ASPEN • From trade wars to real ones with missiles and warships, China is seen as America’s biggest rival, and the future of that rivalry was up for debate Thursday at the Aspen Security Forum.
The annual event, in its 10th year, draws top security thinkers from around the world. Much of the first of the forum’s three days focused on China, including whether the U.S. approach to the burgeoning powerhouse is working.
One theme arose: As China’s wealth and power grows, rivalry with America is nearly unavoidable. With a growing middle class, China has shifted from the maker of tennis shoes and toys for export to the U.S. to a nation with booming businesses that increasingly competes with its American counterparts.
“We used to have complementary economies,” said Thomas Pritzker, executive chairman of the Hyatt Hotels, which has big interests in China. “That has now pivoted to a competitive environment”
China also is building a military designed to match American power and give the People’s Liberation Army global reach.
“I think since the end of the Cold War, it is the important strategic risk that we bear,” Adm. Philip Davidson, who leads U.S. forces in the Pacific, told an elbow-to-elbow crowd.
Such discussions of global markets and national security have drawn growing numbers of government and business leaders to Aspen for the forum. This year, top speakers range from industry types such as Pritzker to top military leaders and heads of think tanks.
The popularity of the event left attendees standing at some talks Thursday. The sessions on China were especially popular.
China has made headlines in recent days as President Donald Trump continued his rhetorical battle with Beijing. Trump pledged through his 2016 campaign to cut massive trade deficits with China and to force Beijing to give American imports better terms through a program of retaliatory tariffs.
“And we’re taking the toughest-ever action to confront China’s chronic trade abuse,” Trump said Monday. “They were doing numbers on us for many years.”
Stephen Orlins, who heads the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, said growing wariness among business types toward Beijing policies make China a hot topic.
“There’s no question that the consensus that used to support constructive U.S.-China relations has dissipated,” Orlins said.
Worry over Beijing policies predates the Trump administration’s fiery trade war, which has seen both nations lobbing tariff threats.
Part of the skepticism stems from “promise fatigue” over China’s government not following through on deals pledged for U.S. business interests in the Obama years, said Anja Manuel, who oversaw South Asia policy at the State Department for President George W. Bush’s administration.
American businesses have spent nearly 50 years trying to turn China’s massive population into profits.
As late as 2015, Manuel said, U.S. firms focused on what they were doing wrong in China rather than how the Beijing government was freezing out U.S. business
That’s all changed, she said. “Now it is time for them to buck up and do what they need to do to give us access.”
But China isn’t looking to the U.S. for friendship these days, Davidson said. Beijing has built friends through its “belt and road initiative,” which offers poor neighbors economic benefits and loans in exchange for diplomatic deals and trade, the admiral noted.
“China is moving quite perniciously across the Pacific if not the world,” he said.
China also is expanding its borders through a chain of artificial islands in the South China Sea, military outposts built from dredged sand. The U.S. has repeatedly run its ships past the new Chinese Islands in a bid to enforce international shipping rules, sparking outrage from Beijing.
If China owns that water, it can shut down much of the world’s economy, Davidson said.
“I will tell you, $3 trillion in goods traverse those waters every year.”
The new China also is showing its muscle in space, he said.
“This year, they will launch more satellites than any other nation on the planet, including the United States, and it will number 100.”