Competitors, Adversaries, or Enemies? Unpacking the Sino-American Relationship

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“Competitor?” “Adversary?” “Enemy?” Which of these terms best describes U.S.-Chinese relations? The Washington Post reporter Susan Page posed this question during the vice-presidential debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris. While neither offered a direct answer to the question, it goes to the heart of a major foreign policy challenge facing the United States: how to relate to a rising China.

On the one hand, the label chosen to describe U.S. views of China seems unimportant: After all, actions are more meaningful than words, right? On the other hand, the label chosen likely reflects how an administration views Beijing’s intentions. In turn, this view will structure the actions pursued by the administration vis-a-vis China.



It is notable that Page did not offer words like “ally,” or “partner,” or “friend” as options for describing this relationship. Instead, the options given — competitor, adversary, and enemy — all imply a future marked by conflict. Why should this be the expectation? Is it simply the way of major powers? Is it due to a deep-seeded prejudice towards non-Western countries? Or maybe it’s because Beijing’s own actions in recent years — from its conflict at the Line of Actual Control with India, to its military buildup in the South China Sea region, to its assertation of control in Hong Kong — suggest that China is not a country looking to pursue a “peaceful rise.”

While all three terms imply conflict, they are not synonyms. In policy circles, distinctions are made between countries viewed as “competitors” versus “enemies.” Competitors, according to Edward Goldberg, are “positive, forcing a company or a country to step up their game.” Enemies, in contrast, are dangerous, carrying with them the potential of sparking a new Cold War. But one should also not view “adversaries” as synonymous with “enemies.” According to academic and politician Michael Ignatieff, “An adversary is someone you want to defeat. An enemy is someone you have to destroy.” More precisely, it is possible and even desirable to compromise with an “adversary.” Not so with “enemies”: They should be defeated. Any “compromise” could be sneered at as “appeasement.”

Scholars of international relations tend not to focus on these terms. Instead, they work with a broader concept: “rival.” Political scientists Gary Goertz and Paul Diehl developed an initial version of the concept through a series of papers in the 1990s (culminating in a 2000 book). The idea is that some pairs of states (call them “dyads”) are more prone to conflict than others and that scholars can study these conflict prone pairs to identify common characteristics. Goertz and Diehl call these pairs “enduring rivals.”

The limit of “enduring rivals” as a concept is that it uses the presence and persistence of actual militarized conflict over a set number of years (say 10 years) as an indicator of the pair being rivals. The idea is that a recent history of repeated conflict creates the expectation of future conflict. But one can immediately see how this limits the concept’s applicability: It throws out cases of effective deterrence. Two states locked in an arms race with one another, but who otherwise avoid direct military conflict, cannot be labeled as rivals.

William Thompson, along with Karen Rasler and Michael Colaresi, took the concept of “rivalry” a step further and, in so doing, made it adaptable to a wider range of relationships. His concept of “strategic rival” captured relationships where the pair of states regard one another as  competitors and enemies. Hence, this conception of “rivals” makes clear that being “competitors” and “enemies” are distinct terms. Moreover, rather than relying on the history of military conflict between the two states, Thompson and his collaborators turned to historical sources, ranging from diplomatic histories to news reports, to identify when key decision-makers within the governments perceived one another as meeting these criteria.

So how do scholars, namely Thompson, distinguish between “competitors” and “enemies”? “Competitors” are states that view one another as being “in the same league.” This is intimately related to the notion of “status” and how rising powers will seek to be acknowledged and treated as peers. Acknowledgement of being “in the same league” might conjure images of great-power concerts like the Congress of Vienna, but non-major powers can also view one another as competitors. For instance, emerging economies compete with one another for investment capital from the United States. Critically, competitors need not be hostile. Thompson acknowledges that “Some are friends, others are enemies.” In this regard, think of the economic competition between the United States and Japan, staunch treaty allies, during the 1980s.

“Enemies” are states who are perceived as militarily threatening (acknowledging, of course, that perceptions can be wrong). A state can be militarily threatening even if it is not a peer competitor (as new concerns within the United States over North Korea’s nuclear and missile program make evident). But if the states perceive one another as militarily threatening and as peer competitors, then the pair are “rivals.” Just as non-major powers can be competitors, rivalries need not be limited to major powers. The recent escalation in the ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan clearly demonstrates non-major power rivalry, as does the “nuclear rivalry” between India and Pakistan.

The major-power rivalry that is most salient in the minds of many U.S.-Chinese observers is the 45-year Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union (which is likely why many draw on this analogy to characterize U.S.-Chinese relations). While this rivalry was highly militarized and carried with it the potential to destroy humanity through nuclear annihilation, rivalries between major powers need not hold such devastating potential. For instance, there was the 19th-century and early 20th-century naval and trade competition between the United States and the United Kingdom, which might be the more appropriate analogy for U.S.-Chinese relations.

Which term will best capture U.S.-Chinese relations in the years ahead? If one is to take seriously Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s call for an “Alliance of Democracies” or Joe Biden foreign policy advisor Tony Blinken’s call for a “League of Democracies,” then one should expect a coalition of “partners” to balance against actual and perceived Chinese aggression. In that sense, China is not solely a “competitor.” But “enemy” could be taking things too far. If international relations scholars are correct in expecting actual military conflict between China and the United States within the next five years, then “enemy” could indeed become the appropriate term. In the meantime, compromise seems possible on some issues with China and military competition is not yet the core domain of the relationship (economic relations appear to be the primary point of cooperation and conflict). Hence, to use the above terminology of Ignatieff, “adversaries” is the most appropriate term, at least for now.



Paul Poast is an associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago and a nonresident foreign policy fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He is the author of three books, most recently, Arguing About Alliances (Cornell University Press, 2019), which was a co-recipient of the 2020 Lepgold Prize for best book international relations in 2019.

Image: White House (Photo by Shealah Craighead)