deep political and ideological divisions between the two countries mean that descent into a 21st century cold war is only a matter of time. At the very least, there seems to be widespread agreement that the cooperative impulses that had driven U.S.-China engagement over the past several decades have almost entirely disappeared. As Russel Flannery wrote in a recent Forbes piece, “the rift between the United States and China threatens to become a chasm.”

The issue is clearly complicated, and I’m not here to take a side in the debate or propose any solutions. But I spent the last year-and-a-half studying in China and Taiwan, and that experience gave me a greater appreciation for the importance of making an attempt to inform myself about issues that, at first glance, may seem like a world-and-a-half away but in fact are closer than we may realize or even like to admit. Regardless of who you may be, it’s clear that U.S.-China relations have profound implications, both for ourselves and for future generations. Trying to understand the current conflict between the two superpowers may not be an easy task, but as students at an educational institution committed to preparing their graduates to engage with the many challenges confronting an increasingly globalized and interconnected world, it is our responsibility to try our best to inform ourselves about this complicated, but critically important, relationship. So if you’re able to find some time in between your weekly Moodle posts and harrowing Portland Mercury headlines, take some time to read up on what may come to be one of the most important international relationships in the 21st century.

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