BEIJING/WASHINGTON – The trade war that the United States and China have waged along 2019 is a power struggle between the world’s established superpower and its main challenger.
The conflict’s main theater is the Pacific, and their contest revolves around technological supremacy, rather than traditional concerns of military might.
With initiatives such as the Belt and Road (also known as the New Silk Road), Beijing is looking to safeguard the Pacific region, where US influence has long been substantial, particularly in countries on China’s borders, such as South Korea or Japan, as well as Australia or Taiwan.
“The trade war is just one factor. It is a power struggle between an established superpower and an aspiring one that wants to become number one and dethrone the US,” Jean-Pierre Cabestan, professor of International Relations at the Hong Kong Baptist University, told EFE.
“The clash is much deeper and more serious than many people realize. We have entered a new Cold War with China.”
Much of China’s meteoric rise in recent decades is thanks to support from the US, who officially recognized Beijing in 1979 and helped ease the damaging effects of international sanctions following the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.
“For a long time, the US assumed China would become a market economy and be a friend that we can work with,” Eugene Gholz, professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, told EFE. “But people no longer believe that China will play by the rules.”
For years, the US was seen by China as an example to follow in terms of economic growth. Now, having grown from a poor, underdeveloped nation, China is ready to follow in Washington’s footsteps and become an authentic superpower in its own right.
“Before, China was poor and needed US investment. Now that is no longer poor, it doesn’t need it as much,” said Shen Dingli, director of American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.
Today, China is much more involved in the global economy and “has launched an offensive against what it calls ‘Western democracy,’’’ Cabestan said.
A THREAT TO NATIONAL SECURITY
And for the US, China’s rise to power represents the most significant threat to its national security.
In its latest Cyber Strategy report in 2018, the Pentagon was already warning that China, much like Russia, posed a risk because of its “persistent campaigns” that erode US military might and economic strength with cyber attacks in which they extract sensitive information from both private and public institutions.
James Lewis, vice president of the US think-tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies, speaks plainly of China’s attempts at data theft.
“China depends on advanced economies in Europe and in the US to get technology. And so they either buy it, or they steal it,” Lewis said.
China has increasingly opted for the latter option, he claims, particularly in the last five years, although the cyberattacks began much earlier.
In the last 20 years there have been about 140 cases of Chinese espionage against US interests, according to Lewis.
To counter these threats, the Pentagon has championed cyberspace operations to collect intelligence data and prepare its armed forces for a potential conflict, as well as attacking any malicious activity online.
China says it has “never” supported any cyber attacks, insisting that its only actions in that sphere are defensive.
Some analysts have speculated that the US might place China under a technological embargo.
“The consequences would be devastating,” said renowned Chinese economist Xu Chenggang, who pointed out that China’s growth in recent years was mainly due to the implementation of Western technologies.
In Xu’s opinion, China would really struggle to deal with such a scenario in the short term, as it is still not technologically self sufficient. He points out that everything depends on whether China is able to gain the confidence of developed economies to continue supporting their growth.
But confidence in China is in short supply at the White House, as demonstrated by President Donald Trump and his government’s consistent hostility towards and mistrust of Beijing.
Their fears come from the alleged close links between Chinese telecommunications companies, such as ZTE or Huawei, and the Communist Party, the intelligence community or the armed forces, or the specter that Chinese authorities can control the lives of people around the world and even subvert Western values through 5G mobile networks.
Although Huawei is not leading the race alone – it also faces competition from Nokia, Ericsson and Samsung – the US says it is Beijing’s support of Huawei that allows it to compete unfairly by keeping prices artificially low.
In China, these claims cause widespread outrage. Academics such as Zhu Feng of the University of Nanking, blame them on the “prejudice of the United States and Western countries against China.” He says the boycott of Huawei goes against free trade: “They have not been able to find security holes. It is nothing more than the traditional ideological prejudice.”
Technology dominates their conflict even in areas such as raw materials, known as ‘rare earth’ elements, which are crucial in the manufacture of electronic products, of which China controls 80 percent of global production. Few countries want to extract these materials due to their high levels of contamination.
Their application to defense systems has raised suspicions in the United States, especially after China’s President Xi Jinping visited a rare earth processing plant this year, something that some analysts saw as a veiled threat to limit supplies to the US.
Cabestan speaks of “potential blackmail,” but the Chinese Society of Rare Earths, which has ties to the government, denies that this scenario will play out.
The fear in Washington is that China maintains its control of production and thereby “could hurt the US’ ability to produce weapons that we need for our national defense,” Gholz said.
Washington’s solution has been to protect its market of rare earths by facilitating government investment in the sector, particularly in companies that are related to national security.