At press conference after press conference, President Trump’s appearances in front of the media continue to stoke the fire that heats the tensile relationship between the United States and China. Rhetoric that negatively frames China’s domestic and foreign policy has led many to grow weary of the direction that tensions seem to be taking. It seems, then, that the alienation between the two global powers is only burgeoning in depth.
While contentions between the US and China predate the Trump Administration, the last four years have proven to be especially tumultuous. The United States has moved towards more globally isolating international policy, in the process further incentivizing China to distance itself from the diplomacy table and pursue its own agenda. Indeed, they have; as China increasingly bolsters its economy and international influence, it further sends the United States into panic surrounding dealing with the threat of a new rival.
The crux of their conflict can be best described with a model of competitive game theory. One player in the game is the infinite player, focusing on attaining growth for itself and prolonged, indefinite survival. The other player is the finite one, focused on winning the game and beating its rival. The theory goes that, oftentimes, in a game between a finite and infinite player, the infinite player’s growth-orientation and desire to thrive for itself will leave the finite player frustrated and inefficient while it plays by a different set of rules. It seems that, in the status quo, China has governed its foreign policy decisions by a set of standards that much more reflects the philosophies of an infinite player. Through developments like the Belt Road Initiative and advancements in the South China Sea, China has consistently proven that its principal goal is not to beat out its competition on the international stage, but to increase its footholds within it: its dominance naturally follows. Yet, between tariffs and aggression to its rival, America has conversely proven itself to be a much more finite player in the game.
Today, with exacerbating tensions amidst the outbreak of COVID-19, advocates for a more geopolitically isolated state have even gone so far as to suggest taking approaches to dealing with China similar to those of the Cold War. Striking the optimal balance between beneficial bilateral trade and self-production of essential goods is a difficult task, but to overemphasize military aggression (both direct and by proxy) would be a significant disservice to the United States. As discussed earlier, for the US to treat China like the Soviet Union would be a bad misprioritization of objectives, and would mostly likely only further the United States’ frustration with its lag behind China’s growth. With the US election right around the corner, the Trump Administration has attempted to downplay the severity of the COVID-19 outbreak in hopes of keeping public approval high. Yet, the mismanagement of the outbreak has been disastrous for Americans, and for the United States to prioritize antagonizing China would certainly not make that better.
Instead of making a shift towards cooperation amidst the crisis, the United States and China have only strained their relationship further, a progression that seems to be damaging the United States more than China. With the United States’ nature as a more finite player, it’s unfortunately rather unsurprising. The importance of the United States reprioritizing cooperation and management of the crisis cannot be understated, perhaps now more than ever.