trump xi jinping NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images

The US and China Are the Closest of Enemies

After years of economic symbiosis in which the US purchased low-cost Chinese imports and China purchased US Treasuries, China has begun to pursue the prerogatives of a superpower, and the US has responded in kind. As a result, both countries are becoming more alike, particularly in their belief that there can be only one winner.

BERLIN – There has long been talk that the strategic rivalry emerging between the United States and China in recent years could one day give way to confrontation. That moment has arrived. Welcome to the Cold War 2.0.

The standard narrative about the Sino-American conflict is that it pits two distinct systems against each other. To the US, China is a big-data dictatorship that has detained one million Uighurs in concentration camps, cracked down on Christians, curtailed civil rights, and destroyed the environment – all while building up its military and threatening America’s regional allies. In the view of many Chinese, the US is an exponent of interventionism and imperialism, and the Trump administration’s trade war is merely the opening shot in a larger economic, military, and ideological contest for supremacy.

Yet this framing gets things backward. The new Sino-American confrontation is rooted not in the two countries’ differences, but in their growing similarity. China and America used to be the yin and yang of the global economy, with America playing the role of consumer, and China that of manufacturer. For years, China funneled its surpluses back into the purchase of US Treasury bills, thus underwriting American profligacy and forging a symbiotic arrangement that the historian Niall Ferguson has called “Chimerica.”