No relationship is shaping the planet more. And no relationship seethes, across such a wide and consequential set of issues, with more tension and mistrust.
The United States and China are profoundly at odds on how people and economies should be governed. The two powers jockey for influence beyond their own shores, compete in technology, and maneuver for military advantages on land, in outer space and in cyberspace. But they are also major trade and business partners, making their rivalry more complex than those of the Cold War, to which it is sometimes compared.
That complexity was in full play when President Biden held a virtual summit with China’s top leader, Xi Jinping.
Antony J. Blinken, the U.S. secretary of state, has called managing the relationship with China “the biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century.” Yet China has vexed American policymakers ever since Mao’s armies took control of the nation — “liberated” it, in the Communist Party’s parlance — in 1949.
In the decades that followed, the party drove the economy to ruin. Then the government changed course, and China got much, much richer. Now, Mr. Xi, China’s leader since 2013, wants to restore the nation’s primacy in the global order.
“The East is rising,” Mr. Xi has said, “and the West is declining.”
Here are the main fronts in the contest that is defining this era.
Dominance Around the Pacific
The United States has used its naval and air might to enforce order across the Pacific region since the end of World War II. This is not a state of affairs that China will accept for the long term.
As China has built up its military presence in the region, the Biden administration has sought to widen America’s alliances with Australia, Japan, India and other nations. Beijing regards such actions as dangerous provocations meant to secure American “hegemony.”
A major potential flash point is Taiwan, the self-governing, democratic island that the Communist Party regards as Chinese territory. Mr. Xi has vowed to achieve the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” a project that includes bringing Taiwan under Chinese control. China has flown more and more warplanes into the airspace near Taiwan, sending a reminder that it has never ruled out annexing the island by force.
American presidents have long been vague about how forcefully the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense. This “strategic ambiguity” is meant to avoid provoking Beijing and signal to the island’s leaders that they should not declare independence with the idea that America would have their back.
Even so, the administrations of both Mr. Biden and former President Donald J. Trump have stepped up U.S. support for Taiwan. American warships have sailed through the Taiwan Strait. Small teams of troops have conducted training with the Taiwanese military.
Asked in October whether the United States would protect Taiwan, Mr. Biden said bluntly: “Yes, we have a commitment to do that.”
The White House quickly said his remark did not represent a change in U.S. policy.
Strength in Commerce
The trade war started by the Trump administration is technically on pause. But the Biden team has continued protesting China’s economic policies that led Mr. Trump to begin imposing tariffs on Chinese goods, including Beijing’s extensive support for steel, solar cells, computer chips and other domestic industries.
“These policies have reinforced a zero-sum dynamic in the world economy,” Katherine Tai, the United States trade representative, said in October, adding that “China’s growth and prosperity come at the expense of workers and economic opportunity here in the U.S.”
The cycle of tariffs and counter-tariffs that began in 2018 showed how interconnected the two countries’ economies are — and how vulnerable they remain if either side goes further to “decouple” them.
The tariff fight has prompted Mr. Xi to declare that China’s economy needs to be driven primarily by domestic demand and homegrown innovation and only secondarily by exports, in what he calls a “dual circulation” strategy.
Beijing officials say this does not mean China is closing the door to foreign investment and foreign goods. But the climate of economic nationalism has already ignited new interest and investment in homegrown brands. Chinese consumers are increasingly intolerant of foreign companies that fail to toe the party’s line on Hong Kong, Tibet and other hot-button issues or are otherwise seen as disrespectful to China.
As a result, Hollywood studios have all but stopped producing movies with Chinese villains. One of China’s biggest recent blockbusters, a government-sponsored epic, celebrates a bloody victory over the Americans during the Korean War.
Silicon Valley’s internet giants have mostly been shut out of China for years. The latest one to leave was Microsoft’s LinkedIn, which in October gave up trying to run its service under Beijing’s censorship requirements.
Plenty of other American tech companies still do big business in China, including Apple, Tesla, Qualcomm and Intel. This feeds all kinds of concerns in Washington: that Chinese agents are siphoning the companies’ technology and secrets; that the products they make in China are vulnerable to cybermeddling; that they are compromising on professed values in playing by Beijing’s rules.
It’s a vicious cycle. The Trump administration’s crippling of Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant, has made Beijing more conscious of how easily the United States can use its economic clout to limit China’s access to advanced technology.
“Technological innovation has become the main battleground in the global strategic game,” Mr. Xi told a conference in May. China, he has said repeatedly in recent years, needs to achieve “self-reliance.”
Understand China’s Historical Resolution
That, in turn, has made U.S. officials even more alert about stopping sensitive American know-how from ending up in Chinese hands. Washington agencies are more closely scrutinizing Chinese tech investments in the United States. Chinese-born scientists working in America have been arrested on accusations of concealing ties to the Chinese state, though the Justice Department has dropped some of those cases.
Human Rights and Freedoms
The Communist Party’s leaders have for decades bristled at outside criticisms of their authoritarian governance, calling them intrusions on national sovereignty. But as the party under Mr. Xi has doubled down on its iron-fisted approach to dissent, China’s confrontations with the United States over values and freedoms have become more frequent.
Washington has imposed sanctions on Chinese officials over Beijing’s sharp response to the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. The Commerce Department has restricted U.S. exports to companies involved in China’s crackdown in Xinjiang, the northwestern region where hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities have been detained for re-education and indoctrination.
Beijing officials insist that America need not see China’s ascent as a threat. In September, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, told Mr. Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry, that America’s “major strategic misjudgment” was behind the two nations’ deteriorating relations.
Mr. Wang cited a Chinese saying: “He who tied the knot must untie it.”
“The ball is now in America’s court,” Mr. Wang said.