United States-China: The clock is ticking, but there’s still time to reset the relationship

By Ariel Armony
(Originally published in the Spanish in La Nación, "EE.UU.-China: el reloj corre, pero aún queda un espacio para resetear la relación," July 25, 2020)

Eleven years ago, I taught at the prestigious University of Nankai in China through the Fulbright Scholar Program. In one of my classes, I asked the students if they believed that economic development leads to democracy. My question sparked a rare, lucid, and optimistic debate about the future of China.

Today, the question would not make sense. In the last ten years, China’s political system has become much more authoritarian despite its
economic growth.

Furthermore, I would not even be able to ask the question. The Trump Administration abruptly eliminated the Fulbright Scholar Program to China.

My stay in Tianjin, Beijing, and other cities allowed me to build an invaluable network of contacts and collaborators. Nevertheless, in the last year, I’ve had to focus my attention, as the leader of a global university, on developing mechanisms in order to protect our scientific research, intellectual property, and cybersecurity when working with institutions in China.

Has a Cold War started between the U.S. and China?

Whether we call it a Cold War­­—confrontation or continuation­­­­—the reality is that the bilateral relationship between the superpowers is collapsing. The most pressing question is, how intense will the conflict between the two countries become in the coming years?

The areas of conflict are wide-ranging and complicated. To wit: they range from the commercial war to the 5G network, tensions over the coronavirus, accusations of stealing scientific research, the military escalation in the South China Sea, the autonomy of Hong Kong, the deterioration of relations between China and Australia, and all the way to the cooperation and incorporation of China and Russia in Eurasia. Not to mention Taiwan, Iran, India, Venezuela, Africa, Europe, the new Silk Road Initiative, the situation with the Uyghurs, and the Chinese investments in infrastructure all over the world. As if it were not enough, the statements coming from high ranking Trump Administration officials characterize China as the greatest threat to U.S. national security and the economy.

Whether or not China awaits the eventual extinction of western capitalism, as has been said at the highest levels of government in Washington, is less important than whether tensions will heat up quickly, raising anxieties while destroying what’s left of their mutual trust.

The United States accuses China of having abused the open system of global competition created after World War II. China supposedly used its closed internal system to take advantage of their participation in the World Trade Organization (WTO) and other multilateral organizations. Simultaneously, for many, the illusion that market democracy could contain Chinese expansionism has disappeared. The combination of both perspectives leads us
to the conclusion that we are in a new era of competition between the superpowers.

China and the United States embody two economic models within the capitalist scheme. And yes, they also represent two political models. Competition between a liberal democracy and a one-party system takes on a peculiar significance when the established democracies exhibit characteristics that are increasingly autocratic and the number of new autocracies outpaces new democracies for the first time since 2001.

From this point of view, this moment smells a lot like McCarthyism. The preoccupations about North American universities being threatened by evil agents, the general air of suspicion, the questioning of loyalties to the U.S., and the hostile attitudes toward individuals of Chinese origin have all filtered into North American culture. This context has created an exaggerated sense of vulnerability.

Nevertheless, strident declarations and scenarios that paint images of a future dominated by Chinese communism, China’s nuclear and military capacity, its indisputable expansionism, and the end of the U.S.’s global monopoly (adding to its own profound internal crisis), do not bode well for the future.

When thinking about the future of the conflict between China and the U.S. we must remember three things. First, China cannot be changed. Second, it cannot be ignored. Nevertheless, China must maintain its place in the global commercial order and China needs the U.S. in order to reach the levels of innovation and scientific advancement that will mark their future. This combination of elements suggests that there is apossibility to conceive of a new framework for mutual trust. The clock is ticking, but there’s still time to reset the relationship.


The author is the Vice Provost for Global Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

[English translation by Jessica Craft, Center for Latin American Studies]