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U.S.-China Tensions at a Glance

The U.S. has long reigned supreme as the world’s sole superpower following the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Over the last three decades, America has enjoyed unprecedented freedom in its ability to shape global society. Its directives for global trade, security and economy have largely gone unopposed; this is changing.

China has risen to a position of near parity with the United States, and they seek to challenge America’s global democratic order.  

China’s rise has flown under the radar since the collapse of communism in the 90’s. A largely poor and underdeveloped country at the time, the People's Republic of China could hardly be described as a rival to the U.S. Today, China’s free-market reforms have brought them the wealth of capitalism while maintaining the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) monopoly on political power and decision-making processes.  The tension in U.S.-China relations today echoes those of the Cold War. Western democracy once again finds itself in competition with a leader in the autocratic world. The U.S. seeks to retain its place as the sole arbiter of global affairs, whereas China seeks to challenge and change the current order. 

As the second largest economy in the world, China’s material wealth has afforded it the ability to construct a modern military. Though untested in modern warfare, the rate of military spending and technological development has left many in Washington with a feeling of unease.

The potential for conflict lies in an island roughly one hundred miles off the coast of mainland China: Taiwan. When the communists won the Chinese Civil War in the 20th century, the nationalists fled to Taiwan in exile, eventually evolving into the modern democracy that we know today. The U.S. officially recognizes the One China Policy, which states that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) retains sovereignty over a single China and that Taiwan is an inalienable part of that China. But America also holds separate relations with Taiwan.

The result of the two seemingly contradictory stances is called strategic ambiguity. Recognizing China’s side of the story and supporting Taiwanese democracy, while withholding Taiwan’s recognition as an independent country, allows the U.S. more maneuverability.  

Taiwan is a strategic partner for Washington, with the island producing 90% of the world's output of common semiconductor chips and 60% of the world’s advanced semiconductor chips. These chips have wide applications in the public sector. 

China’s desire to reunify with what it views as a rogue province carries dire implications for America. Chinese control of the island may result in a situation where the CCP decides to halt the sale of all semiconductor chips to the U.S. The consequences for the U.S. economy could be disastrous. And so, America finds itself walking a tightrope between preserving vital national interests and abiding by its responsibility to avoid armed conflict. 

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