The essence of the U.S.-China rivalry

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The essence of the U.S.-China rivalry

The author is the head of the JoongAng Ilbo China Institute.

What is the essence of the U.S.-China strategic competition? In the United States, the dominant view is that it is a contest over hegemony. How about China? A book illustrating the thoughts of China was published in Korea last month, titled “The meeting of China and the United States: Power diplomacy and the rise and fall of Late Qing.”

Author Wang Yuanchong was born in China but studied Chinese history in the U.S. as “narrative changes if perspective changes.” He is a history professor at the University of Delaware, alma mater of U.S. President Joe Biden, and has been investigating the core of the U.S.-China discord in history.

Only two things penetrate the 130 years of U.S.-China relations from the time when the U.S. merchant ship Empress of China arrived in China in 1784 to the fall of Qing Dynasty in 1911, argues Prof. Wang: commercial benefits and propagation of American values. When the 19th century tobacco magnate James Duke saw on the bottom of the map of China that it had a population of 430 million, he said, “This is where we sell tobacco!” The U.S. only saw China as a place to make money. The U.S.-China trade war that started in the Trump administration in 2018 is nothing new.

America’s secondary focus as it deals with China is the sense of mission to propagate the advanced civilization America has had since the beginning. When Western countries set up diplomatic missions in Beijing after the second Opium War, they sent consuls, not ambassadors, as the highest diplomat. They did not perceive China as an equal civilized partner. At the time, the U.S. wanted to be faithful to its “manifest destiny” to spread the American culture and system to underdeveloped China. China appeared as a different form in America over time. It was a strategic friend when China made diplomatic ties with the U.S., but now it is a rival. It can become a friend again in the future. The ongoing U.S.-China discord is not the first nor the last.

This has many implications to Korea as we need to seek a way to survive amid the ongoing Sino-U.S. confrontation. While America and China won’t concede in the contest of values, they will continue to push and pull for commercial interests. As the fight goes on, Korea should take a deep breath and remain composed. Rather than fretting over choosing a side, we must broaden our understanding of the essence of the U.S.-China discord. As America and China are engaged in a tug-of-war, we should prepare strictly based on our national interests.
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