America, China and the art of confrontation


Tell me how this ends? was the despairing question attributed to American generals as they contemplated the quagmires in Vietnam and Iraq. The same question needs to be asked by US policymakers now, as they consider the escalating tensions between America and China.

The world’s two most powerful countries are locked into confrontations on a range of issues, including trade, technology, espionage and control of the South China Sea. Broadly speaking, there are two ways of interpreting these clashes. The first is that Donald Trump’s administration is determined to reset the US-China relationship. The second is that the US has now embarked on an effort to block China’s rise.

The first approach focuses on objectionable Chinese behaviour; the second objects to the very idea of China as a rival superpower.

Donald Trump and Xi Jinping. The Chinese need to recognise that there has been a profound and bipartisan shift in American thinking. Andrew Harnik

These two ways of thinking point to very different potential endings. The first approach — the reset — ultimately ends with a deal. The second approach — blocking the rise of China — points to a prolonged and deepening antagonism.

Even within the Trump administration, there remains considerable ambiguity about which of the two approaches the US is pursuing. The president has recently tweeted about getting a “a big and very comprehensive deal” with China. That suggests that he is a “reset” man. In real estate terms, he is aiming for a comprehensive renegotiation of the lease rather than a demolition of the building.