As the U.S.-China trade fight deepens, the two superpowers — one incumbent and one rising — are sizing each other up and deciding whether they can coexist.
China and the U.S. ended talks in Washington on Friday with no deal after President Donald Trump raised tariffs on more than $200 billion in goods from the country and China vowed to retaliate. The moves create new barriers between the world’s largest economies and further complicates a relationship which is increasingly strained over flashpoints that include trade, technology, Taiwan and the South China Sea.
Provocations have mounted in recent weeks. On Monday, two U.S. warships sailed near disputed islands in the South China Sea, challenging Beijing’s claims for the third time this year while the U.S. on Thursday barred China Mobile Ltd. from the U.S. market citing espionage concerns.
Behind each incremental move, Beijing sees a conspiracy to hold back China’s development and block its rise. In Washington, many fear a powerful rival whose ascent could unleash risks that can’t be contained. In both countries, some are asking whether the mistrust has escalated beyond the point of no return and could last well beyond Trump’s time in office.
Bonnie Glaser, a China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the competitive dynamic is here to stay so long as Beijing’s international influence continues to grow.
“The narrowing of the power gap between the U.S. and China will embolden Beijing to be more assertive in defending and advancing its interests. The U.S. will be compelled to respond,” Glaser said.
Outside of trade, the most visible catalyst for growing tensions is the Trump administration’s increasing willingness to push China on sensitive areas, including offers of greater military support to Taiwan and harsh rebukes of China’s policies in Xinjiang and Tibet. It has lobbied allies to keep Chinese tech giant Huawei Technologies Co. out of future 5G telecommunications networks while a U.S. State Department official said recently that China represents “a long-term threat” and a “great power competitor.”
Analysts see a broad clash taking shape.