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27 April 2020, Foreign Affairs

China’s Coming Upheaval

The U.S.-China relationship, which has wavered between cooperation and competition, has, over the past few years, veered more sharply towards confrontation – possibly because of China’s own more assertive stance. Now, Beijing’s confidence is under test, not only by these fractious relations, but also COVID-19 and an economic slowdown. Will these factors reveal its weaknesses?

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Over the past few years, the United States’ approach to China has taken a hard-line turn, with the balance between cooperation and competition in the U.S.-Chinese relationship tilting sharply toward the latter. Most American policymakers and commentators consider this confrontational new strategy a response to China’s growing assertiveness, embodied especially in the controversial figure of Chinese President Xi Jinping. But ultimately, this
ongoing tension—particularly with the added pressures of the new coronavirus outbreak and an economic downturn—is likely to expose the brittleness and insecurity that lie beneath the surface of Xi’s, and Beijing’s, assertions of solidity and strength.

The United States has limited means of influencing China’s closed political system, but the diplomatic, economic, and military pressure that Washington can bring to bear on Beijing will put Xi and the Chinese Communist Party (ccp) he leads under enormous strain. Indeed, a prolonged period of strategic confrontation with the United States,
such as the one China is currently experiencing, will create conditions that are conducive to dramatic changes.

MINXIN PEI is Tom and Margot Pritzker ’72 Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College. This article is part of a project of the Library of Congress’s John W. Kluge Center, supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

This article appeared in the Foreign Affairs 2020 May/June edition. It is republished here with permission.

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