Competition With China Isn’t a Strategy


If the Trump administration were to summarize its own China policy in one word, it would be “competition.” From every official at every level, it’s one of the administration’s few glimmers of consistency the past two years. On Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence delivered a scathingly anti-China speech at the Hudson Institute that gave a sense of moral justification for a long-term competition with China. As one journalist tweeted, Pence stopped just short of labeling the Middle Kingdom “an evil empire.”

Many of the specific points made in the speech were valid, as is a general recognition that the United States is in competition with China.  But the speech, like much of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy, confuses the impulse to confront threats with a theory of the case for how to deal with them. Competition simply isn’t a strategy. And just because Chinese foreign policy demands a competitive response from democracies everywhere does not mean the Trump administration should be — or is even capable of being — the champion that democracy needs.

China under Xi Jinping poses a multifaceted threat to U.S. interests. Pence’s speech did a decent job of outlining the wide scope of that threat. From interfering in the politics of other countries to committing human rights abuses at scale, China exhibits worrying signs that it seeks to re-write the rules in a manner that can plausibly be described as fascist with Chinese characteristics. At the same time, the People’s Liberation Army is positioning itself militarily in Asia such that China can do whatever it will in the Asia-Pacific with the assurance that its military will deter or defeat attempts to counter it. Whether by design or happenstance, China has embarked on a process of making the world less just and less free.

That’s why the Trump administration isn’t wrong to oppose Chinese transgressions against the values of the United States and the international community. This is long overdue. But the Pence speech exhibits a number of problems with the administration’s approach that should prevent us from cheering it on.

First, the Trump administration is celebrating competition with China as if it will reassure liberal democracies abroad that fall within China’s shadow. It won’t. The democratic world doesn’t need or want America to be China’s great power competitor. It needs a champion of justice and a stabilizing force in the world. If that means competing with China then so be it, but it’s not a rallying point or something to be touted.  At this point, proof of competence and impulse control would give far greater confidence to those friends abroad that the United States needs to keep on its side.  But continuing to talk tough about China without advancing a more detailed pitch for how you’ll cope with the threat will only alienate those it needs to reassure.

Second, other than Trump’s highly personalized trade war, the administration’s response to the China challenge has almost entirely been in the military domain. Its most meaningful, non-rhetorical measures have been an expanded defense budget, a military sales package to Taiwan, and more prominent “shows of force” and freedom of navigation operations. Of course, there is a military dimension to the China threat, and the United States can’t afford to allow China to establish regional military dominance. But the military is not the most acute domain of competition right now—political interference in democracies is. Any military competition can and should take place with minimal pomp and circumstance. Maintaining a stable balance of power in the region doesn’t require that you rub your machismo in the world’s face through shows of force and tough speeches. That approach to North Korea last year brought us closer to nuclear war than many realize.

Third, the Trump administration has elected to fight with one hand tied behind its back.  China relies heavily on diplomacy and foreign aid to create favorable relationships and exercise influence abroad. Yet the Trump administration gutted these very tools from the outset. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claims to preside over the “Department of Swagger,” but has a hollowed-out and underfunded diplomatic apparatus.

Fourth, underscoring all of the above, pursuing competition with China only makes sense if you have measures of success in mind and a theory of the case for how to hit those marks.  International rivalries sometimes lead states to do stupid things — misperceiving the interests at stake, making bets that have very low odds of paying off, and taking risks that outweigh rewards. Having a theory in mind that connects ends and means is crucial for mitigating these tendencies. But competition as a rallying cry fails to articulate what those ends and means are.  Competition just means opposition, thinking in terms of relative gains. How does a zero-sum outlook get the United States closer to realizing a “free and open Indo-Pacific?” It doesn’t, at least not on its own.  Worse, the administration appears to be justifying a military challenge to China in nonsensical ways, like mounting a meaningful campaign resisting China’s claims in the South China Sea only after allowing it to establish a fully militarized position there.

The United States needs to maintain a balance of power in Asia that prevents China from exerting de facto dominance. It needs to prevent U.S. technology firms from collaborating with China to create a more Orwellian world. And it needs to stop China from leveraging its economic largesse to corrupt the politics of democracies everywhere.

But those objectives don’t require chest-thumping, swaggering, or muscular confrontation. They require winning friends and allies abroad.  They require international institutions that make it harder for China to bilaterally wield an imperial hand with countries that it should be dealing with multilaterally and in conformity with international law. And it requires managing espionage and intellectual property risks without starting a new “Red Scare.” An administration that exhibits hostility to the rules-based order, and sees power only in military form, is an unlikely champion of justice in any form.


Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks.  He is also a senior lecturer in international relations at Victoria University of Wellington, and global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. He served in the Obama administration as a strategist and foreign policy adviser in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Image: Michael Vadon/Flickr