#70 – Event Report – Trumped: the Future of China-US Rivalry


SHI Yinhong 时殷弘, Distinguished Professor of International Relations, Renmin University of China







Relations between China and the United States have long been typified by rivalry rather than accommodation. The on-going trade war between China and the US is the culmination of over a decade of trending strategic and trade hostilities between the two global superpowers. According to Shi Yinhong, Professor of International Relations at Renmin University, China’s rising economic and military strength under President Xi Jinping has mobilised its antagonists on the international stage.



The two major points of contention in the China-US rivalry narrative are on the strategic and trade fronts. Although Donald Trump has undoubtedly intensified hostilities since his election as US President in 2017, professor Shi identifies the structural trend for strategic rivalries between Beijing and Washington as being of increasing importance from as early as 2008, when the global financial crisis and economic recession hit. The rivalry, he notes, was simplified to contest between Hu Jingtao and Obama, then between current President Xi Jinping and Obama. Throughout 2017 it was the strategic front that dominated Xi and Trump’s attentions. The China-US arms race over the Western Pacific and maritime rivalries in the South and East China Seas have become increasingly hostile. According to Shi Yinhong, Trump’s strategy towards China in 2017 was to make China-US relations ‘the prisoner of a single issue’: North Korean nuclear and missile development. The US military strike against North Korea and ‘secondary sanctions’ against China seemingly ‘tamed’ China. Trade was a secondary ‘accessory’ for Trump until early 2018. A new dimension of China-US rivalry was demarcated by the concept of ‘sharp power’ and criticism of China’s perceived ideological drive abroad. Shi Yinhong notes how ‘predatory’ has become the Trump Administration’s standard adjective to describe China’s economic practices in the developing world, particularly President Xi’s promotion of the Belt and Road Initiative.



According to Shi Yinhong, it wasn’t until Trump had already leveraged all of China’s influence over North Korea, almost to the point of economic strangulation, that the US applied the same tactics to the China-US trade front. The trade rivalry between the two nations has espoused a similar narrative to the strategic front, with the structural elements for confrontation established well before Trump’s time in office. Since the 6th July 2018, when the US began installing higher tariffs on billions of imports from China, Donald Trump’s escalating trade war has forced China to make deeper, broader, and more rapid economic reform a priority. As it stands the US has imposed higher tariffs on 250 billion worth of Chinese goods with retaliatory duties placed on 110 billion of US products. Shi Yinhong warns that the liberal economic globalisation that has benefitted China since they joined the WTO in 2001 has been met with increasing unpopularity. He outlines four main areas of criticism: Chinese trade surplus or their trade deficit; China’s narrowing market access to US and other advanced industrial countries’ capital; state control of China’s domestic economy and economic and technological activities abroad, the most sinister of which being accusations of intellectual property theft and the emerging Made in China 2025 program, and the special preferences and considerable subsidies given to China’s state-owned enterprises. Shi Yinhong acknowledges that for most international audiences the US and European Union’s harsh criticism of China on these counts is considered legitimate.




As trade talks continue and further rounds of tariffs remain a possibility, Shi Yinhong argues that China’s desire to protect its vulnerable domestic economy from damage means the strategic front currently holds secondary status for the Chinese. He forecasts that Taiwan and the arms race with the US will take priority over other strategic affairs, a decision that is likely to bring about significant retrenchment on the strategic front. According to Shi Yinhong, the trade war in the context of China’s pre-existing economic vulnerabilities is definitely a historic one. In his view it has forced China to prioritise what has been a ‘somewhat diffused foreign policy agenda’ since the 18th CCP national congress six years ago. A change in priorities ‘is definitely a blessing to China’s diplomacy’ if the expectation of improved relations with Europe, Japan, South Korea, Australia and Canada, and the improvement of its trade practice, is made a reality. In Shi Yinhong’s view, China’s ultimate task is to avoid the dangerous possibility of a ‘dichotomy’ in the world political economy, with the US, on the one hand, mitigating their economic and trade rivals by dismantling the WTO, which might force China, on the other, to precariously depend on friendly developing countries to conduct its primary foreign economic activities.


Report written by Tara Doolabh

Video editing by Giulia Delgrosso



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