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U.S.-China Relations: What to Know

No relationship is shaping the planet more. And no relationship seethes, across such a wide and consequential set of issues, with more tension and mistrust.

The United States and China are profoundly at odds on how people and economies should be governed. The two powers jockey for influence beyond their own shores, compete in technology, and maneuver for military advantages on land, in outer space and in cyberspace. They are also major trade and business partners, making their rivalry more complex than those of the Cold War, to which it is sometimes compared.

A virtual summit in November between President Biden and China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, produced no breakthrough steps toward better relations. Instead, both sides reiterated points of longstanding contention, agreeing only on the need to prevent competition from escalating into broader conflict.

Only three weeks later, the White House announced that American officials, though not athletes, would boycott the Winter Olympics that open in Beijing in February. It was a diplomatic snub that officials in China angrily vowed to avenge. Australia followed the American lead, and several others have signaled that they would find ways to protest China’s human rights abuses, casting a show on an event officials hoped would be a showcase of the country’s international standing.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has called managing the relationship with China “the biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century.” Yet China has vexed American policymakers ever since Mao’s armies took control of the nation — “liberated” it, in the Communist Party’s parlance — in 1949.

In the decades that followed, the party drove the economy to ruin. Then the government changed course, and China got much, much richer. Now, Mr. Xi, China’s leader since 2013, wants to restore the nation’s primacy in the global order.

The East is rising,” Mr. Xi has said, “and the West is declining.”

Here are the main fronts in the contest that is defining this era.

White House officials said that the diplomatic boycott of the Olympics reflected American dismay over China’s ongoing crackdown in Xinjiang, the northwestern region where hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities have been detained for re-education and indoctrination.

“We will not be contributing to the fanfare of the Games,” the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said on Dec. 6, noting that the United States had formally defined China’s behavior as genocidal.

The announcement followed an unexpected flurry of attention from the sports world over the way China treats its citizens. The Women’s Tennis Association on Dec. 1 suspended its tournaments in China in protest of the government’s response to an accusation by Peng Shuai, a doubles champion and three-time Olympian, that a senior government official had coerced her to have sex.

In the National Basketball Association, Enes Kanter, a center for the Boston Celtics, has become similarly outspoken in his criticism of Chinese repression in Tibet and Xinjiang, bucking a trend of league officials speaking softly when it comes to the country’s huge market. Broadcasts of Celtics games have since been suspended in China.

The Communist Party’s leaders have long bristled at outside criticisms of their authoritarian governance, calling them intrusions on national sovereignty. As the recent developments show, though, confrontations with the United States have become more frequent, reflecting the party’s increasingly iron-fisted approach to dissent under Mr. Xi.

The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on Chinese officials over Beijing’s sharp response to the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, as well as to the Xinjiang crackdown.

American officials have also expressed concern about labor programs involving workers from Xinjiang who are transferred to factories and cities. The idea behind such transfer programs is that steady work can alleviate poverty and instill loyalty, but experts say the programs amount to forced labor.

China flatly denies that and says its policies in Xinjiang are meant to curb religious extremism. Officials have called accusations of genocide the “lie of the century.”

The United States has used its naval and air might to enforce order across the Pacific region since the end of World War II. This is not a state of affairs that China will accept for the long term.

As China has built up its military presence in the region, the Biden administration has sought to widen America’s alliances with Australia, Japan, India and other nations. Beijing regards such actions as dangerous provocations meant to secure American “hegemony.”

A major potential flash point is Taiwan, the self-governing, democratic island that the Communist Party regards as Chinese territory. Mr. Xi has vowed to achieve the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” a project that includes bringing Taiwan under Chinese control. China has flown more and more warplanes into the airspace near Taiwan, sending a reminder that it has never ruled out annexing the island by force.

American presidents have long been vague about how forcefully the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense. This “strategic ambiguity” is meant to avoid provoking Beijing and signal to the island’s leaders that they should not declare independence with the idea that America would have their back.

Even so, the administrations of both Mr. Biden and former President Donald J. Trump have stepped up support for Taiwan. American warships have sailed through the Taiwan Strait. Small teams of troops have conducted training with the Taiwanese military.

Asked in October whether the United States would protect Taiwan, Mr. Biden said bluntly: “Yes, we have a commitment to do that.”

The White House quickly said his remark did not represent a change in policy.

The trade war started by the Trump administration is technically on pause. But the Biden team has continued protesting China’s economic policies that led Mr. Trump to begin imposing tariffs on Chinese goods, including Beijing’s extensive support for steel, solar cells, computer chips and other domestic industries.

“These policies have reinforced a zero-sum dynamic in the world economy,” Katherine Tai, the United States trade representative, said in October, adding that “China’s growth and prosperity come at the expense of workers and economic opportunity here in the U.S.”

The cycle of tariffs and counter-tariffs that began in 2018 showed how interconnected the two countries’ economies are — and how vulnerable they remain if either side goes further to “decouple” them.

The tariff fight has prompted Mr. Xi to declare that China’s economy needs to be driven primarily by domestic demand and homegrown innovation and only secondarily by exports, in what he calls a “dual circulation” strategy.

Beijing officials say this does not mean China is closing the door to foreign investment and foreign goods. But the climate of economic nationalism has already ignited new interest and investment in homegrown brands. Chinese consumers are increasingly intolerant of foreign companies that fail to toe the party’s line on Hong Kong, Tibet and other hot-button issues or are otherwise seen as disrespectful to China.

As a result, Hollywood studios have all but stopped producing movies with Chinese villains. One of China’s biggest recent blockbusters, a government-sponsored epic, celebrates a bloody victory over the Americans during the Korean War.

Silicon Valley’s internet giants have mostly been shut out of China for years. The latest one to leave was Microsoft’s LinkedIn, which in October gave up trying to run its service under Beijing’s censorship requirements.

Plenty of other American tech companies still do big business in China, including Apple, Tesla, Qualcomm and Intel. This feeds all kinds of concerns in Washington: that Chinese agents are siphoning the companies’ technology and secrets; that the products they make in China are vulnerable to cybermeddling; that they are compromising on professed values in playing by Beijing’s rules.

It’s a vicious cycle. The Trump administration’s crippling of Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant, has made Beijing more conscious of how easily the United States can use its economic clout to limit China’s access to advanced technology.

“Technological innovation has become the main battleground in the global strategic game,” Mr. Xi told a conference in May. China, he has said repeatedly in recent years, needs to achieve “self-reliance.”

That, in turn, has made officials in the United States even more alert about stopping sensitive American know-how from ending up in Chinese hands. Agencies are now scrutinizing Chinese tech investments more closely. Chinese-born scientists working in America have been arrested on accusations of concealing ties to the Chinese state, though the Justice Department has dropped some of those cases.

Beijing officials insist that America need not see China’s ascent as a threat. In September, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, told Mr. Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry, that America’s “major strategic misjudgment” was behind the two nations’ deteriorating relations.

Mr. Wang cited a Chinese saying: “He who tied the knot must untie it.”

“The ball is now in America’s court,” Mr. Wang said.

Apsny News English

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