By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers
Pursuit of Greatness
It is known that China’s emissions exceed all developed nations combined and as we have seen one of the key outcomes from the US-China joint climate declaration released during COP26 is the two nations’ promises to reduce the emissions of methane – a potent greenhouse gas. One expert said that the declaration showed that methane cutting “is [listed] explicitly on the agenda of this important bilateral relationship”.
Elsewhere, China’s daily coal output set a “historic new high” last Wednesday, surpassing 12m tonnes, according to the state economic planner. Furthermore, the country produced 360m tonnes of raw coal in October amid a nationwide production drive, according to its statistics authority. The figure is the highest since March 2015, Reuters said.
When last year speaking before the United Nations Climate Ambition Summit in December 2020, Xi Jinping promised that China would lower its carbon intensity – the amount of CO2 emissions per unit of GDP – by over 65 percent by 2030 and increase the share of non-fossil fuels in its energy consumption to around 25 percent. The new pronouncement came on the heels of an earlier commitment in September that China would achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. Once again, Xi appeared to have captured the rhetorical high ground and positioned himself and China for another round of international accolades. Yet this time the response from the international community was more muted. International experts and the media noted that China’s current energy practices made it more climate sinner than a savior. China contributes 28 percent of the world’s emissions of the greenhouse gas CO2, more than the next three emitters (the United States, India, and Russia) combined. And while it remains the largest investor in clean energy, additions to new wind and solar capacity have slowed,1 while growth in coal-fired capacity has accelerated. Between January and June 2020, China provided permits for more new coal-fired capacity than in 2018 and 2019 combined;2 and its 2020 coal consumption increased 3 percent over 2019, even with the decreased industrial and transportation emissions associated with COVID-19.3 China was also on track to invest approximately $50 billion in 240 coal projects globally. Even the usually sympathetic UN Secretary-General Guterres implicitly criticized Beijing, noting in a July 2020 speech, “There is no such thing as clean coal, and coal should have no place in any rational recovery plan. It is deeply concerning that new coal powerplants are still being planned and financed, even though renewables offer three times more jobs, and are now cheaper than coal in most countries.”4
That same December, coal also emerged as the headline in a different China-related story. Over a dozen Chinese cities were suffering the worst power outages in a decade and were forced to impose restrictions on power usage just as winter hit. The answer was a stone’s throw away. More than 60 ships with 5.7 million tons of Australian coal were waiting to unload their cargo at Chinese ports; some had been there for over a half-year. But Beijing refused to lift its wide-ranging ban on Australian exports, including coal. It preferred to let Chinese businesses pay the price and its own soft power take a hit. Unsurprisingly, the proportion of Australians who held an unfavorable view of China jumped from 57 percent in 2019 to 81 percent in 2020.5
China’s claim to climate leadership and impressive investment in renewable energies, while at the same time contributing to a dramatic expansion of global coal consumption, appears inherently contradictory. Its decision to inflict economic pain on its domestic firms in order to punish Australia for a perceived political transgression also seems illogical. But as we have seen, China’s foreign policy strategy reflects its own unique approach and priorities. It is willing, for example, to sacrifice the diplomatic soft power win of global leadership for narrower domestic political and economic gains. It also prioritizes sovereignty and social stability, as well as controlling the narrative around those core issues, above all else – even economic benefit. Understanding these Chinese leadership priorities, as well as how Beijing has deployed its domestic governance model in pursuit of its foreign policy objectives, is essential for the United States and its allies and partners in developing an effective China policy.
Chinese leaders offer a new vision of world order rooted in concepts such as “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” a “community of shared destiny,” a “new relationship among major powers,” and a “China model.” Once the rhetorical flourishes are stripped away, the vision translates into a radically transformed international system. The United States is no longer the global hegemon with a powerful network of alliances that reinforces much of the current rules-based order. Instead, a reunified and resurgent China is on a par with, or even more powerful than, the United States. China’s technologies, trade and investment, and values flow through the BRI, define international institutions, and underpin a multipolar but still integrated international system. China is the preeminent power in Asia, and the United States operates there within the context of Chinese-led trade and security regimes. Responsibility for managing the global commons and providing global public goods is broadly shared among China and other responsible powers, as opposed to disproportionately borne by a single hegemon.
In pursuing their vision, China’s leaders operate from their own distinctive playbook that reflects their domestic governance model: a highly centralized Party-state that possesses the ability to mobilize resources from the public and private sectors, to deploy those resources across multiple domains, to control the content and flow of information, to penetrate societies and economies globally, and to leverage the power of the country’s vast market, as well as it's military.
To date, Beijing has experienced mixed success in attaining its vision of a reordered international system. It has made progress in realizing its sovereignty claims through the imposition of the Hong Kong National Security Law and expanding military capabilities and presence in the South China Sea.
The region’s militarisation has intensified in recent years, with many countries organizing joint military exercises. Indonesia and the United States organized their largest-ever joint military exercise, Garuda Shield, which involved almost 4000 soldiers. India and Vietnam jointly held a naval exercise in the South China Sea. The United States and the Philippines resumed the annual Balikatan military exercise that had been postponed due to the pandemic. Meanwhile, China also organized one of its largest ever military exercises with Russia, involving 10,000 troops.
The military presence of non-claimant countries in the South China Sea has also increased. Adding to the US Freedom of Navigation program, the United Kingdom, Germany and France have all sent navy vessels to the region. It seems that these countries want to send a message to Beijing that they are ready to respond to any provocation in the South China Sea.
It also has withstood international opprobrium and targeted economic sanctions for its violations of human rights in Xinjiang. Its trade initiative, the RCEP, has the potential to elevate its role within the Asia Pacific while diminishing that of the United States, which is not a party to either the RCEP or the Japanese-led Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Through the BRI, Beijing has laid the foundation for Chinese technology to provide much of the world’s next-generation telecommunications, financial, and health infrastructure. Its dominance in UN technology standard-setting bodies and capacity building on internet governance help reinforce acceptance of both Chinese technology and the more repressive norms and values it enables.
Yet China’s vision remains unrealized in important respects. Its efforts to advance its sovereignty claims, human rights, and internet governance norms and its covert and/or coercive efforts to shape international actors’ political and economic choices have produced a backlash that threatens its larger strategic objectives. Rather than undermining the United States’ role in the Asia Pacific or the US-led alliance system, Chinese actions have resulted in calls to strengthen America’s position. In the face of Chinese military aggression, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, overcame deep-seated reluctance to support closer military ties with the United States. And the European Union has stepped up to enhance its political and security engagement in the Asia Pacific. Significant solidarity among advanced democracies emerged to protest Chinese policies in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, to call for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19, and to ban or limit Huawei 5G technology. And countries are increasingly scrutinizing and defending against Chinese behavior that attempts to subvert the democratic principles that underpin a range of international institutions.
For the United States, China’s vision presents a set of important and difficult choices concerning the degree to which Washington is prepared to assert its own vision, accommodate Chinese preferences, seek compromise, or mount a vigorous defense. Neither the long-standing US policy of “engagement” nor the more recent competitive and containment-oriented approach of the Trump administration has yielded a positive and robust US-China relationship rooted in shared values and a common purpose. Each, however, has important lessons for US policy moving forward.
Lessons from History
Engaging with China has been a consistent theme of the US-China relationship dating back to before the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1979. In the 1950s, US secretary of state John Foster Dulles delivered a series of speeches in which he suggested that the United States should help Communist countries evolve peacefully to democracy by supporting opposition forces, cultural subversion, and information warfare.6 After the opening of relations between the two countries, successive US presidents from Richard Nixon through to Barack Obama treasured the idea that the United States could influence China’s political and economic trajectory, not through direct subversion, but through engaging China in the rules-based order. The notion was simple: the United States would encourage China’s integration into the liberal international order; China would become a pillar of that order; and over time, along with the rise of the middle class, this integration process would accelerate economic and political liberalization within China.7 In case US best hopes were not realized, Washington would also hedge its bets by retaining a strong military presence and system of alliances in the Asia Pacific region.
No US president expected that China would change overnight as a result of US policy. President Clinton, in discussing the importance of supporting China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, had this to say:
Of course, the path that China takes to the future is a choice China will make. We cannot control that choice; we can only influence it. But we must recognize that we do have complete control over what we do. We can work to pull China in the right direction or we can turn our backs and almost certainly push it in the wrong direction. The WTO agreement will move China in the right direction. It will advance the goals America has worked for in China.8
Yet most administrations retained a belief that over time China would become a stakeholder in the international rules-based order and more closely approximate a market democracy at home. In his keynote address at the National Committee on US-China Relations’ 2005 gala, the Bush administration’s deputy secretary of state Robert Zoellick outlined a set of challenges posed by China’s rise: a lack of transparency in supporting bad actors on the global stage; a failure to protect IP; a mounting US-China bilateral trade deficit; and China’s desire for “predominance of power” in Asia. Solving these problems, Zoellick argued, would require China not only to change its behavior on the global stage but also transform its domestic political system: “Our goal … is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way…. Closed politics cannot be a permanent feature of Chinese society. It is simply not sustainable. China needs a peaceful political transition to make its government responsible and accountable to its people.”9
The engagement had both advocates and detractors within China, but in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, Chinese officials appeared less convinced by the US model. They advanced notions of a “new relationship among major powers.” They also began to think more strategically about China’s leadership on the global stage: Chinese economists set the stage for the BRI, scholars raised the prospect of China expanding its influence in the Arctic, and the PLA Navy moved from staking claims in the South China Sea to realizing them. The selection of Xi Jinping as the country’s leader in 2012–13 only reinforced this more ambitious and expansive global outlook.
The Obama administration’s 2011 pivot or rebalance was in part a recognition of the changes underway in Chinese foreign policy. The United States strengthened the hedge element of its strategy: it bolstered its diplomatic and security outreach to Asian allies and partners; supported the decision of the Philippines to seek legal arbitration in its conflict with China in the South China Sea; promoted the negotiation of a regional trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that excluded China; and redeployed forces from the Middle East to the Asia Pacific to enhance its military presence. Nonetheless, the Obama White House held on to the basic principles of engagement and remained committed to securing agreements on public health, cyber, and climate issues. The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States in 2016, however, sounded the death knell for the notion of “engage but hedge.” Campaigning under the banner of “America First,” President Trump argued that the United States had sacrificed its own interests in support of others – that it had borne an unfair share of the burden of global security and fallen victim to unequal trade deals that disadvantaged the country.10 He also dismissed the value of allies and multilateralism, viewing them as constraints on American interests and power.11 In short order, he withdrew the United States from a half-dozen international institutions and arrangements, and he embraced a new priority on sovereignty in US foreign policy that suggested that the United States would no longer seek to influence the domestic political choices of others. In such a context, the two rationales for engagement – buttressing the current rules-based order and promoting political and economic reform – became irrelevant.
Senior members of the administration, along with a strong bipartisan consensus within the US Congress, instead drove a policy that challenged the fundamental understandings and underpinnings of engagement. The 2017 National Security Strategy asserted: “For decades, US policy was rooted in the belief that support for China’s rise and for its integration into the post-war international order would liberalize China.” Instead, as the report notes, “China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.” The administration called for a “whole of government, whole of society” response to the threats posed by Chinese efforts to influence the American public.12
By the conclusion of its tenure in January 2021, the Trump administration had helped alert the world to the governance issues posed by the BRI and the security challenges presented by Huawei. It had stymied China’s efforts to advance its interests in several UN forums and cooperated with India, Australia, and Japan to reinvigorate the Quad and support the concept of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP). The administration also undertook a sweeping campaign within the United States to address Chinese influence operations; to even the playing field for visas and access between Chinese and US scholars, journalists, and diplomats; to address Chinese IP theft; and to prevent US technology from being sold to Chinese firms that posed national security concerns or contributed to human rights violations.
Nonetheless, the administration’s actions failed to improve the political situation in Xinjiang or Hong Kong or to stabilize the situation in the South China Sea or Taiwan. Its trade war with China inflicted greater costs on the US economy than on that of China. In addition, the bilateral diplomatic framework atrophied, contributing to a dramatic deterioration of the relationship. In the final months of the Trump administration, Chinese state councilor Wang Yi claimed that the US-China relationship was at risk of a “new Cold War,” while scholars such as Niall Ferguson13 and Timothy Garton Ash14 claimed that the two countries had already arrived at such a state.
The Starting Point
The era of “engage but hedge” and the period of “compete, counter, and contain” reflect two sides of the same coin. “Engage but hedge” reflects the United States that is confident in its political and economic model, proactive in its support of the current rules-based order, understands allies as amplifying US influence, and is willing to sacrifice short-term interests for what it believes will be a longer-term gain in cooperating with China. “Compete, counter, and contain” reflects a United States that believes its model is under threat and seeks to prevent Chinese actors from accessing US human or financial capital to benefit the CCP. It pushes back against Chinese efforts to transform the international system but rarely leads to bolstering the current rules-based order. It also sees limited value in working to identify areas of cooperation with China. During the Trump administration, the US approach to allies was fragmented: the president characterized allies as free riders, while other administration officials sought cooperation.
The Biden administration, which took power in January 2021, retained many of the competitive and confrontational policies of the Trump administration but also embraced the traditional strengths of US foreign policy, such as allies and leadership in multilateral institutions. It also has reinforced the importance of the liberal international or rules-based order and the values that underpin that order in American foreign policy. This renewed focus on values provides a useful starting point for reconceptualizing the challenge China poses to the United States.
Reframing the Challenge
The United States and China both seek a future in which the world is prosperous, peaceful, and capable of addressing global challenges. They differ, however, in their conceptions of how power should be distributed and the norms and values that should underpin that future world.
Like China, the United States seeks an international order that reflects its values – both real and aspirational. This means reinforcing values such as a commitment to inclusion and equality, free trade and economic opportunity, innovation and sustainability, openness, human dignity, and the rule of law within the United States itself, and then developing institutions and arrangements that embody these values on the global stage. Many of these values are already embedded but not fully realized in the current rules-based order.
Such a frame makes clear that the central challenge China poses is a value- and norm-based one and not, as is often asserted, one defined by a rising power versus an established power. As noted previously, when competition is framed in a bilateral US-China context, China gains an important advantage. Every issue is elevated into a signal of relative power and influence; and as the rising power, any relative Chinese gain becomes a win. An increase in Chinese research funding relative to that of the United States is touted as an example of the inevitability of Chinese innovation leadership, despite the fact that the United States continues to lead the world in R&D. In addition, the bilateral competition frame, when applied to issues such as Huawei’s 5G deployment or BRI governance practices, enables Beijing to claim that US actions are motivated by its desire to avoid losing primacy to China as opposed to normative concerns over data privacy or Chinese lending and investment practices.
A framework that embraces values and norms also is more likely to engage US allies and partners. Conflict in the South China Sea becomes a normative challenge by China to freedom of navigation and international law rather than a competition for military dominance between the United States and China in the Asia Pacific. It is a challenge that speaks not only to the United States but also to the 168 nations that are already party to UNCLOS. Framing US policy toward China as “not about China” but rather about the broader context of the rules-based order advantages the United States. It provides a clear alternative to China’s vision; forces Beijing to clarify where it is willing to uphold current norms and where it seeks to transform them; provides opportunities for prioritizing US policy initiatives; and engages with other countries to help bolster those same norms.
The US at Home is the US Abroad
For the United States to play a compelling role in shaping the future international system, it will need to ensure that its own governance system reflects its stated values and priorities. The polarized American polity and the chaotic response of the US government to the pandemic, in particular, tarnished the United States’ image and contributed to the impression of relative US decline.15 The Biden administration established early on that a priority was to invest in the social, physical, and technological infrastructure of the United States. Before taking office, Biden administration National Security Council officials Kurt Campbell and Rush Doshi argued that the United States would need to rebuild and rethink the relationship between the state and the market in ways that addressed inequality, sustained growth, and ensured competitiveness with China. In part this would require rebuilding “the solidarity and civic identity that make democracy work.”16 In addition, President Biden has articulated an ambitious program on infrastructure directly linked with innovation, climate change, and manufacturing jobs. A renewed commitment to immigration is also important in affirming US values of openness and opportunity. Moreover, continuing to attract the best and the brightest to the United States for study and work is essential to US competitiveness. More than one million foreign students attend US colleges and universities annually. A 2020 Paulson Institute study of the top-flight researchers in AI revealed that the United States boasts 60 percent of the top AI researchers in the world, while China and Europe possess around 10 percent each. Two-thirds of the US researchers, however, received undergraduate degrees from other countries.17 The United States’ ability to draw on the world’s scientific talent is crucial to maintaining its technological competitiveness. The importance of welcoming foreign students, however, extends well beyond its ability to populate its technology firms. In 2020, 62 of the world’s leaders had received education in the United States – more than anywhere else in the world.18
Reasserting US Leadership
The Trump administration’s withdrawal from a number of international agreements and organizations limited its ability to shape international norms and values and left a vacuum in global leadership. Despite the expectations of many in the international community, China did not fill the vacuum. Although it stepped up to claim leadership on a number of global challenges, it hewed to narrow opportunism that left it unable to forge a broader global consensus. Moreover, despite the lure of Chinese investment and the Chinese market, international surveys suggest a high degree of distrust in Xi Jinping and little interest in Chinese global leadership.
The Biden administration has made reestablishing US leadership in international institutions a priority. In a March 3, 2021 address, Secretary of State Antony Blinken described the US-China relationship as competitive, collaborative, and adversarial, noting: “The common denominator is the need to engage China from a position of strength.” In defining strength, Blinken underscored the importance of US participation in international organizations and partnerships with allies.19 The administration has moved quickly to re-establish the US commitment to global governance institutions. It rejoined the UNHRC, the Paris Climate Agreement, and the WHO, and extended the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. President Biden also convened a global climate summit in April 2021 to encourage more ambitious commitments from the world’s largest emitters. Such steps are essential to the United States’ ability to advance its notions of human rights, the rule of law, and sustainability, as well as to prevent Xi Jinping from achieving his objective of “leading in the reform of the global governance system.” The United States should also build domestic support for acceding to UNCLOS. As Chinese military activities continue to ramp up in the Asia Pacific, US membership in UNCLOS offers an important platform for coordinating policies with ASEAN and other Asia Pacific countries.
US leadership will look different in the future, however. By 2030, or perhaps earlier, the size of China’s economy will surpass that of the United States. China’s population size already exceeds that of the United States by more than four times, providing it a distinct advantage in human capital, whether for advancing scientific and technological innovation or global political outreach. And within the Asia Pacific, China claims a clear military advantage simply by virtue of geography. The United States, as Blinken acknowledged, will increasingly need to rely on its allies and partners and act collectively to advance shared norms and interests. At the same time, it will need to mount a robust defense against China’s foreign policy approach.
Building Coalitions: Allies, Partners, and More
The Biden administration has indicated that cooperating with allies and partners is central to its China strategy. One area where such cooperation is particularly important is technology. Technological competition with China has critical economic, national security, and value-based interests at stake. With China as a backdrop, the US Congress and Biden administration has committed to invest heavily in foundational technologies such as semiconductors, rethink critical supply chains, and constrain PRC access to technologies with national security applications. Determining where technological decoupling with China is necessary and where integration is beneficial, however, will be a challenging but essential part of the broader value and normative-based competition. The United States and other like-minded countries will need to decide among themselves which technologies should be protected, whether reshoring is more desirable than retaining a competitive free-market approach within a like-minded group, and which Chinese technologies can be adapted for use in open societies.
Many analysts have proposed smaller coordination bodies consisting of like-minded countries to address technological standards. The European Union, for example, has suggested a “Transatlantic Trade and Technology Council” to set joint standards for new technologies. Such coordination bodies could also play an important role in assessing the implications of innovations such as China’s digital currency/electronic payment system. This innovation carries with it potentially significant geostrategic implications, such as the ability of China to enhance its surveillance capabilities, contribute to challenging the role of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, and evade financial sanctions. In 2021, as Beijing began to roll it out domestically and quietly discuss the potential for its global spread, however, there was no obvious forum in which the United States and other democracies could consider the implications and develop a coordinated response.
To address the multidimensional element of China’s model, the United States and its allies should also establish a mechanism for coordinating policy in the United Nations and other international institutions to set standards, develop consensus candidates for leadership positions, and ensure strong representation by democracies in bodies such as the ITU. The Biden administration took an early step in this direction in April 2021 by proposing an American candidate to become the next head of the ITU.
One of the most challenging elements of Xi Jinping’s playbook is his ability to leverage the Chinese market to shape others’ political and strategic choices. There is a pressing need for countries to develop a coordinated response to Beijing’s coercive economic diplomacy. In cases where China boycotts goods from countries on political grounds, as it has with Australia, the Philippines, and South Korea, among others, there should be a collective response in which economic alliances, akin to NATO or the Quad, would levy sanctions or even undertake boycotts in kind. Similarly, when China threatens retaliation against individual multinationals or even entire industries with loss of market access, countries should respond in kind by indicating that Chinese companies in those same sectors will face similar consequences. Reciprocity signals to China that other countries are prepared to respond with more than rhetorical condemnation and help to level the playing field for future negotiation.
A Bigger Tent
In competing with China to define the values, norms, and institutions of the 21st century, cooperation with traditional allies will no longer suffice. The United States and other advanced market democracies need to expand the tent to include a broader range of partners and potential allies. China’s BRI and efforts to transform norms and values in international institutions reflect a global challenge that necessitates a global response. The breadth and depth of China’s engagement with the world’s developing economies, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, provide it with fertile ground for its values, technologies, and policy preferences to take hold, and a strong and consistent base of support for policies in other areas, such as Xinjiang and Hong Kong. While China may claim reservoirs of elite support in some developing economies, however, polls suggest that the majority of citizens in many developing economies favor Japanese, EU, or US leadership over that of China.
Engagement with developing economies should be rooted in new economic opportunities. The United States, in partnership with other large market democracies, such as Germany, France, the UK, Japan, and Australia, should consider a significant new initiative around urbanization, infrastructure, sustainable development, and innovation in 25 to 30 developing countries. The United States cannot and should not attempt to match the BRI. Instead, it should leverage its own strengths, and those of its democratic allies, around supporting growth that is rooted in the rule of law, transparency, and sustainability. The US Congress’s 2021 Strategic Competition Act, which supports significantly increasing US funding for overseas infrastructure, political capacity building, and local media, among other areas, could serve as the basis for such an initiative.
Ongoing initiatives such as the US-led Clean Network or Quad-based efforts to establish resilient supply chains could also support such an effort. As multinationals diversify part of their supply chains away from China to develop regional manufacturing and distribution centers, these new investment opportunities should also become part of the larger initiative. In addition, the global economy should reflect greater integration of these economies into global innovation networks and technology supply chains in ways that both contribute to their economic development and bolster a commitment to norms of openness, the rule of law, and sustainability. Moreover, particularly where Huawei is not already deeply embedded, the Biden administration should continue the Trump administration policy of providing support for 5G and fiber optic cable alternatives to persuade countries of the benefits of adopting a technological future that prizes transparency and data security.
I’m Not Going Anywhere
Within the Asia Pacific, China is moving to assert sovereignty over contested territories and to create institutions and norms that cement its regional leadership. President Biden has moved decisively to support the Quad arrangement, which includes India, Australia, Japan, and the United States. Chinese officials have become increasingly concerned about the Quad’s potential to harden into a more formal alliance-type arrangement: in October 2020, Chinese vice-foreign minister Luo Zhaohui referred to it as an “anti-China frontline” and a “mini-NATO.”20 While Chinese concerns may be misplaced, given India’s long-standing commitment to non-alignment, as we have seen, China’s military aggression on the Sino-Indian border triggered a new enthusiasm for the Quad from Prime Minister Modi. With India’s support, the Quad could serve an important role in helping to deter China from more aggressive military activity in the Indo-Pacific.
President Biden has also strongly supported FOIP, which embodies the principles of free trade, freedom of navigation and overflight, and sovereignty, and provides a direct rebuttal to Beijing’s state-supported trade and investment and assertive military behavior in the South and East China Seas. Furthermore, FOIP enables the emergence of a broader values-based coalition.
There is a significant opportunity to knit together a more formal partnership between the United States’ Asian and European allies and partners. One hundred parliamentarians and members of Congress from 19 countries across Europe, North America, and Asia have already established the Interparliamentary Alliance on China to coordinate strategy toward China. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has also called for NATO to play a larger role in the Asia Pacific region, coordinating with Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea to defend global rules and set norms and standards in space and cyberspace in the face of destabilizing Chinese behavior.21 Germany, France, the Netherlands, and the UK have all deployed naval assets in the South China Sea in support of freedom of navigation. France and Germany have both published strategies for the Indo-Pacific, which were followed in April 2021 by the EU’s own “Strategy of Cooperation” for the region. Echoing Stoltenberg’s words, Germany’s defense minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, stated that Berlin wanted to increase its presence in the Indo-Pacific by teaming up with “like-minded allies” in the face of a China that was undermining the “rules-based world order.”22 While traditional security concerns might be the first priority for such a partnership, the Quad is already conducting conversations around supply chain resiliency, the pandemic, and disinformation campaigns. There is the potential to develop even more extensive cooperation between Asia, Europe, the UK, and the US on these issues.23
Deepening political and security engagement between these same actors in the context of FOIP could also play an important role in enhancing Taiwan’s security. Xi’s priority on sovereignty and reunification, as well as his success in advancing Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea and subverting one country, two systems in Hong Kong, places Taiwan in an increasingly precarious position. Xi has asserted that unification with Taiwan should take place “sooner rather than later” and has refused to renounce the use of force. By integrating Taiwan more fully into the economic and security architecture of a FOIP, underpinned not only by Asian but also by European allies, the United States increases the probability of effective deterrence against Chinese military action. At the same time, the United States should resist unnecessarily provoking Beijing by adopting legislation, such as the Taiwan Travel Act, that draws attention to Taiwan as an independent actor but does not meaningfully enhance its security. The United States should focus on measured but consequential steps that help Taiwan enhance its ability to deter a Chinese attack, blockade, or quarantine and that more deeply embed the island in international institutions and arrangements.
While the United States maintains a strong position as the region’s dominant guarantor of security, it should re-establish the economic pillar of its regional engagement by joining the CPTPP. The conclusion of the Chinese-led RCEP in 2020 has further emboldened Chinese thinkers and officials to argue that the United States is no longer a credible Asia Pacific power. Without a presence in either of the two dominant Asia Pacific trading regimes, the United States will not benefit from the economic dynamism of the world’s fastest-growing region and its influence there will be diminished. Multinationals will reorient their supply chains in order to take advantage of the lower tariffs afforded to the agreement’s member economies. The United States already operates at a deficit relative to China because much of the Asia Pacific region – and the world – believes that “the United States is essential for security, but China is indispensable for economic prosperity.”
In April 2021, I received a request for advice from a US company that had signed on as a corporate sponsor for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. The human rights situation in Xinjiang had led governments in several countries, including the United States, to debate whether to push for a new venue for the games, carry out a full or selective boycott, or simply not send diplomatic representation. The company’s China market was enormous, and while it didn’t source goods from Xinjiang, it understood that its actions would be under a microscope in both Beijing and Washington.
We suggested that the firm reach out to other sponsors to develop a common platform that might include some combination of the following: a coordinated, behind-the-scenes push for China to begin releasing Uyghur Muslims from the labor and reeducation camps; an initiative to reform the International Olympic Committee’s selection process for venues; and a public statement of concern about the situation in Xinjiang and boycott of any corporate representation at the games.
Issues in the US-China relationship frequently require balancing economic benefits against democratic values or national security interests. The CCP’s penetration of democracies’ educational and cultural institutions, business communities, and the media only adds to the challenge. There are heated debates, for example, over how to manage Chinese students and researchers working in labs with advanced technology: what is the appropriate balance between national security and the value of American openness? How can the opportunities for the majority of Chinese students be protected in the face of malign actions by a few? Debates over CIs pit the opportunity for Chinese-language training that Beijing’s financing enables against US universities’ governance principles and the potential for CIs to influence students’ views or universities’ policies around issues such as inviting the Dalai Lama to speak on campus.
There are no simple answers to these issues, but lowering the temperature of these often inflamed debates is essential to ensuring the full consideration of all policy options. For example, many universities closed their CIs in the face of politically charged Congressional debates and tough actions. Without such a heated atmosphere, however, other options, such as allowing China to finance the CIs but not select the teachers or curriculum, could also have been explored. Over time, how these issues are resolved will shape the character of US policy toward China, and the US-China relationship, as much as, if not more than, the major US strategic initiatives pursued on the international stage.
A World Divided or United?
For most of the world, there is little appetite for the United States and China to allow tensions in the relationship to solidify into a new Cold War. Countries do not want to have to choose between the world’s two largest economic and military powers. Moreover, prospects for addressing global challenges, such as climate change, pandemics, refugees, and financial crises, are all diminished in a world characterized by sharp divides and a zero-sum mentality.
For their part, Chinese scholars overwhelmingly see political conflict as inevitable. They identify structural reasons related to existing and rising power, ideological differences, leadership and prestige, and economics and technology as the most important sources of contention.24 They see little opportunity for US-China cooperation, and when they do, their ideas focus on narrow policy arenas within the construct of overall competition, such as developing international rules around infrastructure-related debt.25 In December 2020, I reached out to several senior Chinese foreign policy scholars for their assessment of where the two countries might find common ground. The most frequently mentioned areas of potential cooperation were climate change, the Iran nuclear deal, and the pandemic. There were a few outlier ideas: Fudan University professor Wu Xinbo suggested that both countries could relax restrictions on media access, and PKU’s Zha Daojiong raised the potential for civil society in each country to forge a more cooperative relationship; the governments, he lamented, were locked in a negative, deterministic, and threat-based framework.
The Chinese scholars’ assessments are broadly shared by their American counterparts. Given the current political and economic realities, most Chinese and American experts concur that the scope for US-China cooperation remains limited. Engagement is likely to occur not at the level of the grand bargain but at the level of technical cooperation around the big issues of global governance, such as climate change, public health, drug trafficking, and crisis management. The United States and China are already co-chairing the G20’s Sustainable Finance Study Group, and US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry traveled to Beijing in mid-April 2021 to discuss potential climate cooperation. Opportunities exist for the two countries to begin negotiations around reductions of other greenhouse gases such as methane, to provide co-financing for clean energy projects in developing economies, and to establish a set of benchmarks that would lay out how they plan to achieve their emission reduction targets. The two countries could also work together to strengthen and expand their carbon trading platforms.
Such cooperation would make a significant contribution to international security and help arrest the downward trajectory in the US-China relationship. It would not, however, alter fundamentally the contest underway between two distinct sets of values and world visions. On many of China’s most important foreign policy priorities – such as reforming norms around human rights, realizing sovereignty over the South China Sea and Taiwan, promoting a state-centered internet governance regime, advancing the BRI, diminishing the US’s role in Asia, enhancing China’s role in the Arctic, and promoting Chinese technologies on the global stage – the United States understands China is subverting the norms of the current rules-based order. Moreover, it is concerned about the character and conduct of Chinese foreign policy: the coercive nature of Chinese efforts to influence other actors’ policy choices and decisions. Beijing, for its part, views the United States as a spoiler, attempting to block China’s right to shape the rules governing states’ behavior and trying to contain its rise through America’s military alliance system and continued hold on fundamental technologies.
The emergence of two separate value-based technology – and perhaps even economic and military – ecosystems thus appears increasingly likely. The content and character of Chinese foreign policy suggest that the world according to China – one which celebrates Chinese centrality as a geographic, as well as political and economic, construct – is one that leaves little room for the United States, its allies, and the values and norms they support. The challenge for the United States and its allies and partners, therefore, is to develop and realize a more compelling vision of how the world is organized and the values and norms that inform it, such that a world according to China remains an ambition yet to be realized.
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