US-China trade war is just the start of the struggle for global order

US-China trade war is just the start of the struggle for global order
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With Friday’s not-so-surprising announcement, the United States and China fired the opening volley in what will likely be a long, nasty trade war, slapping billions of dollars of tariffs on each other’s products.

But this is just the start of something much bigger: a U.S.-China “cold war,” a geopolitical competition our nation has not seen since the 1980s, that will only grow in scope and intensity as the months and years pass by.

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Forget North Korea’s nukes, the Iran deal, ISIS or trade squabbles with our neighbors to the north, or even a rogue Russia. The rise of China — now the world’s second largest economy and military — will be the national security challenge of our time. Everything else is a joke by comparison.

 

None of this should be a shock. As if it was not abundantly clear, Washington and Beijing are locked into a multi-domain struggle that will not only determine who dominates East Asia, but which superpower can rightly call the 21st century its own.

We should have all seen this coming. The glue that cemented the U.S.-China relationship, and what brought Beijing out of international isolation — a rising Soviet Union — disintegrated the moment the hammer-and-sickle disappeared over the Kremlin.

Tensions immediately began to rise, as leaders in Beijing were already locked in for a geopolitical struggle. Going back as far as the mid-1980s, scholars have documented that Chinese officials could see the old USSR beginning to rot from the inside, meaning that America would become its next national security challenge.

And events proved they were right. Just a few years after the Soviet Union imploded, Washington and Beijing squared off over the future of Taiwan. China would soon discover that it was ill-prepared to take on any part of the U.S. military, as its armed forces could not find — not to mention attack — America’s aircraft carriers off its coast, proving that waging war against the world’s only superpower would be a colossal mistake.

From that point, China’s leadership began what can only be described as a crash course to ensure that, when another confrontation occurred, they would be ready. They set out to remake their armed forces into a modern fighting machine — spending hundreds of billions of dollars. Today, Beijing is armed with not one but two aircraft carriers and a missile force that is poised to sink the U.S. Navy from land, all the while building fake islands and bases in the South China Sea.

But China did not seek to best America just in the defense sector. Oh, no, Beijing’s aims were much more ambitious. China’s leadership, for decades now, has based their own legitimacy on the rebuilding of their national power on a strong, modern economy.

No longer just a producer of cheap goods, or the world’s low-cost factory, Beijing is now attempting to become a technological and innovation powerhouse to rival not just America but also South Korea, Taiwan and Japan. Their “Made in China 2025” plan, which commits Beijing to spending hundreds of billions of dollars on subsidies to ensure domestic companies dominate their home markets in areas like AI, self-driving cars, computer chips, solar and more, could power China to become not only the world’s largest economy but, perhaps even more importantly, the world’s technological superpower.

Maybe most concerning of all is China’s territorial ambitions. Beijing seems to be pushing out in all directions, whether trying to dominate the East China Sea, to stamp out Taiwan’s fragile democracy or to turn the South China Sea into its own personal lake; China has made it clear that it will be the undisputed master of Asia’s waters, and won’t forever tolerate Washington’s blatant interference in what it calls its “core interests” — Chinese code for “spheres of influence.”

Thankfully, the Trump administration understands the challenge. Not satisfied with media-savvy rollouts or catchy foreign policy bumper stickers like the “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia, Team Trump is ready to take on China over the next six years. As one senior administration official told me a few months back: “We will impose costs on China.” And those actions are producing results.

From pushing back on China’s theft of intellectual and defense secrets and its unfair trade practices, to ensuring our military can fight China if war ever came, to making sure Beijing does not cheat on sanctions over North Korea, the administration is implementing the strategic shift towards Asia that should have been completed many years ago.

None of this will be easy, and Beijing will push back. Over the next few years, Americans must understand that the China challenge will be a multi-decade, long-term struggle with a nation that has the economic and military muscle to change global politics, trade flows and the very nature of international politics against our interests. That alone should make the average citizen — no matter their political persuasion — pay attention when they see the word “China” pop into the headlines.

Harry J. Kazianis (@grecianformula) is director of Defense Studies at the Center for the National Interest, founded in 1994 by President Richard M. Nixon, as well as executive editor on its publishing arm, The National Interest. Kazianis previously served on the foreign policy team of the 2016 Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTrump changes mean only wealthy immigrants may apply, says critic The Hill's Morning Report — Ford, Kavanaugh to testify Thursday as another accuser comes forward Viral video shows O’Rourke air-drumming to the Who’s ‘Baba O’Riley’ after Cruz debate MORE presidential campaign. He has held positions as Foreign Policy Communications Manager at the Heritage Foundation, editor-in-chief of The Diplomat, as well as a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The views voiced in this article are his own.