Webinar on “China-U.S. Rivalry and Implications for China’s Grand Strategy in a New Era”

In this webinar, Professor Shi Yinhong shared on the trajectory of Sino-American rivalry in recent history up to current time with the on-going trade war and COVID-19 pandemic.


Tuesday, 27 May 2020 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute conducted a webinar by Professor Shi Yinhong who articulated his perspective on the “China-U.S. Rivalry and Implications for China’s Grand Strategy in a New Era”. A Counsellor of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China since February 2011, Professor Shi is also Distinguished Professor of International Relations, Chairman of Academic Committee of the School for International Studies, and Director of the Center on American Studies at Renmin University of China in Beijing.

Professor Shi Yinhong discussed how Sino-American rivalry played out on both strategic and trade fronts. Mr Lye Liang Fook moderated the session. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Professor Shi characterised the past decade of Sino-U.S. relations as marked more by rivalry than accommodation, as China grew both in economic strength and military power. China not only sought to widen and deepen its engagements in global governance, but also increase its economic preponderance in Asia. He discussed how the rivalry played out on the strategic and trade fronts. The strategic front, which began after the 2008 global financial crisis, has become more pronounced since the election of President Trump. The U.S.-China arms race has intensified and broadened, while China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea has prompted the U.S. to conduct regular freedom of navigation exercises in the area. The U.S., with the involvement of partners from the Quadrilateral (i.e. Australia, Japan and India), has also developed an Indo-Pacific strategy to counter and check China’s rise.

On the trade front, Professor Shi observed that President Trump had directed his ire at China after having exhausted China’s capacity to help as a strategic partner over North Korea. The trade war between the U.S. and China also has a technological dimension, as evidenced in Trump’s May 2019 executive order aimed at stifling China’s involvement in high-tech trade, including Huawei’s participation in 5G development. Professor Shi reflected that China sought a “delicate de-escalation” in the recent trade negotiations by committing to an increase of Chinese imports from the U.S., even though the rise in American imports exceeds Chinese domestic needs, burdens China’s exchange reserves, and hampers Chinese trade diplomacy by reducing its ability to import from elsewhere. He was however pessimistic about further progress as China sees no incentive to acquiesce to American demands, particularly those aimed at changing China’s economic model and containing its economic rise.

Professor Shi also discussed China’s experience of the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact on its foreign policy and relations. Despite some limitations, the coronavirus has demonstrated that China’s centralised planning and decision-making system is able to quickly mobilise resources once the needs are identified. To some extent, China’s actions during the coronavirus crisis has  mobilised global sentiments against China, suggesting that China had “jumped too high and quick on the strategic front” without addressing the concerns of its international partners. Professor Shi suggested that China could consider some form of “strategic retrenchment”, in which it adopts a “low profile” while still pursuing external engagements and collaborations as determined by “strategic common sense”.

He lastly provided an overview of China’s current foreign relations as the world comes to grips with the pandemic. He noted with concern that in tandem with the increasing calls from the West for an international inquiry over the origins and spread of the coronavirus, there has also been an increased effort by countries to diversify global supply chains away from China. This initiative is not only supported by the U.S. and its Western allies, but also countries in Asia such as Japan and South Korea. This, Professor Shi feared, will deepen the gradual decoupling of the Chinese economy from the American one, and thus further worsen Sino-American relations in the foreseeable future.

Professor Shi then fielded several questions from the online audience, including over the role of Southeast Asia and South Asia in China’s foreign policy, the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea and the future prospects of Hong Kong and Taiwan. He also shared his thoughts about Chinese “wolf warrior” diplomacy as well as the impact of populist public discourse on the Chinese leadership.

Professor Shi fielded several questions from the online audience. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)