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July 11, 2019

Responding To: The Future of U.S.-China Relations: Friend or Foe?

The Need for A Race to the Top

Lakshmi Iyengar

2019 marks 40 years since President Jimmy Carter granted China full diplomatic recognition. In the years since then, economic and cultural exchange between the United States and China have risen beyond expectation. The past few years, however, have borne witness to increasing economic and political tension between the two nations centering on issues such as trade, the South China Sea, and technology development and use. The shift in the bilateral relationship is often attributed to a China that wants to alter the current international system and a United States that is unwilling to adjust for a rising superpower that can rival itself. These increasing tensions have resulted in the adoption of more aggressive policy, such a tariffs and stricter investment policies, by both countries.

Most analysts believe that future U.S.-China relations will continue to deteriorate as the nationalistic rivalry in the political and economic arena heightens. I don’t think this is true. Openly accepting and confronting friction between two nations is not a bad thing, but instead an opportunity to redefine the relationship as one of friendly competition. China will only grow in power and influence, and the resulting tension with the United States can be used positively to encourage private sector growth. This need not be the result of tariffs or restrictive policy, but instead from nationalistic competition.

Although a positive U.S.-China relationship is possible, it may not be likely. To achieve friendly competition, both parties must be willing to maintain constructive, mutual engagement. The Trump administration is increasingly moving towards restrictive trade policies that promote disengagement and “America First”. The U.S. 2018 National Defense Strategy designates China a revisionist power, reinforcing notions of negative competition and zero-sum power politics. China, with domestic policy such as “Made in China 2025” parallels the U.S.’s increased focus on domestic growth and innovation. These nationalist policies can only persist for so long before either resulting in a firm stance of disengagement and cold war, or reversing into friendly competition that encourages continued engagement and diplomacy. I’m inclined to believe that the latter will occur. As China grows in influence and economy, it will become a natural ally for the United States to battle issues of global, and therefore domestic, security such as climate change and global health. And these issues are too large for either country to battle alone.

Friendly competition allows for competition in arenas which improve the welfare of both countries and the globe. It also allows for collaboration in areas of common interest such as aid in developing countries and medical technology. On a domestic level, friendly competition will encourage increased investment in technological and education sectors—areas that will greatly impact the economy of the two nations in the coming decades. On an international level, this will result in investment in the infrastructure, education, and aid services in developing countries in efforts to spread influence.

A race to the top is possible, and even likely. Yet, if both countries continue to trend towards disengagement, this outcome will happen later rather than sooner. Still, imminent threats to global security as well as the increasingly intertwined nature of the international state system today make conflict between the two nations more frequent and costlier. If both the Chinese and American governments prioritize their citizens, they will aim for friendly competition as soon as they can.

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