That is a significant shift from the prevailing view in the United States since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 that close economic engagement with China would produce an increasingly democratic country that would be closely tied to an international economic order founded mainly on Western liberal ideals.
That has not happened.
China has indeed grown in prosperity, leaping into the ranks of what the World Bank defines as upper-middle income countries. Its economy is now bigger than any other country except the United States. Its manufacturing sector is now bigger than those of the United States, Germany and South Korea combined.
But in the last five years, China has veered toward increasingly repressive authoritarianism at home and a rapid military buildup. The State Department estimates that Beijing has put 800,000 to two million Muslims in hastily built internment camps ringed with barbed wire in northwestern China. The Chinese government has built an archipelago of air bases on artificial islands in the South China Sea in between Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. And China now has the world’s largest navy and has conducted military exercises as far away as East Africa and the Baltic Sea.
On the economic front, the competition is even fiercer. Trump administration officials warn that China is trying to dominate the global 5G infrastructure that will be the basis for future mobile communications and is competing to set other technological standards that will determine which global companies win.
China is extending low-cost loans and building infrastructure around the globe through its One Belt, One Road program, which critics warn is making poorer countries beholden to China. It is out-investing the United States in some high-tech industries, and is gaining dominance in certain segments, like mobile payment, new energy vehicles and areas of artificial intelligence.
While American companies have long hankered for access to China’s growing market, their position has begun to shift as they see China’s practices and treatment of foreign companies. A survey released by the American Chamber of Commerce in China in February showed that the majority of its members favored retaining tariffs on Chinese goods while trade negotiations continued.
China’s own experts say that the Beijing leadership has been caught off guard by the pace of change in American perceptions of Sino-American relations.
“Even if there is some kind of agreement between Xi and Trump, in the long run the strategic bilateral relationship is already in trouble,” said Zhang Jian, a professor in the School of Government at Peking University. “There is no coming back, even if there is a deal.”