It is America’s Move in its Competition with China


Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from “Competing with China,” the lead article in the latest issue of Survival, published by the International Institute of Strategic Studies.


In Washington and the capitals of many other advanced industrial democracies, there appears to be a growing consensus that prevailing policies towards China have failed and that some kind of alternative approach to dealing with that country is now urgently required. In a recent, widely read article in Foreign Affairs two former Obama administration officials conclude that, after years of “hopeful thinking” about China’s future, the United States finds itself confronting “its most dynamic and formidable competitor in modern history.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) describes the challenge in similar terms, noting that in the 240 years since its founding the United States has never before “faced an adversary of this scale, scope, and capacity.” “Decades of optimism about China’s rise have been discarded,” declares The Economist. “We got China wrong,” writes an editorialist for the Washington Post. “Now what?”

The answer is by no means obvious. While there may be increasingly widespread agreement about the existence of certain troubling symptoms, there is much less regarding a diagnosis of underlying causes, and virtually none at all on the appropriate prescription. Despite the evident severity of the challenge, the debate on how to respond remains nascent and fragmentary.

America’s Failed China Strategy

For almost a quarter century after the end of the Cold War, the United States had a broadly stable, two-part strategy for dealing with China. On the one hand, in a continuation of a process that began with the Nixon-Kissinger “opening” in the late 1960s, the United States sought to engage China across a wide variety of fronts: diplomatic, cultural, scientific, educational, and — above all — economic. At the same time as it pressed ahead with engagement, Washington also began to work harder at preserving a favorable balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region: maintaining its own forward-based forces, strengthening its traditional alliances and building new, quasi-alliance partnerships with others concerned over the implications of China’s growing power.

The goal of balancing was to preserve stability and deter attempts at coercion or aggression. Engagement, in turn, was supposed to encourage China to become a “responsible stakeholder” in the existing, U.S.-led international order, to accelerate its transition away from state-directed economic planning towards a more open, market-driven model of development, and to promote tendencies that would lead eventually to democratizing political reforms.

In the past ten years, and especially since the accession of Xi Jinping at the start of 2013, it has become increasingly evident that this strategy has failed to achieve its objectives. Thanks in large measure to its rapid integration into the global economy, China has grown richer and stronger far faster than would otherwise have been possible. Rather than loosen its grip, however, the Chinese Communist Party regime has become even more repressive and more militantly nationalistic. Instead of shifting towards greater reliance on market forces, the party-state has maintained and, in certain respects, expanded its use of mercantilist policy tools. And instead of evolving into a mellow, satisfied, “responsible” status quo power, Beijing has grown more assertive and, at times, aggressive.

The Sources of Chinese Conduct

As has been true since the end of the Cold War, and arguably since the founding of the People’s Republic, Beijing has three interlocking goals: to preserve the Chinese Communist Party’s monopoly on domestic political power; to weaken U.S. alliances, pushing back the American presence and restoring China to its rightful place as the preponderant power in eastern Eurasia; and to establish China as a truly global power on par with, and eventually superior to, the United States.

While the regime is still careful about how it frames its objectives, under Xi Jinping it has become increasingly frank in describing them. Instead of continuing to follow Deng Xiaoping’s advice that it should “hide its capabilities and bide its time,” Xi has proclaimed his intention to achieve the “China Dream” of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” and to do so no later than the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic in 2049.

While these words are subject to interpretation, at a minimum they appear to imply the restoration of China to a position of regional primacy by the middle of this century. As Shi Yinhong, a senior academic and government adviser, explained in the spring of 2015 in China International Relations: “President Xi Jinping is very ambitious … for China to take on a dominant role in the Asia and Western Pacific area. Over the long term, [China’s] power and influence will undoubtedly weaken and ultimately abolish U.S. dominance in the region.”

In pursuit of these aims, and in an intensification of a trend towards greater assertiveness that first became visible after the onset of the global financial crisis in 2008, Xi has stepped up the use of all the instruments at his disposal. China has deployed its growing military capabilities to try to extend control over the waters and resources off its coasts, while at the same time seeking to weaken U.S. alliances by undermining the credibility of the security guarantees on which they are built. Under Xi’s signature “Belt and Road Initiative,” Beijing is utilizing a mix of economic inducements and diplomatic suasion to try to draw others towards it, while projecting its influence west, across continental Eurasia and south into the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. At Xi’s direction, the Chinese Communist Party has become more aggressive in applying the “magic weapons” of political warfare and influence operations to try to shape the perceptions and policies of other nations (including the United States) so as to delay or weaken their resistance to China’s rise. Finally, instead of shying away, as it has done in the past, Beijing has embraced the idea of ideological competition with the West, offering China’s mix of market-driven economics and authoritarian politics as “a new option for other countries.”

At home, in Asia, and in the world at large, Xi Jinping is pursuing policies that, despite their evident diversity and complexity, have a strong unifying theme. Xi’s strategy may not succeed and could fail catastrophically, but the momentum and sense of purpose that drives it, and the resources being mobilized to support it are undeniably impressive. Just as at the turn of the 20th century American policymakers set out to “make the world safe for democracy,” so, at the start of the 21st century, their Chinese counterparts are attempting to make it safe for authoritarianism.

A Countervailing Strategy

In the face of this onslaught, for the foreseeable future the United States is going to have to abandon the ambitious, optimistic aims of the post-Cold War era and define its goals in more defensive terms: preventing hostile domination of eastern Eurasia, preserving free use of the global commons, assisting friends and allies in defending themselves, and countering Chinese efforts to exploit or weaken global rules and institutions rooted in liberal principles of economic and political openness or to encourage the consolidation and spread of illiberal norms and authoritarian regimes. In addition to these outward-looking objectives, the United States and its allies will need to take steps to neutralize Beijing’s attempts to use economic leverage or political warfare against them while defending against predatory practices that threaten their prosperity and their ability to maintain a meaningful margin of technological advantage.

As they pursue these defensive aims, the United States and its allies should continue to seek the best possible relationship with Beijing, cooperating on issues of convergent interest and doing whatever they can to avoid a conflict that would be catastrophic for all concerned. But they must do so with a clear-eyed appreciation of the likely limits on such cooperation, without backing away from their other objectives or compromising their values. The West should also not give up on its efforts, however indirect, to encourage tendencies within China that may someday result in its transition to a more liberal and democratic form of government. Engagement in its current form has obviously failed to promote this shift, but that does not mean it should be abandoned as an objective. Without a fundamental change in the character of its domestic regime, a lasting, trusting and mutually beneficial relationship between China, the United States and the other democracies will prove impossible to attain. Such a relationship may someday be within reach, but, to paraphrase George Kennan, it will have to await “either the break-up or the gradual mellowing” of the power of the Chinese Communist Party.

To advance towards its objectives Washington need not abandon altogether the mixed strategy it has been pursuing since the end of the Cold War, but, together with its allies, it will have to modify substantially the mix of elements the strategy contains. In sum, the United States and its strategic partners need to increase and better integrate their investments in balancing, including both its diplomatic and military components, while at the same time regulating more carefully, and in certain respects constricting, their present posture of open and still largely unconstrained economic and societal engagement with China.

Thanks to China’s growing power and increasing assertiveness there are now strong countervailing tendencies at work across Asia. On the diplomatic front, the first order of business for the United States must be to encourage these tendencies by reassuring its Asian friends and allies about the depth and permanence of its commitments. As part of this effort, and in contrast to the evident inclinations of the Trump administration, Washington should highlight the common values that link it with most of its major strategic partners, including Taiwan and India, as well as Japan, Australia, and South Korea. Aside from commercial interests or purely geopolitical concerns these shared beliefs provide an enduring foundation for cooperation. They also make it extremely unlikely that the United States would ever willingly cede regional preponderance to an authoritarian China.

Washington should also be doing more to mobilize the support of its European allies in pursuit of common objectives in Asia. The fact that many European governments now share U.S. concerns over the direction of Chinese policy on a variety of fronts should make this easier than would have been the case only a few years ago. If its members can work together, a unified global coalition of democracies could exert considerable pressure on China on freedom of navigation, human rights, trade, cybersecurity, political influence operations, and the protection of intellectual property, among other issues.

In the military domain, the United States should bolster its security guarantees, strengthening deterrence, reassuring its allies and preserving its ability to project power into and through the broad reaches of the Indo-Pacific despite China’s growing anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities. Doing this will require reducing the vulnerability of U.S. and allied forces and bases in the Western Pacific, enhancing capabilities for conducting retaliatory long-range conventional precision strikes, and further developing the capacity to respond to Chinese aggression with some form of naval blockade.

To respond to China’s efforts to enclose and control the use of its “near seas,” the United States, its local friends and allies, as well as countries from outside the region like France and Great Britain, need to work together to defy any attempt by Beijing to establish air or maritime exclusion zones by operating continuously wherever international law permits. The United States should also be doing more to assist its regional partners in strengthening their own surveillance and A2/AD capabilities so that they can better defend their own waters and airspace.

Stepped-up balancing entails costs and carries risks, but it does not present any deep conceptual challenges. The United States and its allies know how to intensify their diplomatic cooperation and increase their defense capabilities. For the most part, they simply need to do more of what they are already doing. Constraining engagement is another matter altogether. This will require the democracies to reexamine their assumptions about the unalloyed virtues of openness and find ways to protect their economies and societies without damaging their foundational principles or lessening the vitality that comes from the freest possible exchange of goods and ideas.

In order to prevent its Asian friends and allies from being drawn ever more tightly into a China-centered Eurasian “co-prosperity sphere,” Washington should be taking steps to encourage the widest possible flows of trade investment among them, with the other advanced industrial democracies, and with the United States itself. For this purpose, the recently signed Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Japan-E.U. Economic Partnership Agreement are useful measures, but a reversal of the Trump administration’s mistaken decision to withdraw from the original Trans-Pacific Partnership would be even better. For all the talk of China’s impending economic dominance, it is worth recalling that a free trade area that incorporated the European Union, the United States, and the other members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership would command 60 percent of global GDP.

Instead of imposing tariffs on them, the United States should be working with its democratic allies and trading partners to pressure Beijing to modify or abandon its own mercantilist practices. Failing that, the market democracies will have to cooperate in defending their cutting-edge industries against unfair competition from Chinese firms that enjoy subsidies, a large and heavily protected domestic market and technology obtained, often with help from the state, through forced transfer and outright theft.

As they strengthen their own ties, the advanced industrial economies should also work together to counter China’s use of infrastructure investments to bind developing countries to it, bolstering corrupt and illiberal regimes while extending its influence and strategic presence across both continental and maritime Eurasia. In addition to highlighting the hidden risks and costs that often accompany Beijing’s money, democratic governments and international aid agencies should be prepared to offer a healthy alternative to Chinese loans.

Finally, Chinese Communist Party influence operations pose a particular challenge to liberal societies because they exploit the values of openness and freedom of expression on which they are based in order to shape and distort their deliberative and decision-making processes. To harden themselves against these activities, the democracies should work together by bolstering their counterintelligence capabilities, exchanging information about the activities of “united front”-linked organizations and individuals, and sharing experiences regarding laws and best practices for monitoring and controlling undue foreign influence.

Along with its defensive aspects, an effective political warfare strategy must also have an offensive component. Rather than seeming to accept Beijing’s ceaseless happy-talk about “win-win cooperation,” democratic governments need to find ways to convey the fact that, despite its protestations of benign intent, China is engaged in activities on a massive scale that are aggressive, destabilizing, flout international norms, impose disproportionate costs on other societies, and threaten their long-term autonomy, prosperity and security. Notwithstanding the evident growth in its material power, China has numerous social, economic, and environmental problems and its continued rise, to say nothing of its ability eventually to dominate Asia and perhaps the world, are by no means inevitable. Whatever its other accomplishments, the Chinese political system is brutal, repressive and profoundly corrupt. The Chinese Communist Party enriches its own members and their families, even as it denies ordinary Chinese people the right to express their opinions, choose their leaders, and worship as they see fit. Fearful of its own people, the Chinese Communist Party regime invests enormous resources in monitoring and controlling their activities. These are realities that the United States and its allies should seek to highlight rather than ignoring them out of a misplaced sense of politesse or in a futile attempt at “reassurance.”

If they wish to convince others of the enduring virtues of their system of government, the democracies, starting with the United States, have no choice but to begin to correct the growing dysfunction that in many cases afflicts their political systems and their societies. If they fail to do so then, in the long run, they will be unable to counter China’s political warfare or to compete successfully in the military, diplomatic, and economic domains. But, having waited so long to bestir themselves, the democracies do not now have the luxury of time. If they wish to defend their shared interests and common values they must act, soon, and preferably together.


Aaron L. Friedberg is professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University and the author of Beyond Air-Sea Battle (2014) and A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia (2011). Follow him @AaronFriedberg.

Image: Steve Webel/Flickr