US-China Relations: Balancing Economy and Human Rights


In recent years, the relationship between the United States and China has been marked by mutual skepticism, giving rise to a wide range of economic and security issues. As the world’s two largest economies, the intricacies of their interactions have far-reaching consequences for global stability and prosperity. Despite the Biden administration’s attempts to adopt a less confrontational approach, the longstanding concerns persist or have even intensified. This article aims to delve into the key contentious issues that have contributed to the strained ties between these two nations.

US-China relations
US-China trade
Image Credit – Financial Times

Technology and Trade Controls

One of the primary sources of friction between the United States and China lies in the Biden administration’s decision to impose significant limitations on the export of advanced semiconductors and chip-making machinery to China in 2022. These restrictions have hindered China’s progress in developing crucial technologies like artificial intelligence and advanced computing, which are essential for their economic and military advancement. Furthermore, discussions surrounding additional controls on advanced chips and American investments in cutting-edge Chinese technology have further exacerbated tensions.

The United States has expressed concerns over intellectual property theft and forced technology transfers, which have been longstanding issues in the trade relationship. The imposition of trade controls aims to protect American technology and prevent its potential military applications in China. However, Chinese officials argue that such restrictions undermine fair trade practices and hinder global technological progress.

To mitigate the risks associated with China’s technological advancements, the United States has taken measures to strengthen domestic capabilities and incentivize supply chains to relocate away from China. The Biden administration has focused on bolstering the U.S. semiconductor industry through subsidies and investment incentives. These measures aim to reduce reliance on Chinese technology and promote the development of advanced semiconductor manufacturing capabilities within the United States.

Semiconductors and Trade Tariffs

The semiconductor industry has long been a major category of U.S. exports to China. Despite China’s domestic investments, it still lags behind the United States in this field. The Biden administration’s subsidy program aimed at bolstering the U.S. semiconductor industry has irked Chinese officials due to its accompanying restrictions on investing in China. Additionally, the removal of tariffs on Chinese imports worth billions of dollars seems unlikely, as some officials view them as a means to incentivize supply chains to shift away from China. The administration adopts a strategy of “de-risking” or “friend-shoring” by enticing crucial product supply chains, such as electric vehicle batteries, semiconductors, and solar panels, to relocate outside of China.

The U.S.-China trade war, initiated by the Trump administration, involved the imposition of tariffs on billions of dollars’ worth of Chinese imports, including semiconductors. The trade war was aimed at addressing long-standing issues such as unfair trade practices, intellectual property theft, and market access restrictions in China. While the Biden administration has expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of tariffs, they remain a tool in negotiations and as a means to protect American industries.

In addition to tariffs, the United States has tightened export controls on certain semiconductor technologies to prevent their use in military applications or diversion to entities of concern. This has disrupted supply chains and affected companies that rely on exporting semiconductors to China. As a result, Chinese companies have been exploring alternative sources and investing in domestic semiconductor production to reduce their dependence on U.S. technology.

Deteriorating Business Environments

Growing concerns among businesses operating in China have arisen due to potential scrutiny and negative attention from the government. Instances like the Chinese security review that caused U.S. memory chip maker Micron Technology to fail have put a significant portion of its revenue at risk. Consulting and advisory firms with foreign ties have also faced crackdowns and increased regulatory scrutiny. The tightening of China’s national security laws and vague regulations on prohibited activities have created an uncertain business environment for foreign companies.

Foreign businesses in China are grappling with challenges such as forced technology transfers, unequal treatment in market access, and lack of transparency in regulatory processes. The Chinese government’s emphasis on national security and its influence over domestic industries have raised concerns about fair competition and the protection of intellectual property. These factors contribute to an increasingly challenging business environment for foreign entities operating in China.

US-China relations
US-China trade
Image Credit – China Briefing

Currency Dynamics

China’s currency, the renminbi, has been a longstanding point of contention for American officials, who have accused Beijing of manipulating its value for economic advantages. The recent weakness of the renminbi presents a challenge for Secretary Yellen, as it boosts China’s export competitiveness. However, the Biden administration’s options may be limited if China allows its currency to weaken, as the decline can be attributed to factors such as the Federal Reserve’s interest rate increases. This, combined with China’s own interest rate cuts, has resulted in increased outflows of money from China to the United States.

Currency manipulation has been a contentious issue in U.S.-China relations, with the United States urging China to adopt more market-oriented exchange rate policies. The value of the renminbi has implications for trade imbalances, as a weaker currency can make Chinese exports more competitive. The Biden administration has called for a level playing field and transparency in currency practices, highlighting the importance of fair trade principles.

Efforts to address currency dynamics and promote stable economic relations between the United States and China have involved dialogue, economic cooperation mechanisms, and engagement in international forums such as the G20. However, the complex nature of global currency markets and the interplay of various economic factors make finding common ground challenging.

Global Debt Concerns

China’s extensive lending program to developing countries has positioned it as a significant creditor, with over $500 billion extended to these nations. While China’s lending has supported infrastructure development and economic growth in many countries, concerns have emerged about the debt sustainability of borrowing nations, particularly in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The economic challenges faced by borrowing countries due to the pandemic have raised concerns about potential defaults. The United States, along with other Western nations, has urged China to consider debt restructuring and reduction to alleviate the burden on these countries. However, progress has been hindered by China’s insistence on involving other creditors and multilateral lenders, which complicates relief efforts and jeopardizes the welfare of millions in developing countries.

Coordinated international efforts are necessary to address global debt concerns and prevent a deepening debt crisis. Multilateral institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) play a crucial role in facilitating debt restructuring and providing financial assistance to countries in need. Dialogue and cooperation between China and the United States, as well as other major creditors, are essential to finding sustainable solutions and ensuring the long-term stability of the global financial system.

Human Rights and National Security

Issues related to national security and human rights have significantly impacted economic relations and fueled mutual distrust between the United States and China. The incursion of a Chinese surveillance balloon into U.S. airspace raised alarm among the American public, highlighting concerns about potential threats to national security. Transparency and open communication on such matters have been demanded to foster trust and cooperation.

Human rights violations in China, particularly in relation to Xinjiang and Hong Kong, have also strained bilateral relations. The United States and other Western nations have raised concerns about mass surveillance, arbitrary detentions, forced labor, and erosion of democratic freedoms. These issues have become intertwined with economic considerations, as Western nations face pressure to take action in response to human rights violations. The United States has imposed sanctions on Chinese officials involved in the persecution of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang and has taken steps to prevent imports of goods linked to forced labor. These measures reflect a growing recognition that economic engagement with China should not come at the expense of human rights principles.

The situation in Hong Kong has also garnered international attention. The implementation of the national security law by China has led to concerns about the erosion of democratic freedoms and the autonomy of the region. The United States, along with other nations, has condemned the crackdown on pro-democracy activists and the restriction of civil liberties. These developments have prompted the imposition of sanctions, visa restrictions, and the suspension of extradition treaties with Hong Kong.

The issue of human rights has increasingly become a focal point in discussions surrounding trade and investment with China. Western companies are facing scrutiny for their involvement in supply chains linked to forced labor in Xinjiang, leading to calls for greater transparency and due diligence in business practices. Consumers and investors are also increasingly conscious of human rights issues and are pressuring companies to ensure ethical sourcing and responsible business conduct.

US-China relations
US-China trade
Image Credit- IFRI


The relationship between the United States and China on economic and security fronts remains complex and multifaceted. Issues such as technology and trade controls, semiconductor trade tariffs, deteriorating business environments, currency dynamics, global debt concerns, and human rights violations have strained bilateral relations and raised concerns about global stability.

Addressing these challenges requires a comprehensive and nuanced approach, balancing economic interests with the promotion of fair trade practices, respect for intellectual property rights, and the protection of human rights. Collaborative efforts between the United States, China, and other nations are crucial for finding mutually beneficial solutions and establishing a more stable and predictable economic and security environment.

As the global order continues to evolve, the United States and China must engage in constructive dialogue, build trust, and seek common ground on critical issues. The path forward lies in open communication, respect for international norms, and a shared commitment to fostering a more prosperous and secure future for both nations and the world at large.

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