Assessing the China Threat: Competitor or Enemy?

Lailee Golesorkhi, May 6, 2024

While delivering a campaign speech in January, ex presidential candidate Nikki Haley warned that the U.S. must prepare for a war with China [1]. She asserted that China is an “enemy," not a “competitor,” and that “China's dictators want to cover the world in communist tyranny” [2]. In a 2022 speech, Secretary of State Antony Blinken confused observers when he asserted that the U.S. is not looking for a Cold War with China only to paradoxically state later on that China is “the most serious long-term challenge to the international order” — even considering the egregiousness of Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine [3].


These sentiments are not unique to Haley or Blinken, nor were they selected for being particularly outlandish or bizarre. Rather, this perspective perfectly encapsulates the dominant perspective on China which has guided American policy towards the country for decades: it is necessary for the preservation of national security that the United States be either ideologically or economically at war with China at all times. 


As a matter of fact, this stance is merely a byproduct of the seemingly perennial metaphor of war which has been integral to both domestic and international policy of the U.S. Irrespective of whether the declared war entails actual combat (such as President Bush’s war on terror) or a more nebulous declaration against drugs or crime, this way of thinking is popular due to its ability to help policymakers rationalize and justify aggressive policy by harnessing nationalistic fervor. 


However, the application of this sentiment to China is uniquely puzzling because it suggests that the United States is – or ought to be – more hostile or antagonistic toward a state upon which it is undeniably dependent in a multitude of ways. The wars on terror, crime, and drugs all aim to eradicate things which most people would agree are detrimental to society, but what is the goal in our supposed “war” with China? Does the U.S. desire economic dominance, Taiwanese independence, or a more general form of domination? To what extent does the threat posed by China necessitate war, or even concern? A lack of regard for state sovereignty and hegemonic aspirations are nothing new in contemporary international relations, so why does China seem to receive disproportionate attention?


While the relationship between the United States and China is undoubtedly tenuous and characterized by mutual distrust, several of the threats ostensibly posed by China are inflated or blatantly misconstrued. It is politically irresponsible to espouse rhetoric which exaggerates or fabricates the threat posed by China, especially considering the military escalation such rhetoric may prompt. Thus, the goal of this article is not to make sweeping generalizations as to whether China is a competitor or enemy, but to independently assess several facets of the U.S.–China relationship and ascertain which actions truly pose a threat to or disadvantage the former.


Six spheres of Chinese policy and behavior are discussed below. First are three domains in which China has engaged in well-substantiated harmful or unethical actions, followed by three domains which have been harnessed by politicians to exaggerate and even fabricate, in some cases, the Chinese threat. In order to ensure a fair and controlled assessment, excluded are issues which do not directly affect the United States or are not unique to China; several provisions of international law pertaining to the environment and carbon emissions, for instance, are violated frequently and consistently by the overwhelming majority of nations including the United States, and highlighting this as a justification for policy which is antagonistic to China is disingenuous. Also excluded are broad claims pertaining to China’s desire for power, superiority, and economic prestige, as all states desire at least a mild degree of dominance to foster stability and security. Accordingly, the issues described below are only those which are relatively unique to China or have profoundly significant implications for U.S.–China relations.


Critical Concerns


Cyber Attacks


According to a 2023 report by the Department of Defense, China poses a particularly sophisticated threat to the United States’ cyber infrastructure and has been accessing sensitive information with relative ease for decades [4]. The rate at which the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is advancing its cyberspace attack capabilities is alarming; China now possesses the ability to launch cyberspace attacks which disrupt oil and gas pipelines, rail systems, and other infrastructure in the U.S. This threat extends beyond mere acquisition of citizen data and can be equipped by cyberspace forces to “build an operational picture of U.S. defense networks, military disposition, logistics, and related military capabilities.” Among the worst case scenarios would be the disruption of Department of Defense operations in the midst of a conflict, compromising the ability of the U.S. to respond in a swift manner. 


Particularly emblematic of this threat are the recent actions of Volt Typhoon (AKA Voltzite), a PRC state–sponsored cyber actor. Active since 2021, Volt Typhoon has become notorious for its targeting of critical American infrastructure, with affected organizations spanning across a plethora of sectors, including communications, government, and information technology [5]. A February 2024 report by the cybersecurity company, Dragos, indicated that Voltzite has been targeting the electric, satellite, telecommunications, emergency management, and defense sectors, all of which could be seriously disrupted if the group’s hacking efforts continue to escalate [6]. To preserve national security and preclude potentially catastrophic interference, thwarting Chinese cyber aggression ought to be a key priority of U.S. foreign policy. 


Expansionism and Disregard for Territorial Sovereignty


Among the most pronounced threats posed by China are its aggression in the South China Sea and claims to Taiwan, which – despite not directly affecting the U.S. – could entangle the country in a proxy-like conflict and have profound implications for the legitimacy of international law. China’s broad claims to the sea and its immense natural resources have led to conflict with states such as Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam, who have adamantly maintained their claims to certain islands and economic zones in the region for over 50 years [7].


Perhaps most illustrative of this conflict was a 2019 incident in which a Chinese fishing boat rammed into and sank a Philippine fishing boat near Reed Bank, one of many disputed areas in the South China Sea [8]. The Mutual Defense Treaty between the U.S. and the Philippines could force the former to intervene on behalf of the latter in times of war, potentially laying the groundwork for an indirect conflict between the U.S. and China if diplomatic negotiations failed and the conflict continued to escalate. Aggressive tactics, therefore, are not merely a cause for concern for Asian states and have the capacity to implicate the U.S. as a consequence of treaty stipulations. 


Of additional concern are the harmful implications of the fact that China has not been appropriately sanctioned for its largely illegal claims in the South China Sea, including the erosion of the legitimacy of international maritime law and encouragement of military escalation. This is especially applicable to China’s construction of artificial islands in the Spratlys, which claim over eight million square meters in the South China Sea. China’s 12+ nautical mile claims around its artificial islands at Mischief Reef and Subi Reef, for example, violate the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and are wholly illegal [9]. The state’s evasion of punitive measures even after such brazen violations of international law has emboldened Beijing and could encourage increasingly hostile behavior in the future, increasing the likelihood that the U.S. becomes entangled in a multistate conflict. 


In a similar vein, the U.S.- Taiwan relations, although intentionally ambiguous and characterized by an explicit non-commitment to Taiwanese independence, have placed notable strain on the relationship between the U.S. and China. The U.S. is in a dilemma in which it can either allow China to invade and claim Taiwan as its territory, eroding principles of territorial sovereignty upon which the international system is based, or bolster its relationship with Taiwan and prompt countervailing behavior from mainland China. The former option, despite appearing to be less confrontational, is simply not viable. According to a recent study by the U.S. Taiwan Business Council, losing access to Taiwan’s globally invaluable semiconductor industry alone could result in a loss of as much as $1.6 trillion, or 8% of the U.S. GDP [10]. A devastating economic blow, such an outcome would cause shortages in several industries and could become a reality if conflict were to erupt between China and Taiwan.


The precarity of U.S.-Taiwan relations is therefore undeniable and can be exemplified by the response to California representative Nancy Pelosi’s August 2022 visit to Taiwan. In order to discourage Pelosi from carrying out her visit, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) conducted several military drills which were progressively increased subsequent to her arrival [11]. Beijing intensified its military exercises around Taiwan, launched ballistic missiles over the island, escalated air and naval activity, and increased its volume of cyber attacks 23 fold. The significance of this sequence of events does not solely rest on its consequences, but on the fact that it occurred with little to no provocation. Pelosi simply expressed her support for Taiwan’s democracy, not its independence. She did not rebuke China or pledge to increase the U.S.’ military commitments to Taiwan, and yet, China’s reaction entailed some of the state’s most dramatic and rapid escalation in years. The message was loud and clear: peace with China would require a complete severing of relations with Taiwan, which the U.S. can not afford diplomatically or economically. The fragility of the situation is clear, and officials must proceed with caution. 


Questionable Allies

Additionally of concern is China’s pattern of supporting or refusing to rebuke regimes which have been charged with human rights violations or are blatantly authoritarian, rendering the procedural post-violation shaming and sanctioning of states which defy international law impossible. Perhaps the most notable example of this trend is the reluctance of the Chinese government to unilaterally condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While some Chinese officials have commented on the harmful implications of the invasion, others have placed blame on the U.S. and NATO for instigating the conflict or have simply refused to comment on Russia’s actions. This diplomatic ambiguity has been coupled with efforts by Beijing to preserve its strategic partnership with Russia through the purchase of Russian energy exports, thereby violating the secondary sanctions placed on the country. Vague calls for peace talks and occasional meetings with Ukranian officials are not a substitute for the condemnation required for an invasion of this magnitude, further calling into question China’s commitment to territorial sovereignty. The implications for Taiwan and disputed territories in the South China Sea are concerning, and it would be irresponsible for the U.S. to turn a blind eye.

Hyperbolized Concerns


The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)


In demonstrating the illegitimate and predatory nature of Chinese foreign investment, critics frequently denounce the PRC for employing what is described to be "debt trap diplomacy". Although repeatedly found to be an inaccurate characterization of Chinese investment, this narrative holds that the Chinese government strategically offers loans to developing nations with limited financial capital with the intent of assuming control over any infrastructure produced as a form of debt repayment [12]. Chatham House – an international affairs think tank – meticulously debunks the key arguments typically used to bolster claims that China engages in debt trap diplomacy. Emphasized in their comprehensive report on Chinese investment is that the BRI is not a predatory and malicious approach to infrastructure development as it is often described, but rather an initiative largely motivated by a desire for economic growth [13].


This truth extends beyond mere postulation and has been empirically proven by the very projects which have been harnessed by anti-China politicians to denigrate Chinese foreign investment, notably the Port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka. The dominant, anti-BRI understanding is as follows. Knowing that Sri Lanka would be unable to repay their debt, China lent money to the state to fund the construction of a major port at Hambantota with the intent of later seizing the port for military use. This perspective is flawed for several reasons, including the fact that Sri Lanka actually proposed the construction of the port, the port was never seized by China, and China’s navy vessels are still not permitted to use the port today. As do all states, China seeks to expand its influence predominantly through economic avenues, and singling out Chinese foreign investment as uniquely predatory or aggressive is plainly inaccurate.


Latin America


The Chinese threat has historically been perceived as a grave yet distant one, one which is significant enough to warrant extensive geopolitical consideration but geographically remote enough such that most threats posed by the country are indirect. However, recent collaboration between China and several Latin American states has brought an entirely new dimension to this perspective. China is now in the U.S.’ backyard, and it would be an understatement to assert that politicians do not approve. Take Floridian Congressman Michael Waltz, who reacted to this expansion by asserting that the U.S. needs a “new Monroe Doctrine” in order to counter Chinese influence in Latin America; he is referring to the widely condemned 19th century American policy which held that any intervention in the affairs of the Americas by foreign powers would be perceived as an act of aggression against the U.S.


To an extent, it is understandable that the U.S. views Chinese investment as a threat to its hemispheric alliance with Latin American states; 14 Chinese electric companies, for instance, were operating in Brazil by 2019, investing in construction projects worth a total of some $36.5 billion [14]. Furthermore, in order to secure aid and loans from China, several countries in Latin America have severed ties with Taiwan or refused to condemn China’s repression and human rights violations [15]. While these concerns are valid, panic regarding Chinese investment in the region in and of itself fails to acknowledge the agency of Latin America and the fact that China’s rise in the region has redounded to the advantage of many states. 


For starters, China’s relationship with Latin America has not been characterized by constant political intervention as has been the relationship between the U.S. and Latin America. China has characterized itself as a fellow developing country that recognizes national sovereignty, which helps to explain why the aforementioned acquisition of Brazil’s energy sector garnered minimal public backlash. If American firms were to engage in such action, the public would likely accuse those who approved the investment as being “entreguista” (or “someone who hands over”, in English), a term used to describe Brazilians who act in the interest of the U.S. instead of Brazil. This is not to say that Latin American states as a monolith prefer China to the U.S., but rather that there are certain sectors in which China is simply a more competitive trade partner. We ought to respect this decision.


Additionally disregarded by those touting concern over Chinese investment in Latin America are the many spheres in which the U.S.’ role simply can not and will not be undercut by China.  China has made no effort to intervene in several dimensions of the U.S.-Latin America relationship, notably drug related crime and immigration. These issues are completely in the purview of the U.S., and alarm regarding China’s increased economic role in the region is myopic at best and paternalistic at worst. 


Military Capacity


Among those who believe that the U.S. should prepare for war with China, one of the most frequently expressed fears is the PRC’s military strength. The sheer size and growing capabilities of the PLA have aroused the concerns of citizens and officials alike, but what many fail to consider is that China has a long way to go if it is to match the military capacity of the U.S., let alone exceed it. Many sources highlight the rate at which the Chinese military is expanding, but few anticipate that the U.S. will be in any serious danger if it gains the upper hand in certain spheres. A comprehensive 2019 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that China certainly is a rising power, but the notion that it is surpassing the U.S. militarily or preparing to launch any sort of offensive on the U.S. is simply unsubstantiated. Great progress has been made, but according to reports from Beijing itself, the PLA urgently needs improvements in the fields of mechanization, technology, and informationization and “lags far behind the world’s leading militaries” [16]. While China’s military has been progressively expanding to international frontiers in a manner similar to its Belt and Road strategy, the country still remains at a significant disadvantage when compared with the U.S., which has military bases in over 80 countries and strong mutual defense treaties with several Asian states [17]. Again, in this arena, China is described as catching up to – not exceeding the capabilities of – the U.S. The possibility of military parity between the states will not necessarily increase either side’s propensity for war, nor does it take into account potential developments in U.S. technology which could accelerate growth and preserve the country’s military dominance. 


Moreover, the borderline excessive economic interdependence that characterizes the relationship between the two states further refutes the notion that the U.S. would or ought to escalate tensions with China. Scholars espousing a more hawkish rejection of relations with China, as well as those more open to the diplomatic resolution of current conflicts, acknowledge the ​​fact that the economies of the U.S. and China are deeply intertwined in many regards. The U.S. is China’s largest export market, and China is the U.S.’s largest import market [18]. Very few officials believe that it would be advantageous for the U.S. to sever or inflame relations with China, but a militaristic approach coupled with rhetoric portraying the state as an axis of evil could absolutely jeopardize any positive interaction between the U.S. and China and prove catastrophic to both countries’ economies if this dependence were to collapse without warning. 



To summarize, China certainly behaves in problematic ways and has the capacity to cause and exacerbate conflicts, but this threat is often misrepresented or exaggerated in a manner which obscures reality and lacks nuance. The aim of this article has not been to espouse the formation of any single policy paradigm toward China, but to discredit the notion that we ought to treat the country as our enemy, or as a state with which the U.S. has completely incongruent values such that antagonism is the only option. 


Friction and great power competition have always existed. What distinguishes contemporary U.S.-China relations from those between other rivalries such as that between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, for instance, is the context of interdependence which has come to distinguish the current international order; the stakes are simply higher. Even proxy conflicts have become less common as norms regarding self-determination and allegiance to great powers have changed, eroding the likelihood that states merely stand by as the U.S. or China pulls them in conflicts. China relies on the U.S. for some $580 billion of exports per year, total foreign direct investments of $124 billion, joint ventures in high-growth industries, and other forms of economic cooperation. Recent estimates have indicated that a complete cessation of Chinese trade would cost the American aviation industry alone up to $875 billion by 2038 and the medical services industry more than $479 billion over the next decade, not to mention the fact such a decision would have a trickle down effect on each state’s allies and augment the possibility of conflict. A severing in relations as a consequence of war would have cataclysmic economic and geopolitical consequences for both the U.S. and China, a risk that neither country has indicated they are willing to take. 


Ultimately, it is important to remember that even the U.S.’ strongest allies have behaved in ways that have called into question the strength of their respective commitments to the US. China is far from being an American ally and is a competitor in many respects, but the categorization of China as an enemy will damage any existing cooperation beyond repair and foster an antagonism which benefits no one. In short, semantics matter.


[1] Layne, Nathan, James Oliphant, and Gram Slattery. “Trump, Haley Spar in New Hampshire over Foreign Wars.” Reuters, January 23rd, 2024.

[2] Steakin, Will. “Nikki Haley Is Running for President as a China Hawk -- but Her Record Suggests a Different Picture.” ABC News, November 8th, 2023.

[3] Forgey, Quint, and Phelim Kine. “Blinken Calls China ‘Most Serious Long-Term’ Threat to World Order.” Politico, May 26th, 2022.

[4] US Department of Defense. “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” 2023.

[5] Microsoft Security. “Volt Typhoon Targets US Critical Infrastructure with Living-Off-The-Land Techniques.” Microsoft, May 24th, 2023.

[6] Dragos, Inc. “VOLTZITE Espionage Operations Targeting U.S. Critical Systems.” Dragos, February 2024.

[7] Center for Preventive Action. “Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea.” Global Conflict Tracker. Council on Foreign Relations, June 26, 2023.

[8] Dancel, Raul. “Chinese Vessel Sinks Philippine Fishing Boat in Contested Waters; Manila Seeks Probe.” The Straits Times, June 12, 2019.

[9] Duong, Huy. “Massive Island-Building and International Law.” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, June 15th, 2015.

[10] US Taiwan Business Council. “US, Taiwan & Semiconductors: A Critical Supply Chain Partnership.” US Taiwan Business Council, June 21st, 2023.

[11] Haenle, Paul, and Nathaniel Sher. “How Pelosi’s Taiwan Visit Has Set a New Status Quo for U.S-China Tensions.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, August 17th, 2022.

[12] Condon, Bernard. “China’s Loans Pushing World’s Poorest Countries to Brink of Collapse.” AP News, May 18, 2023.

[13] Jones, Lee, and Shahar Hameiri. “Debunking the Myth of ‘Debt-Trap Diplomacy.’” Chatham House.

[14] Barbosa, Pedro. “Lighting Up: China’s Arrival in Brazil’s Electricity Sector | Global Development Policy Center.” BU Global Development Policy Center.

[15] Carrai, Maria Adele, Jennifer Rudolph, and Michael Szonyi. The China Questions 2 : Critical Insights into US-China Relations. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2022.

[16] Cordesman, Anthony H., Arleigh A. Burke, and Max Molot. “China’s Emergence as a Military Superpower: China vs. US and Russia.” China and the U.S.: Cooperation, Competition and/or Conflict An Experimental Assessment. Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), October 1st, 2019.

[17] Singelton, Craig. “Opinion | China’s Military Is Going Global.” The New York Times, September 7th, 2023.

[18] Gatten III, Kenneth. “U.S.-China Relations: Short and Long-Term Implications for the Global Economy – School of Public Policy.” Penn State College of the Liberal Arts.