Recap: U.S. – China Relations: National Security vs. Economic Engagement
By: Jackson Craig Scott, Graduate Teaching Assistant, Baker School
This lecture by Dr. Krista Wiegand, Director of the Center for National Security and Foreign Affairs (NSFA) and Professor of Political Science, was the first of six lectures in the 2023-24 National Security Forum lecture series, hosted by NSFA. The purpose of this lecture was to provide an overview of current U.S.-China  relations and an introduction to the theme of the lecture series.
The U.S. government has identified five main security issues in the Indo-Pacific region – North Korea, Taiwan, the East China Sea, the South China Sea, and Chinese military buildup and nuclear weapons proliferation. Four of the five of these concerns involve China. These issues became priorities for the U.S. government with the “Asia-Pivot” strategy pursued by the Obama administration. This strategy attempted to “pivot” U.S. foreign policy focus from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific, recognizing the rise of China was a growing U.S. national security threat. The Trump administration focused primarily on economic and trade policies regarding U.S.-China relations, but towards the end of the administration, began to focus on “traditional” security issues. President Trump pursued the “free and open Indo-Pacific” policy, which promotes free access in the region that is not controlled by China. The Biden’s administration has continued the same policy, with the only major difference being that Biden is pursuing a more multilateral approach to balancing China, working closely with U.S. allies, while Trump pursued a more unilateral approach. The bipartisan concern about the rise of China shows how serious the issue is for U.S. national security.
The main issue for the U.S. regarding China is China’s influence globally, not just in the Indo-Pacific. The U.S. views China’s military buildup as a challenge to its power status. In 2022, the U.S. highlighted six issues in the Indo-Pacific:
- Pursuit of sphere of influence/global power
- Growing pressure on Taiwan
- Bullying of neighbors in the East and South China Seas
- Economic coercion of neighboring countries
- Aggressions on the line of control along the disputed border of India and China
- Undermining human rights and international law
Regionally, China has shown aggression in “First Island Chain” which starts at southern Japan, goes west of Taiwan, east of the Philippines, and encompasses all the South China Sea. The “Second Island Chain” goes from Japan, to Guam, and ends at Papua New Guinea. This is the area where China is now trying to project its military power. This could significantly hurt trade in the Indo-Pacific and threaten U.S. military bases. Most recently, the Philippines has agreed to allow the U.S. military to be at four new bases. Japan has also increased military ties with the U.S. All the countries that have border or maritime disputes in China are allies or partners with the U.S., with the exception of Brunei.
Regarding Taiwan, the U.S. has a “One China Policy” which is deliberately ambiguous. The U.S. does want to change the status quo. The U.S. will not acknowledge Taiwanese independence or Chinese sovereignty over the island. However, the U.S.’ Taiwan Relations Act promises to support Taiwan self-defense against Chinese threats, force, or coercion.
Over the past few years, the United States began to realize that economic security is tied closely to national security. National security policies always trump economic policies. The U.S. continues to trade heavily with China, with a high level of manufacturing dependency on imports to the U.S. At the same time, the U.S.-China supply chain have been interrupted, initially due to the pandemic, but also due to security concerns. U.S. concerns about dual use technology, U.S. domestic workforce limitations, and access to rare earth metals are other issues being affected by tensions between the U.S. and China. These tensions are causing U.S. businesses to pursue friendshoring, which means U.S. companies move their businesses out of China to friendlier countries like Vietnam or India. While it is highly unlikely that the U.S. will decouple – break trade relations with China, national security concerns will negatively impact U.S.-China economic relations with significant repercussions for both countries.
 References to China are about the government and military, not the people of China.