Tensions build between U.S. and China

The People’s Republic of China and the United States have historically had a rocky relationship, and with the developed tension, there is the possibility of a war breaking out, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. Whether this will come to fruition has yet to be seen, but there are disagreements between the countries, even when it comes to the fundamentals, according to Associate Professor of History Guo Wu.
“A major problem from the North American perspective and the Chinese perspective is probably still the ideology because China is still a communist or socialist country,” Wu said. “I believe there is still a very deep fracture between the fundamental systems of the two countries.”
Aside from the government systems clashing, there is a seeming “competition” going on between the two countries in terms of influence and economics, according to a Chinese student who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of political retaliation. The U.S. is a world superpower, and China wishes to be one.
There is a gap between the United States and China’s gross domestic product, with the U.S. having a higher GDP. However, the gap between those two GDPs are slowly closing. This shift allows China to “be considered as a competitor rather than a junior partner, no matter what,” according to Wu.
In order to potentially “destabilize” and “decentralize” the international influence of the United States, China has collaborated with Brazil and other countries in order to switch their use of the dollar bill to another currency, according to the student.
The Bretton Woods Agreement allowed the US dollar to thrive more internationally, according to Wu. Made in New Hampshire in 1944, this agreement sought to make gold the global standard for a set currency exchange rate, as Corporate Finance Institute explains.
“But I think it’s the Chinese intention now to be more unified with a country like Brazil,” Wu said. “China is working with developing countries like Brazil to try to provide an alternative to the U.S. dollar-dominated financial system. I think this is a strategic assessment of the Chinese government now that it’s unfair for America to do everything over the world. There was already military dominance and then there’s U.S. dollar dominance.”
Aside from competition creating a rift between the two countries’ relationship, there is also a lack of trust due to the recent Chinese intelligence spy balloon that the United States shot down, according to Professor of Political Science Sharon Wesoky.
“We do spy on each other all the time,” Wesoky said. “That was just a really unfortunate situation. I think the U.S. probably did the right thing by shooting it down. There’s some evidence that it was maybe just off-course, but nonetheless obviously it was bad for the relationship between our countries.”
The effects were not just political, though. There were also psychological effects on the American people, according to Wu.
The balloon was a one-time occurrence, but larger impacts came from the long-term COVID-19 pandemic. Donald Trump’s inflammatory comments toward China while in office created racial tensions and discrimination, according to Chrissy Sun, ’26, an international student from China.
A lot of criticism went back and forth about how COVID-19 was dealt with between the two countries, according to the anonymous student. While the U.S. delayed quarantine too long, China was focused on the pandemic for a long time and was strict, according to the student.
“We didn’t have much freedom to get out of our apartment, our house,” the student said.
Despite high tensions, though, the consensus between Wu and Wesoky is that an official war will not break out unless it were over Taiwan.
“In certain ways, we’re in a cold war because of a confrontational stance that both sides are taking,” Wesoky said. “There’s a certain amount of ambiguity about Taiwan, for example, which is risky.”
Taiwan used to be a part of the Qing dynasty, but was ceded to Japan in 1895, according to Wu. The Nationalist government took it back in 1945 after the surrender of the Japanese and retreated to the island in 1949 after its own defeat by the Communists.
Today, the dispute is mainly around the relationship between the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan. The PRC claims Taiwan as a province that was not taken over successfully in the Civil War, but Taiwan sees itself as the still-existing Republic of China. The U.S. recognizes that there is only one China in the world and the PRC government is the only legitimate government to represent China internationally, but it remains ambiguous whether Taiwan is a part of the PRC. The U.S. merely “acknowledges” the Chinese position.
“Taiwan’s role is crucial,” said Wesoky, referring to the relationship between the U.S. and China. “The U.S. has an unofficial security guarantee to Taiwan. And many people rightfully — I am agnostic on that — have the belief that Taiwan is sovereign Chinese territory. And as a democracy in particular, the United States would like to support a fellow democracy.”
In 2022, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a visit to Taiwan. More recently, Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-Wen, made a visit to California to meet with current House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
“The China government is very unhappy about the Taiwan president visiting the U.S.,” the student said. “I believe Taiwan is getting involved so much because both U.S. and China can get a benefit from them.”
Aside from politics, the relationship between the two countries is affecting the people as well, and there is a distinction between the two, according to the anonymous student. Both countries are removing embassies and blocking each other out, and notoriously, the U.S. is issuing fewer student visas to Chinese students, which “directly affected my life,” the student said.
“The best diplomacy we can have is by showing ourselves as an open, tolerant, creative society,” Wesoky said. “And if we’re not willing to do that, we’re not putting our best foot forward with respect to China.”
Although both countries have had struggles communicating and trusting one another, Wesoky hopes for a change in approach by the U.S. government in regards to China.
“Our government is perhaps unnecessarily confrontational,” Wesoky said. “I think we should distinguish between areas where we should compete and critique China on issues like human rights, but I’m not sure confrontation is a good strategy. I think that the U.S. can best lead through its values through being a democracy and not being afraid but being assertive of its values — and that puts us in a better position in the world.”