It is possible that some sort of a trade deal between Washington and Beijing will be announced shortly. There are a number of problems that an agreement could resolve, and the broad outlines of a deal remain the same as when Trump and Xi Jinping last met in December 2018. But regardless of the outcome, tensions between China and the United States are unlikely to abate. The fundamentally divergent and perhaps irreconcilable objectives of Washington and Beijing mean that any deal will be temporary at most and partial at best.
Competition in multiple critical sectors, antithetical political systems, and changed political dynamics suggest that competition is likely to get sharper, broader, and deeper. In Washington, there is an increasing, and bipartisan, concern over China’s unfair trading practices, military buildup, and abysmal human rights record. All of these pose a direct challenge to America’s core national interests. Meanwhile, although there is an emerging American—and increasingly international—consensus on the challenges posed by China, there is not yet an agreement on the nature of the challenges, nor the appropriate response.
On the economic front, intellectual property theft, forced technology transfers, and massive industrial subsidies, along with China’s bid to outpace US efforts in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and robotics, threaten to undercut not just the country’s technological edge, but its prosperity and security. The aggressive use of the Chinese military and Chinese non-state actors against America and American allies threaten Washington’s traditional security partners. On human rights, the Chinese Communist Party’s oppression at home — seen most clearly in the forced detention, torture, and re-education of as many as 1-2 million Muslim Uighurs in internment camps in western China — and the export of its surveillance systems abroad are not only an affront to American sensibilities, but to human dignity. This is in addition to Beijing’s attempts to interfere, shape, and silence public debate in the United States and among its allies, which strike at the heart of the principles of democratic society.
There is now a bipartisan chorus in the United States calling for a fundamental restructuring of the US-China relationship, even if there is not yet agreement on how best to do so. Unhelpfully, conversations continue to run in separate channels. The business, labor, financial, civil society, technological, diplomatic, and security communities might now share concerns about China, but they have divergent objectives, differing points of pressure, and varying pain thresholds.
While a potential trade deal would be a start towards recalibrating the relationship, a much broader strategic reset is also necessary. But a new strategy towards China will not take shape until Washington can address questions beyond economics and trade. Political leaders must better explain why America is competing with China, in which domains, with what resources, and for how long the country is willing to sustain such a competition. Competition can be used as a spur to shore up American strengths. But doing so will take sustained popular support that will only come when the public understands the stakes.