The increasingly thorny U.S.-China relationship has aroused international concern and become a central issue in the 2020 race. The United States has long sought to manage China’s rise by integrating the country—now one of the world’s two largest economies—into global institutions such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) in the hope that China would fully accept the prevailing international order. But U.S. policymakers have struggled to respond to Beijing’s growing assertiveness, including what experts call its unfair trade practices and its maritime and territorial claims in the South China Sea and elsewhere. There are also growing concerns over repression of the country’s Muslim Uighurs and other minorities, Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure plan to expand its influence across Eurasia, the national security risks posed by Chinese tech firms, and the future of Hong Kong and Taiwan.
The Barack Obama administration sought its own balance with China, stepping up WTO trade enforcement measures and blocking several high-profile acquisition deals involving Chinese companies, even while working with Beijing to complete the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate. Obama also announced a “strategic pivot” toward the Asia-Pacific region, the centerpiece of which was a twelve-nation trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which excluded China.
President Donald J. Trump has embarked on a more combative and unilateral course, rejecting the TPP and issuing tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese imports. His administration has framed China as a great power rival, even though Trump himself has occasionally sought closer ties with Chinese President Xi Jinping. As the trade war has escalated, foreign policy experts and lawmakers have increasingly concluded that heightened U.S.-China competition is here to stay. Democratic candidates, meanwhile, continue to debate the level of threat the Asian giant poses, how to respond to its trade challenge, and how much to prioritize economic interests over human rights in the relationship.