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“That is the question,” John Negroponte, the director of national intelligence under President George W. Bush and now a professor at the University of Virginia, told me. In Washington, he continued, “is anyone really thinking about the long-term relationship? To the extent they are, they are thinking about it in a negative, adversarial direction.”
As China quickly becomes a superpower, how its relations with the U.S. unfold will shape global affairs. If they descend into confrontation, the world could again split into two blocs competing for dominance, as happened during the Cold War. More cooperative ties, conversely, would bolster global economic prospects, as well as hopes that pressing international problems, such as climate change and nuclear proliferation, could be addressed.
“Do we want to preserve one world, one system? The relationship with China is critical to that,” Negroponte added. “Clearly, if there is one world, two systems, it’s going to be much harder to deal with global issues.”
Only a couple of years ago, few even imagined we’d be asking these questions. Cooperation with China was a core principle of American foreign policy. Ever since Richard Nixon’s 1972 summit with Mao Zedong in Beijing, Washington’s goal has been to entice China into the U.S.-led global order through bonds of trade and investment.
But recently, many think-tankers and policy makers in the U.S.—most prominently, President Donald Trump—have characterized that strategy as a colossal mistake. In their view, an overly generous U.S. transformed China into its chief rival for world economic and strategic supremacy. Worse still, Beijing has, its detractors insist, cheated its way to superpower stature by pilfering American technology and factories. And when you also consider China’s steady military buildup and assertive foreign policy, the country has appeared in Washington’s eyes to be more and more a threat, rather than a partner.
What changed? Mostly policy in China. President Xi Jinping, who took power in 2012, introduced a series of aggressive initiatives aimed at expanding China’s political and economic clout on a global scale. He launched the Belt and Road Initiative to construct infrastructure around the world, financed by Chinese banks and built by Chinese companies. A new industrial program known as “Made in China 2025” marshaled heavy state aid to accelerate the development of homegrown technology and national corporate champions in sectors from electric cars to robotics. Domestically, Xi has been busy devising a high-tech surveillance state to crack down more thoroughly on dissent and solidify his stranglehold on the nation.
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The U.S. response has been sharp, and startling. No longer would Washington so blithely accept China’s rise. Trump hiked tariffs on Chinese imports to compel Beijing to play fair on trade and open its restricted markets. The administration has lobbied its allies to bar telecom equipment from China’s Huawei Technologies, arguing that the mysterious company poses a security risk. This month, Washington warned Italy not to participate in Xi’s Belt and Road plan, stating that such a step “lends legitimacy to China’s predatory approach to investment.” Pompeo recently vowed that the U.S. would prevent China from choking off shipping through the South China Sea, most of which China claims as its own territory.