Not a “New Era”—Historical Memory and Continuities in U.S.-China Rivalry

At first glance, the return to a world of great power rivalry may seem sudden.[1] The National Defense Strategy, published in January 2018, highlighted the “reemergence of long-term, strategic competition” against such great power rivals as Russia and China as the “central challenge” to U.S. interests and security.[2] The notion of a new era has become pervasive and nearly inescapable in both American and Chinese discourse, and the phrasing may, at first, appear entirely appropriate. After decades in which U.S. policy has been more oriented towards engagement, U.S. strategy today clearly and explicitly recognizes China as a competitor, seemingly undertaking a historic reorientation in ways that can be seen as reflecting a major discontinuity with the past.[3] At the same time, Xi Jinping often alluded to the notion of a new era (新时代), in which China is increasingly contesting American global leadership.[4] However, the typical turning to this phrasing of a new era to characterize recent trends in U.S.-China relations, while perhaps rhetorically appropriate, can obscure what is not new, emphasizing novelty at the expense of recognizing the history and relative consistency in certain aspects of U.S.-China relations. That is, this common characterization of the 2017-2018 timeframe, as marking the start of a distinct epoch of strategic competition between China and the United States, confers a newness to this era of great power rivalry that can be greatly exaggerated, at the expense of recognizing the influence of the past couple of decades of history on the trajectory of U.S.-China relations.

The emergence of this strategic competition—and the start of the U.S.-China security dilemma that tends to intensify it—have arguably predated by far the recent attention in U.S. policy.[5] There is a long history of mistrust between China and the United States, frequently exacerbated by divergent perspectives and asymmetries of perception. These dynamics have only intensified in recent years in ways that heighten tensions over underlying conflicts of values or interests perhaps all but irreconcilable for reasons of regime type and ideology.[6] Indeed, the directionality of U.S. policy, which has emphasized engagement, has often contributed to the threat perceptions of Chinese leaders who have seen U.S. hopes and expectations of China’s transformation as a threat of existential character, creating a “regime security” dilemma.[7] Conversely, frequent protestations by China that it will never seek hegemony are not seen as credible by the United States or as enduring, given shifts underway in the balance of power that may reshape Chinese interests and incentives in the process.[8]

U.S. President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping make joint statements at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, November 9, 2017 (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Although this latest transition in U.S. policy is often characterized as a discontinuity from cooperation to competition, the origins of U.S.-China military competition can be traced back to at least the early-1990s, when a series of crises in U.S.-China relations convinced Beijing U.S. intentions were deeply hostile. Some scholars even argue these antecedents were clearly visible even earlier.[9] Those moments shaped decades of Chinese strategic thinking and defense developments, which have been directed against the U.S. as a powerful adversary (强敌).[10] This hardening of Chinese leaders’ perceptions of the U.S. as a rival and potential enemy predate the start of America’s own policy and shift of posture towards competition beginning in the late 1990s.[11] In particular, the U.S. government started to perceive relations with China as competitive under the Bush administration, and Condoleeza Rice characterized China as a strategic competitor during the 2000 presidential campaign.[12] Starting with the Defense Strategy Review of 2001, the U.S. began military, diplomatic, and economic reorientation aiming to preserve the existing balance of power through managing China’s growth with a combination of outright balancing and expanded engagement, as Nina Silove has noted.[13] However, the trauma of 9/11 diverted American attention to the Global War on Terror in ways that contributed to the continuation of a more cooperative relationship between the U.S. and China through the 2000s.[14]

Chinese Embassy in Belgrade after the bombing by U.S. aircraft (Quora)

For Beijing, pivotal moments in the U.S.-China relationship played out over the course of the 1990s in incidents that have lesser salience or immediate memory for an American audience. The 1996 Third Taiwan Strait Crisis was a moment of intense confrontation, with a non-zero potential for outright conflict. The U.S. responded to China’s attempted intimidation of Taiwan by  sending two aircraft carriers, including the USS Independence, to and through the Taiwan Strait, seemingly succeeding in compelling China into ceasing its activities, perhaps even deterring a potential invasion.[15] At the time, the U.S. warned there would be grave consequences if Chinese missiles were to strike Taiwan, raising concerns, in the words of the Secretary of State Warren Christopher, that “a simple miscalculation or misstep could lead to unintended war.”[16]

Disturbingly, in the midst of the crisis, there were reports of implicit nuclear threats leveled by Chinese military officials against the U.S. Chinese military officers warned, “you care a lot more about Los Angeles than Taipei,” questioning American will to fight given the apparent asymmetry of will and interests.[17] From the perspective of Chinese leaders, this interference in internal affairs on a matter of sovereignty posed a direct threat to core interests to which China did not possess the capability for a proportionate response.[18] Indeed, some of the origins and motivations of China’s own aircraft carrier program—and the decision to develop “carrier killer” missiles—can be traced back to this moment, which was nearly a nadir in U.S.-China relations.[19]

Not long after, Chinese perceptions of American intentions as deeply hostile were reinforced with the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in May of 1999, which the U.S. claimed was unintentional as a result of mistakes in targeting.[20] At the time and seemingly to this day, Chinese leaders have rejected and seem to continue to disbelieve American protestations that the bombing was accidental, accusing that it reflected a deliberate and intentional violation of China’s sovereignty.[21] The claim the bombing was deliberate has been repeated consistently in Chinese propaganda ever since.[22] The outright disbelief and dismissal of U.S. claims the bombing was accidental do appear to be deeply believed among Communist Party and military leadership, particularly considering their assessments of the sophistication of U.S. precision weaponry and intelligence capabilities.[23] In addition, there was reporting at the time in Western media that the Chinese embassy was deliberately bombed, because it was being used as a rebroadcast station to transmit Yugoslav army communications to Milosevic’s forces, which may have been the case.[24]

Although the relative strength of Sino-Yugoslav relations at that time lends plausibility to the reports that the Chinese military may have been providing indirect support, claims that the accident was deliberate are not credible based on the available evidence. There has also been informed and plausible speculation that China’s help to Milosevic at that time may have been predicated upon access to materials and technologies from the stealth fighter shot down by his forces in March, which apparently Chinese intelligence was collecting upon at the time.[25] Strikingly, the bombing reportedly destroyed only a small portion of the embassy, the sections used by the defense attaché and intelligence, and two of the three Chinese citizens killed were reportedly military intelligence officers rather than journalists as reported in Chinese media.[26]

Although these features of the accident were likely entirely coincidental, those facts appear to have further reinforced the belief of Chinese leaders that the attack was a deliberate and blatant violation of Chinese sovereignty.[27] Typically, the legacy of the Belgrade embassy bombing, which provoked attacks by thousands of demonstrators against the U.S. embassy in Beijing, is understood in terms of Chinese public opinion and nationalism.[28] In some respects, the specific details may matter less than how the history is remembered, and the lessons learned from it conveyed. Indeed, its impact on the threat perceptions of Chinese leaders and their interpretation of U.S. intentions has seemingly produced a far more enduring impact than the immediate fallout of the incident.[29] At the very least, China’s response to this incident—with the disbelief of the U.S. account of the accident—highlighted, as of 1999, the existence of a  deep lack of trust and divergent perceptions between the U.S. and China, indicating the extent and roots of the security dilemma even at that point.[30] As China expert and scholar David Shambaugh noted, writing the next year, “...those Americans who interact with the People’s Liberation Army, officially or unofficially, should be under no illusion about the depth of China’s suspicion and animosity toward the United States.”[31]

The backlash from Chinese leaders, exacerbated by the intense emotional responses the attack seems to have elicited, may also have been particularly powerful because of the potential geopolitical ramifications of NATO’s actions in Serbia. Beijing was evidently concerned the campaign could establish a dangerous precedent of intervention in response to ethnic conflict, which could be leveraged against China in the future if unrest were to arise, for instance in Xinjiang, or in another incident of the severity of Tiananmen.[32] To Beijing the stakes and consequences of this conflict against Yugoslavia were quite high, since it was seen as an indication of U.S. intentions for the future of the post-Cold War, displaying the American ambition to establish a unipolar order and world hegemony, rather than accepting the emergence of multipolarity as a new global trend.[33] Implicitly, the lesson the Chinese Communist Party seems to have learned from Yugoslavia was that an American-dominated world order may not be safe for its regime.

Chinese military vehicles carrying DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missiles, potentially capable of sinking a U.S. Nimitz-class aircraft carrier in a single strike, travel past Tiananmen Gate during a military parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Beijing Thursday Sept. 3, 2015. (Andy Wong/Reuters)

Regarding U.S.-China military competition, another legacy may be the impact of this May 1999 incident (五八事件) upon Chinese defense armaments development. In the aftermath of the bombing, the Central Military Commission reportedly convened an emergency meeting during which it decided to “accelerate the development of shashoujian (杀手锏) armaments.”[34] The term shashoujian, typically translated “trump card” or “assassin’s mace,” is generally employed about asymmetric capabilities that could target U.S. vulnerabilities, such as the DF-21D carrier killer missile. The term seems to have been derived from a Chinese folktale in which such a weapon was used for unexpected incapacitation of a stronger enemy through a trick.[35]

Reportedly, the Central Military Commission Chairman Jiang Zemin’s guidance at the time urged, “whatever the enemy is most fearful of, this is what we should be developing.”[36] Consequently, the People’s Liberation Army launched the secretive “New-Type High-Technology Weapons Plan” or “995 Plan” (新型高科技武器计划, 995计划), which prioritized advanced asymmetric capabilities and trump card weapons systems.[37] Although the specific projects associated with the 995 Projects (995工程) have never been publicly disclosed, the People’s Liberation Army has reportedly developed multiple new generations of weapons systems, including the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile and a number of new unmanned aerial vehicles, displayed at China’s 2015 military parade, through this program.[38] Based on open sources, the priorities of 995 Projects appear to have included new generations of advanced fighter jets and strategic capabilities, including stealthy, supersonic, and long-range strategic bombers, along with a range of advanced missiles and electronic countermeasures capabilities, among others.[39]

Plan 995 is named for the year (1999) and month (May) of the Belgrade embassy bombing and seems to have established the future direction for the development of some of the most consequential Chinese military capabilities ever deployed. The result is what U.S. analysts have since termed a posture of Anti-Access/Area Denial.[40] Evidently, at this early and critical stage, Chinese leaders were reacting forcefully against a potentially mistaken impression and misattribution of U.S. intentions, extending a spiral that has since become seemingly intractable as postures and intentions have hardened and towards a world in which deterrence may become the only alternative. Thus, since the 1990s, the trajectory of Chinese military modernization has been shaped by the People’s Liberation Army concentration on the U.S. military as a model and powerful potential adversary.[41] This approach to military science was aptly captured by an authoritative commentary in PLA Daily urging, “Keep an eye on future opponents, adhere to using the enemy as the teacher, using the enemy as a guide, and using the enemy as a target...We must develop technologies and tactics that can break the battle systems of powerful adversaries and counter the high-end combat platforms of powerful adversaries.”[42] The People’s Liberation Army has focused on “learning without fighting,” undertaking a careful examination of the U.S. military and its experiences in conflict, often looking to learn lessons to compensate for its own lack of relevant combat experience.[43]

May 7, 2019, marks the 20th anniversary of the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. How and to what extent this event is commemorated in official Chinese media may prove to be a relevant bellwether of the state of the U.S.-China relationship. This quick recounting of the relevant history within the salient memories of Chinese leaders today also highlights the shortcomings of framing U.S.-China rivalry as a new era. The notion of newness implies this shift is sudden or unexpected. Instead, the state of the U.S.-China relationship today must be recognized as the outcome of a complex, often contested history that has exacerbated threat perceptions progressively. In this regard, the spiral of reaction and counter-reaction between the U.S. and China has already accreted enough momentum such that their security dilemma cannot be readily resolved, absent major compromises and concessions unlikely to be feasible in the current geopolitical environment—at least without dramatic changes to respective conceptions of core interests.[44] Although China has so far behaved with less outright aggression than the typical revisionist power might be expected, guided by a strategy of “active defense” (积极防御), a tendency towards the forward defense of core interests of sovereignty, security, and development, at a time when the requirements for their assurance are expanding worldwide, will demand a greater globalization of Chinese military power and influence in ways that challenge the status quo order and could undermine U.S. national interests going forward.[45] In this regard, although the newness of this era may be overstated, the novelty of the challenges it will present may still remain unappreciated.

Elsa B. Kania is an Adjunct Senior Fellow with the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. She is the author of “Battlefield Singularity: Artificial Intelligence, Military Revolution, and China’s Future Military Power.”

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Header Image: Relations between the U.S. and China (CFR)


[1] For perspectives on unipolarity and American hegemony, see: William C. Wohlforth, “The Stability of a Unipolar World,” International Security, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Summer 1999), pp. 5–41. Barry R. Posen, “Command of the commons: the military foundation of US hegemony,” International Security 28, no. 1 (2003): 5-46.

[2] Department of Defense, “Summary of the National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Advantage,”

[3] The notion of engagement and degree to which U.S. policy was also hedging or oriented towards ‘soft’ containment at the same time continue to be debated. Certainly, Chinese leaders have long been concerned the ultimate U.S. intention was to contain and disrupt China’s rise. For an excellent historical perspective on the topic, see: Nina Silove, “The Pivot before the Pivot: U.S. Strategy to Preserve the Power Balance in Asia,” International Security 40, no. 4 (April 1, 2016): 45–88, “National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” December 2017,

[4] As it happens, the origins of this phrasing and characterization of a “new era” for the U.S. and China can be traced back to Xi Jinping’s signature ideology, “Xi Jinping thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era,” and also the introduction to the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy. Xi Jinping’s Report at the Chinese Communist Party 19th National Congress” [习近平在中国共产党第十九次全国代表大会上的报告], Xinhua, October 27, 2017,

[5] For prior discussions of the security dilemma, see: Thomas J. Christensen, “China, the U.S.-Japan Alliance, and the Security Dilemma in East Asia,” International Security, Vol. 23, No. 4 (Spring 1999), pp. 49–80; Thomas J. Christensen, “The Contemporary Security Dilemma: Preventing Conflict across the Taiwan Strait,” Washington Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 4 (Autumn 2002), pp. 7–21. See also: Adam P. Liff and G. John Ikenberry, “Racing Toward Tragedy? China's Rise, Military Competition in the Asia-Pacific, and the Security Dilemma,” International Security 39, no. 2 (2014): 52-91.

[6] It is worth noting threat perceptions are also influenced by racial and cultural differences can contribute to mistrust and misunderstanding, and these factors can also influence dynamics between the U.S. and China. See: Zoltán I. Búzás, “The Color of Threat: Race, Threat Perception, and the Demise of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance (1902–1923),” Security Studies, 22:4, 573-606, 2013.

[7] For a more detailed description of this argument, see: Elsa B. Kania, “The ‘regime security dilemma’ in US–China relations,” The Strategist, March 21, 2019,

[8] Xi Jinping has repeated this claim personally on a number of occasions. “Xi Jinping’s Report at the Chinese Communist Party 19th National Congress” [习近平在中国共产党第十九次全国代表大会上的报告], Xinhua, October 27, 2017, It is worth noting China’s concept and definition of hegemony (霸权), as reflected in forceful critiques of American hegemonism, seems to differ from the use of this term by international relations theorists, carrying a strongly negative connotation.

[9] Certain scholars, including notably Rush Doshi (see his excellent research forthcoming on these issues), would trace this trend back even further, to the 1980s and particularly post-Tiananmen. While I agree this earlier history is relevant—and there are certain continuities in the perceptions of Chinese leaders of the U.S. as a threat and potential adversary—I assess there is a more direct linkage of today’s dynamics to these particular episodes in the 1990s.

[10] While these crises are typically mentioned and acknowledged in discussions of the history of U.S.-China relations and security dilemmas, I argue their impact in initiating great power military competition has been underappreciated.

[11] Aaron L. Friedberg, “Ripe for rivalry: prospects for peace in a multipolar Asia,” International Security 18, no. 3 (1993): 5-33. For another early take, see: David Shambaugh, “Sino-American strategic relations: from partners to competitors,” Survival 42, no. 1 (2000): 97-115.

[12] Condoleeza Rice, “Campaign 2000: Promoting the National Interest,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2000.

[13] Nina Silove, “The Pivot before the Pivot: U.S. Strategy to Preserve the Power Balance in Asia,” International Security 40, no. 4 (April 1, 2016): 45–88, See the Defense Strategy Review as discussed in Silove, 2016. I contend there is still a puzzle of timing as discussed previously which reflects a degree of uncertainty and procrastination (Edlestein, 2017) due to economic benefits of engagement that constrained this strategy from shifting from mixed to more purely competitive.

[14] For one analysis of the impact of 9/11 on U.S.-China relations, see: Jacques deLisle, “9/11 and U.S.-China Relations, Foreign Policy Research Institute, September 3, 2011,

[15] Barton Gellman, “U.S. and China Nearly Came to Blows in ‘96,” Washington Post, June 21, 1998

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid. This was according to an account by China specialist Chas Freeman as quoted in media at the time.

[18] See, for instance: Xin Qiang “The Strategic Uses for China's New Carriers,”

[19] See the discussion of this moment, see: Liu Huaqing Nianpu [刘华清年谱], Volume 1 and 2, PLA Press, 2016.

[20] For a more detailed account of the incident and Chinese leaders’ reaction, see: Steven Lee Myers, “Chinese Embassy Bombing: A Wide Net of Blame,” New York Times, April 17, 2000,; Eric Schmitt, “In a Fatal Error, C.I.A. Picked a Bombing Target Only Once: The Chinese Embassy,” New York Times, July 23, 1999,

[21] “Results of the investigation into the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia by the United States;  Foreign Ministry spokesman said: China cannot accept” [就美国对轰炸中国驻南联盟使馆事件的调查结果外交部发言人表示:中国不能接受], People’s Daily, April 14, 2000,

[22] For one example of such media coverage on the ten-year anniversary of the bombing, see: ““False bombing” is a lie. It is widely believed that NATO “mistakes” are not credible” [误炸”是谎言 外电普遍认为北约“误炸”不可信], China Youth Daily, May 7, 2009,

[23] “From the technical level, the so-called accidental bombing is a big lie.” [从技术层面揭露所谓误炸是弥天大谎人], People's Daily Overseas Edition, May 7, 2009,

[24] Please note that I do not consider the various theories credible, but I do believe this reporting is relevant to include as far as it shapes the perceptual context for this incident. Although this reporting cannot be verified or confirmed, the story, which was likely seen by Chinese leaders then or since, is worth highlighting nonetheless. John Sweeney, Jens Holsoe, and Ed Vulliamy, “Nato bombed Chinese deliberately,” The Observer, October 16, 1999,

[25] If that was true, the context would have provided a further reason Chinese leaders believed the bombing to be deliberate. See: David Axe, “Was China’s Stealth Tech Made in America?” WIRED,

[26] At the time, Chinese military intelligence was also suspected of monitoring U.S. cruise missile attacks on Belgrade, with a view to developing effective countermeasures against American missiles.

[27] For a speculative (but reasonably rigorous) review of the available evidence, see: Peter Lee, “The Bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999, Reconsidered,” Counterpunch, May 25, 2015,

[28] For instance, see: Peter Hays Gries, “Tears of rage: Chinese nationalist reactions to the Belgrade embassy bombing.” The China Journal 46 (2001): 25-43. Simon Shen, “Nationalism or nationalist foreign policy? Contemporary Chinese nationalism and its role in shaping Chinese foreign policy in response to the Belgrade Embassy bombing.” Politics 24, no. 2 (2004): 122-130.

[29] David Shambaugh, “China's military views the world: ambivalent security,” International Security 24, no. 3 (2000): 52-79.

[30] For another perspective on the fallout, see: Gregory J. Moore, “Not Very Material but Hardly Immaterial: China's Bombed Embassy and Sino-American Relations,” Foreign Policy Analysis, Volume 6, Issue 1, 1 January 2010, Pages 23–41,

[31] David Shambaugh, “China's military views the world: ambivalent security.” 

[32] For instance, see this page dedicated to commemoration of the incident:

[33] For instance, see Jiang Zemin’s remarks in meetings with European leaders at the time: “Jiang Zemin Meets with EU Special Envoy and President of Finland,”

[34] Zhang Wannian, Biography of Zhang Wannian [张万年传], p. 416-17. qtd. in: Tai Ming Cheung, Thomas Mahnken, Deborah Seligsohn, Kevin Pollpeter, Eric Anderson, and Fan Yang, “Planning for Innovation: Understanding China’s Plans for Technological, Energy, Industrial, and Defense Development,” US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, July 2016, p. 26-27,

[35] This usage of the term is described in its Baidu entry: “杀手锏,”

[36] Zhang Wannian, Biography of Zhang Wannian [张万年传], Liberation Army Press, 2011, 416, quoted in Tai Ming Cheung, Forging China's Military Might: A New Framework for Assessing Innovation, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.

[37] Tai Ming Cheung, Thomas Mahnken, Deborah Seligsohn, Kevin Pollpeter, Eric Anderson, and Fan Yang, “Planning for Innovation: Understanding China’s Plans for Technological, Energy, Industrial, and Defense Development,” US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, July 2016, p. 25-27.

[38]  Ibid. The original source, as discussed by Tai Ming Cheung et al. is no longer available online: “Talk by Yao Youzhi at the Shenzhen Culture Forum,” August 18, 2012,

[39] The relevant sources are available from the author upon request.

[40] Toshi Yoshihara, "Anti-Access in Comparative Perspective: Imperial Japan, the Soviet Union, and 21st-Century China.” National Institute of Defense Studies,“History of the Joint and Combined Operations,” September 17 (2014)

[41] The phrase “强敌” (i.e., powerful enemy or adversary) is used as a byword for the U.S. military in People’s Liberation Army writings, even though public statements by Chinese leaders do not typically explicitly identify the U.S. as an adversary.

[42] Ke Zhengxuan [科政轩], “How to build a military scientific research system with our military’s characteristics” [我军特色军事科学研究体系如何构建形成], PLA Daily, August 08, 2017,

[43] This is my own phrasing and characterization of the People’s Liberation Army approach, which is also the subject of an ongoing project. For an earlier assessment of this tendency, see: Andrew Scobell, David Lai, and Roy Kamphausen, Chinese Lessons From Other People’s Wars, Strategic Studies Institute Book, November 2011,

[44] For instance, if the U.S. were to agree to renounce its commitment to the defense of Taiwan, to acknowledge China’s desired sphere of influence in the “near seas” and perhaps beyond in East Asia, and to recognize the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party’s predominance, ceasing to engage in any criticism on issues of human rights, such measures might be sufficient to satisfy Chinese leaders for the time being. However, such measures could signal weakness at a time when the requirements for China’s security and development are increasingly involving global presence and influence.

[45] The degree and nature of China’s predation or aggression can be debated, but here I have in mind a comparison to the actions of Germany ahead of World War II or presently Russia as the archetypal revisionists, which have involved outright conquest of territory rather than more incremental advancements. Of course, China’s concept of what is defensive can be paradoxical insofar as this concept is strategically defensive but operationally and tactically offensive in ways that can contribute to behavior perceived as aggressive. For a more detailed discussion of how China’s national strategic guidelines have evolved in historical perspective, see: Taylor Fravel, Active Defense, Princeton University Press, 2019, forthcoming. Xiao Tianliang [肖天亮], “Comprehensively promote the strategic deployment of national defense and military modernization” [全面推进国防和军队现代化的战略部署], Frontline, May 9, 2018. I assess Lt. Gen. Xiao Tianliang to be influential given the position he holds, his editorship of National Defense University’s Science of Strategy (2015), not to mention his involvement in briefing a Politburo study session in 2014 seeming to have launched the People’s Liberation Army subsequent redoubling of efforts in military innovation.