By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers

Competition With China To Be Won

Amid a presidency beset by failures of deterrence—in Afghanistan, Ukraine, and the Middle East—the Biden administration’s China policy has stood out as a relative bright spot. The administration has strengthened U.S. alliances in Asia, restricted Chinese access to critical U.S. technologies, and endorsed the bipartisan mood for competition. Yet the administration is squandering these early gains by falling into a familiar trap: prioritizing a short-term thaw with China’s leaders at the expense of a long-term victory over their malevolent strategy. The Biden team’s policy of “managing competition” with Beijing risks emphasizing processes over outcomes, bilateral stability at the expense of global security, and diplomatic initiatives that aim for cooperation but generate only complacency.

The United States shouldn’t manage the competition with China; it should win it. Beijing is pursuing a raft of global initiatives designed to disintegrate the West and usher in an anti-democratic order. It is underwriting expansionist dictatorships in Russia, Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela. It has more than doubled its nuclear arsenal since 2020 and is building up its conventional forces faster than any country has since World War II. These actions show that China isn’t aiming for a stalemate. Neither should America.

What would winning look like? China’s communist rulers would give up trying to prevail in a hot or cold conflict with the United States and its friends. The Chinese people—from ruling elites to everyday citizens—would find inspiration to explore new models of development and governance that don’t rely on repression at home and compulsive hostility abroad.

In addition to having greater clarity about its end goal, the United States needs to accept that achieving it will require greater friction in U.S.-Chinese relations. Washington will need to adopt rhetoric and policies that may feel uncomfortably confrontational but in fact are necessary to reestablish boundaries that Beijing and its acolytes are violating. That means imposing costs on Chinese leader Xi Jinping for his policy of fostering global chaos. It means speaking with candor about the ways China is hurting U.S. interests. It means rapidly increasing U.S. defense capabilities to achieve unmistakable qualitative advantages over Beijing. It means severing China’s access to Western technology and frustrating Xi’s efforts to convert his country’s wealth into military power. And it means pursuing intensive diplomacy with Beijing only from a position of American strength, as perceived by both Washington and Beijing.

No country should relish waging another cold war. Yet a cold war is already being waged against the United States by China’s leaders. Rather than denying the existence of this struggle, Washington should own it and win it. Lukewarm statements that pretend as if there is no cold war perversely court a hot war; they signal complacency to the American people and conciliation with Chinese leaders. Like the original Cold War, the new Cold War will not be won through half-measures or timid rhetoric. Victory requires openly admitting that a totalitarian regime that commits genocide, fuels conflict, and threatens war will never be a reliable partner. Like the discredited détente policies that Washington adopted in the 1970s to deal with the Soviet Union, the current approach will yield little cooperation from Chinese leaders while fortifying their conviction that they can destabilize the world with impunity.


Biden’s New Baseline

The administration’s China policy initially showed promise. President Joe Biden maintained the tariffs that President Donald Trump had imposed on Chinese exports in response to the rampant theft of U.S. intellectual property. He renewed, with some adjustments, the executive orders Trump had issued to restrict investment in certain companies affiliated with the Chinese military and to block the import of Chinese technologies deemed a national security threat. In a particularly important step, in October 2022, Biden significantly expanded the Trump administration’s controls on the export of high-end semiconductors and the equipment used to make them, slowing Beijing’s plans to dominate the manufacturing of advanced microchips. Across Asia, Biden’s diplomats pulled longtime allies and newer partners closer together. They organized the first summits of the Quad, or Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, bringing together the leaders of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, and convened high-profile trilateral summits with the leaders of Japan and South Korea. Biden also unveiled AUKUS, a defense pact among Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

As it turned out, however, aggression would come from the opposite direction, in Europe. Less than three weeks before invading Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin had signed a “no limits” security pact with Xi in Beijing. In a prudent step after the invasion, Biden drew a redline by warning Xi in a video call that the U.S. government would impose sweeping sanctions if China provided “material support” to Moscow. Xi nonetheless found plenty of ways to support the Russian war machine, sending semiconductors, unarmed drones, gunpowder, and other wares. China also supplied Moscow with badly needed money in exchange for major shipments of Russian oil. Chinese officials, according to the U.S. State Department, even spent more money on pro-Russian propaganda worldwide than Russia itself was spending.

Beijing was also coordinating more closely with Iran and North Korea, even as those regimes sent weapons to help Moscow wage war in Europe. Yet Washington was pursuing siloed policies—simultaneously resisting Russia, appeasing Iran, containing North Korea, and pursuing a mix of rivalry and engagement with China—that added up to something manifestly incoherent. Indeed, the situation that Xi had forecast at the start of the Biden administration was becoming a reality: “The most important characteristic of the world is, in a word, ‘chaos,’ and this trend appears likely to continue,” Xi told a seminar of high-level Communist Party officials in January 2021. Xi made clear that this was a useful development for China. “The times and trends are on our side,” he said, adding, “Overall, the opportunities outweigh the challenges.” By March 2023, Xi had revealed that he saw himself not just as a beneficiary of worldwide turmoil but also as one of its architects. “Right now, there are changes, the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years,” he said to Putin on camera while wrapping up a visit to the Kremlin. “And we are the ones driving these changes together.”

If ever the time was ripe to call out Beijing for fomenting chaos and to start systematically imposing costs on the country in response, it was early 2023. Biden, inexplicably, was doing the opposite. On February 1, residents of Montana spotted a massive, white sphere drifting eastward. The administration was already tracking the Chinese spy balloon but had been planning to let it pass overhead without notifying the public. Under political pressure, Biden ordered the balloon shot down once it reached the Atlantic Ocean, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a scheduled trip to Beijing to protest the intrusion. Press reports suggested the administration had kept quiet about the balloon to gather intelligence about it. But a troubling pattern of downplaying affronts by Beijing would persist in other contexts.

In June 2023, leaks to the press revealed that Beijing, in a remarkable echo of the Cold War, was planning to build a joint military training base in Cuba and had already developed a signals intelligence facility there targeting the United States. After a National Security Council spokesperson called reports about the spy facility inaccurate, a White House official speaking anonymously to the press minimized them by suggesting that Chinese spying from Cuba was “not a new development.” The administration also greeted with a shrug new evidence suggesting that COVID-19 may have initially spread after it accidentally leaked from a Chinese laboratory. If the virus, which has led to the deaths of an estimated 27 million people worldwide, turns out to have been artificially enhanced before it escaped, the revelation would mark a turning point in human history on par with the advent of nuclear weapons—a situation that already cries out for U.S. leadership to govern dangerous biological research worldwide.

In the spring of 2023, as Beijing’s actions grew bolder, Biden initiated what the White House termed an “all hands on deck” diplomatic campaign—not to impose costs on Beijing but to flatter it by dispatching five cabinet-level U.S. officials to China from May to August. Blinken’s June meeting with Xi symbolized the dynamic. Whereas Xi had sat amiably alongside the billionaire Bill Gates just days earlier, the U.S. secretary of state was seated off to the side as Xi held forth from the head of a table at the Great Hall of the People. For the first time in years, Xi appeared to have successfully positioned the United States as supplicant in the bilateral relationship.

What did the United States get in return for all this diplomacy? In the Biden administration’s tally, the benefits included a promise by Beijing to resume military-to-military talks (which Beijing had unilaterally suspended), a new dialogue on the responsible use of artificial intelligence (technology that Beijing is already weaponizing against the American people by spreading fake images and other propaganda on social media), and tentative cooperation to stem the flood of precursor chemicals fueling the fentanyl crisis in the United States (chemicals that are supplied mainly by Chinese companies).

Any doubts that Xi saw the American posture as one of weakness were dispelled after Hamas’s October 7 massacre in Israel. Beijing exploited the attack by serving up endless anti-Israeli and anti-American propaganda through TikTok, whose algorithms are subject to control by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Chinese diplomats, like Russian ones, met with Hamas’s leaders and provided diplomatic cover for the terrorist group, vetoing UN Security Council resolutions that would have condemned Hamas. And there is little sign Beijing has done anything, despite Washington’s requests, to help rein in attacks carried out by the Houthis on commercial vessels and U.S. warships in the Red Sea—attacks conducted by the Yemeni rebel group using Iranian missiles, including ones with technology pioneered by China. (Chinese ships, unsurprisingly, are usually granted free passage through the kill zone.)

Whether Xi is acting opportunistically or according to a grand design—or, almost certainly, both—it is clear he sees an advantage in stoking crises that he hopes will exhaust the United States and its allies. In a sobering Oval Office address in mid-October, Biden seemed to grasp the severity of the situation. “We’re facing an inflection point in history—one of those moments where the decisions we make today are going to determine the future for decades to come,” he said. Yet bizarrely—indeed, provocatively—he made no mention of China, the chief sponsor of the aggressors he did call out in the speech: Iran, North Korea, and Russia. Through omission, Biden gave Beijing a pass.


That ’70s Show

The current moment bears an uncanny resemblance to the 1970s. The Soviet Union was undermining U.S. interests across the world, offering no warning of its ally Egypt’s 1973 surprise attack on Israel; aiding communists in Angola, Portugal, and Vietnam; and rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal and investing heavily in its conventional military. These were the bitter fruits of détente—a set of policies pioneered by President Richard Nixon and his top foreign policy adviser, Henry Kissinger, who stayed on and continued the approach under President Gerald Ford. By using pressure and inducement, as well as downplaying ideological differences, the United States tried to lure the Russians into a stable equilibrium of global power. Under détente, Washington slashed defense spending and soft-pedaled Moscow’s human rights affronts. The working assumption was that the Soviet Union’s appetite for destabilizing actions abroad would somehow be self-limiting.

But the Russians had their own ideas about the utility of détente. As the historian John Lewis Gaddis observed, the Soviets “might have viewed détente as their own instrument for inducing complacency in the West while they finished assembling the ultimate means of applying pressure—their emergence as a full-scale military rival of the United States.” Nixon and Kissinger thought détente would secure Soviet help in managing crises around the world and, as Gaddis put it, “enmesh the U.S.S.R. in a network of economic relationships that would make it difficult, if not impossible, for the Russians to take actions in the future detrimental to Western interests.” But the policy failed to achieve its goals.

President Jimmy Carter came into office in 1977 intending to keep détente in place, but the policy didn’t work for him either. His attempt to “de-link” Soviet actions that hurt U.S. interests from Soviet cooperation on arms control ultimately yielded setbacks in both categories. The Soviets became more aggressive globally, and a wary U.S. Congress, having lost faith in Moscow’s sincerity, declined to ratify SALT II, the arms control treaty that Carter’s team had painstakingly negotiated. Meanwhile, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security adviser, had grown increasingly skeptical of détente. Brzezinski felt that a turning point had come in 1978, after the Soviets sponsored thousands of Cuban soldiers to wage violent revolution in the Horn of Africa, supporting Ethiopia in its war with Somalia. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the following year was “the final nail in the coffin” for arms control talks, Brzezinski wrote in his journal—and for the broader policy of détente.

By the time President Ronald Reagan entered the White House, in 1981, Nixon and Kissinger’s invention was on its last legs. “Détente’s been a one-way street that the Soviet Union has used to pursue its aims,” Reagan stated flatly in his first press conference as president, effectively burying the concept.

Reagan sought to win, not merely manage, the Cold War. In a sharp departure from his immediate predecessors, he spoke candidly about the nature of the Soviet threat, recognizing that autocrats often bully democracies into silence by depicting honesty as a form of aggression. In 1987, when Reagan was preparing to give a speech within sight of the Berlin Wall, some of his aides begged him to remove a phrase they found gratuitously provocative. Wisely, he overruled them and delivered the most iconic line of his presidency: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”


The Smokeless War

Washington must adopt a similar attitude today and try harder to disseminate truthful information within China itself and to make it possible for Chinese citizens to communicate securely with one another. Tearing down—or at least blowing holes in—the “Great Firewall” of China must become as central to Washington’s approach today as removing the Berlin Wall was for Reagan’s.

Beijing is waging a bitter information war against the United States—which is losing, despite its natural advantages. Xi and his inner circle see themselves as fighting an existential ideological campaign against the West, as Xi’s words from an official publication in 2014 make clear:

The battle for “mind control” happens on a smokeless battlefield. It happens inside the domain of ideology. Whoever controls this battlefield can win hearts. They will have the initiative throughout the competition and combat. . . . When it comes to combat in the ideology domain, we don’t have any room for compromise or retreat. We must achieve total victory.

For Xi, the Internet is the “main battlefield” of this smokeless war. In 2020, the scholar Yuan Peng, writing before he resurfaced under a new name as a vice minister of China’s premier spy agency, also recognized the power of controlling speech online: “In the Internet era . . . what is truth and what is a lie is already unimportant; what’s important is who controls discourse power.” Xi has poured billions of dollars into building and harnessing what he calls “external discourse mechanisms,” and other Chinese leaders have specifically highlighted short-video platforms such as TikTok as the “megaphones” of discourse power. They aren’t afraid to use those megaphones. According to a February 2024 report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, TikTok accounts run by Chinese propaganda outfits “reportedly targeted candidates from both political parties during the U.S. midterm election cycle in 2022.”

As the CCP seeks to set the terms of global discourse, what it wants more than anything from the United States and the rest of the West is silence—silence about China’s human rights abuses, silence about its aggression toward Taiwan, and silence about the West’s own deeply held beliefs, which contrast irreconcilably with the party’s. It is no surprise, then, that so much of the CCP’s strategy on the smokeless battlefield is about drowning out speech it doesn’t like—both inside and outside China. It is American silence—not candor—that is truly provocative, for it signals to the CCP that China is advancing and the United States is retreating.


Rearm, Reduce, Recruit

What U.S. officials need first is clarity about the contest with China. They have to recognize that rising tensions are inevitable in the short run if the United States is to deter war and win the contest in the long run. Once they have faced these facts, they need to put in place a better policy: one that rearms the U.S. military, reduces China’s economic leverage, and recruits a broader coalition to confront China.

Xi is preparing his country for a war over Taiwan. On its current trajectory, the United States risks failing to deter that war, one that could kill tens of thousands of U.S. service members, inflict trillions of dollars in economic damage, and bring about the end of the global order as we know it. The only path to avoid this future is for Washington to immediately build and surge enough hard power to deny Xi a successful invasion of Taiwan. Yet the Biden administration’s latest budget request sheds badly needed combat power, proposing the retirement of ten ships and 250 aircraft and a drop in the production goal for Virginia-class submarines from two per year to just one. It replenishes only half the $1 billion that Congress authorized for the president to furnish military aid to Taiwan. And in its 2023 supplemental request, the White House asked for just over $5 billion in weapons and industrial base spending earmarked for the Indo-Pacific—barely five percent of the entire supplemental request. Looking at the budget trend line, one would think it was 1994, not 2024.

The Biden administration should immediately change course, reversing what are, in inflation-adjusted terms, cuts to defense spending. Instead of spending about three percent of GDP on defense, Washington should spend four or even five percent, a level that would still be at the low end of Cold War spending. For near-term deterrence in the Taiwan Strait, it should spend an additional $20 billion per year for the next five years, the rough amount needed to surge and disperse sufficient combat power in Asia. Ideally, this money would be held in a dedicated “deterrence fund” overseen by the secretary of defense, who would award resources to projects that best align with the defense of Taiwan.

The deterrence fund should headline a generational effort directed by the president to restore U.S. primacy in Asia. The priority should be to maximize existing production lines and build new production capacity for critical munitions for Asia, such as antiship and antiaircraft missiles that can destroy enemy targets at great distances. The Pentagon should also draw on the deterrence fund to adapt existing military systems or even civilian technology such as commercially available drones that could be useful for defending Taiwan. Complementing its Replicator Initiative, which tasks the services to field thousands of low-cost drones to turn the Taiwan Strait into what some have called “a boiling moat,” the Pentagon should quickly embrace other creative solutions. It could, for example, disperse missile launchers concealed in commercial container boxes or field the Powered Joint Direct Attack Munition, a low-cost kit that turns standard 500-pound bombs into precision-guided cruise missiles.

For U.S. forces to deter China, they need to be able to move within striking range. Given the maritime geography of the Indo-Pacific and the threat that China’s vast missile arsenal poses to U.S. bases, the State Department will need to expand hosting and access agreements with allies and partners to extend the U.S. military’s footprint in the region. The Pentagon, meanwhile, will need to harden U.S. military installations across the region and pre-position critical supplies such as fuel, ammunition, and equipment throughout the Pacific.

However, the United States could keep the Chinese military contained and still lose the new cold war if China held the West hostage economically. Beijing is bent on weaponizing its stranglehold over global supply chains and its dominance of critical emerging technologies. To reduce Chinese leverage and ensure that the United States, not China, develops the key technologies of the future, Washington needs to reset the terms of the bilateral economic relationship. It should start by repealing China’s permanent normal trade relations status, which provides China access to U.S. markets on generous terms, and moving China to a new tariff column that features gradually increasing rates on products critical to U.S. national security and economic competitiveness. The revenue raised from increased tariffs could be spent on offsetting the costs that U.S. exporters will incur as a result of China’s inevitable retaliatory measures and on bolstering U.S. supply chains for strategically important products.

Washington should also halt the flow of American money and technology to Chinese companies that support Beijing’s military buildup and high-tech surveillance system. The Biden administration’s August 2023 executive order restricting a subset of outbound investment to China was an important step in the right direction, but it doesn’t go far enough. Washington must expand investment restrictions to include critical and emerging technologies such as hypersonics, space systems, and new biotechnologies. It must also put an end to U.S. financial firms’ disturbing practice of offering publicly traded financial products, such as exchange-traded funds and mutual funds, that invest in Chinese companies that are on U.S. government blacklists. Using the current export controls on advanced semiconductors as a model, the Department of Commerce should reduce the flow of critical technology to China by introducing similar export bans on other key areas of U.S. innovation, such as quantum computing and biotechnology.

The Chinese spy balloon falling into the ocean near Surfside Beach, South Carolina, February 2023

As China doubles down on economic self-reliance and phases out imports of industrial goods from the West, the United States needs to recruit a coalition of friendly partners to deepen mutual trade. Washington should strike a bilateral trade agreement with the United Kingdom. It should upgrade its bilateral trade agreement with Japan and establish a new one with Taiwan, agreements that could be joined by other eligible economies in the region. It should forge an Indo-Pacific digital trade agreement that would facilitate the free flow of data between like-minded economies, using as a baseline the high standards set by the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

To overhaul its dilapidated defense industrial base, the United States should turbocharge innovation in the defense industry by recruiting talented workers from allied countries. Every year, the U.S. government authorizes roughly 10,000 visas through the EB-5 program, which allows immigrants to obtain a green card if they invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in American businesses. The program is rife with fraud and has deviated far from its intended purpose as a job-creation program, becoming mostly a method for millionaires from China and other places to become permanent residents. These visas should be repurposed as work authorizations for citizens of partner countries who hold advanced degrees in fields critical to defense.

The U.S. government also needs to recruit the next generation of cold warriors to apply their talents to the contest with China. It should start by reversing the crisis in military recruitment—not by lowering standards, promising easy pay, or infusing the force with diversity, equity, and inclusion ideology but by unapologetically touting the virtues of an elite, colorblind, all-volunteer force and challenging young Americans to step up. The intelligence community also needs to recruit experts in emerging technology, finance, and open-source research and make it easier to temporarily leave the private sector for a stint in government. National security agencies need to cultivate deep expertise in Asia and in the history and ideology of the CCP. The curricula of the service academies and war colleges, as well as ongoing professional military education, should reflect this shift.

Finally, U.S. officials need to recruit everyday Americans to contribute to the fight. For all the differences between the Soviet Union yesterday and China today, U.S. policymakers’ squeamishness about the term “cold war” causes them to overlook the way it can mobilize society. A cold war offers a relatable framework that Americans can use to guide their own decisions—such as a company’s choice whether to set up a sensitive research and development center in China or an individual’s choice whether to download TikTok. Too often, however, elected officials on the left and the right give the impression that the competition with China is so narrow in scope that Americans can take such steps without worry. The contest with Beijing, they would have people believe, shouldn’t much concern ordinary citizens but will be handled through surgically precise White House policies and congressional legislation.


China As A Normal Country

It is a peculiar feature of U.S. foreign policy today that the elephant in the room—the end state Washington desires in its competition with Beijing—is such a taboo subject that administrations come and go without ever articulating a clear goal for how the competition ends. The Biden administration offers up managing competition as a goal, but that is not a goal; it is a method, and a counterproductive one at that. Washington is allowing the aim of its China policy to become process: meetings that should be instruments through which the United States advances its interests become core objectives in and of themselves.

Washington should not fear the end state desired by a growing number of Chinese: a China that is able to chart its own course free from communist dictatorship. Xi’s draconian rule has persuaded even many CCP members that the system that produced China’s recent precipitous decline in prosperity, status, and individual happiness is one that deserves reexamination. The system that produced an all-encompassing surveillance state, forced-labor colonies, and the genocide of minority groups inside its borders is one that likewise desecrates Chinese philosophy and religion—the fountainheads from which a better model will eventually spring.

Generations of American leaders understood that it would have been unacceptable for the Cold War to end through war or U.S. capitulation. If the 1970s taught Washington anything, it is that trying to achieve a stable and durable balance of power—a détente—with a powerful and ambitious Leninist dictatorship is also doomed to backfire on the United States. The best strategy, which found its ultimate synthesis in the Reagan years, was to convince the Soviets that they were on a path to lose, which in turn fueled doubts about their whole system.

The U.S. victory wasn’t Reagan’s alone, of course. It was built on strategies forged by presidents of both parties and manifested in documents such as NSC-68, the 1950 Truman administration policy paper that argued that the United States' “policy and actions must be such as to foster a fundamental change like the Soviet system.” One can draw a straight line from that document to National Security Decision Directive 75, the 1983 Reagan administration order that called for “internal pressure on the USSR to weaken the sources of Soviet imperialism.” In some ways, it was the détente years, not the Reagan years, that was an aberration in Cold War strategy.

Ironically, Reagan would end up pursuing a more fulsome and productive engagement with the Soviets than perhaps any of his predecessors—but only after he had strengthened Washington’s economic, military, and moral standing relative to Moscow and only after the Soviet Union produced a leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, with whom Reagan could make real progress. Reagan understood that sequencing was everything. He also knew that the confrontational first phase wouldn’t be easy or comfortable. His first directive on national security strategy, in May 1982, predicted, “The decade of the eighties will likely pose the greatest challenge to our survival and well-being since World War II.” It was a tense and unsettling period, to be sure, during which Reagan called out the Soviet Union as “the focus of evil in the modern world” and deliberately sought to weaken its economy and contest its destabilizing activities around the world. Yet it paid off.

Xi, who has vilified Gorbachev and fashioned his own leadership style after that of Joseph Stalin, has proved time and again that he is not a leader with whom Americans can solve problems. He is an agent of chaos. Washington should seek to weaken the sources of CCP imperialism and hold out for a Chinese leader who behaves less like an unrelenting foe. This does not mean forcible regime change, subversion, or war. But it does mean seeking truth from facts, as Chinese leaders are fond of saying, and understanding that the CCP has no desire to coexist indefinitely with great powers that promote liberal values and thus represent a fundamental threat to its rule.

The current mass exodus of Chinese people from their homeland is evidence they want to live in nations that respect human rights, honor the rule of law, and offer a wide choice of opportunities. As Taiwan’s example makes plain, China could be such a place, too. The road to get there might be long. But for the United States’ security, as well as the rights and aspirations of all those in China, it is the only workable destination.



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