By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers
Competition with China has begun to consume U.S. foreign policy. Seized with the challenge of a near-peer rival whose interests and values diverge sharply from those of the United States, U.S. politicians and policymakers are becoming so focused on countering China that they risk losing sight of the affirmative interests and values and U.S. strategy. The current course will not just bring indefinite deterioration of the U.S.-Chinese relationship and a growing danger of catastrophic conflict; it also threatens to undermine the sustainability of American leadership in the world and the vitality of American society and democracy at home.
There is, of course, a good reason why a more assertive China has become the central concern of policymakers and strategists in Washington (and plenty of other capitals). Under President Xi Jinping, Beijing has grown more authoritarian at home and more coercive abroad. It has brutally repressed Uyghurs in Xinjiang, crushed democratic freedoms in Hong Kong, rapidly expanded its conventional and nuclear arsenals, aggressively intercepted foreign military aircraft in the East and South China Seas, and condoned Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Amplified Russian disinformation, exported censorship and surveillance technology, denigrated democracies, worked to reshape international norms—the list could go on and will likely only get longer, especially if Xi secures a third five-year term and further solidifies his control later this year.
Yet well-warranted alarm risks morphing into a reflexive fear that could reshape American policy and society in counterproductive and ultimately harmful ways. In attempting to craft a national strategy suited to a more assertive and more powerful China, Washington has struggled to define success, or even a steady state, short of total victory or total defeat, that both governments could eventually accept and at a cost that citizens, businesses, and other stakeholders would be willing to bear. Without a clear sense of what it seeks or any semblance of a domestic consensus on how the United States should relate to the world, U.S. foreign policy has become reactive, spinning in circles rather than steering toward the desired destination.
To its credit, the Biden administration has acknowledged that the United States and its partners must provide an attractive alternative to what China is offering. It has taken some steps in the right direction, such as multilateral initiatives on climate and hunger. Yet the instinct to counter every Chinese initiative, project, and provocation remains predominant, crowding efforts to revitalize an inclusive international system that would protect U.S. interests and values even as global power shifts and evolves. Even with the war in Ukraine claiming considerable U.S. attention and resources, the conflict’s broader effect has been to intensify focus on geopolitical competition, reinforced by Chinese-Russian convergence.
Leaders in both Washington and Beijing claim to want to avoid a new Cold War. The fact is that their countries are already engaged in a global struggle. The United States seeks to perpetuate its preeminence and an international system that privileges its interests and values; China sees U.S. leadership as weakened by hypocrisy and neglect, providing an opening to force others to accept its influence and legitimacy. On both sides, there is growing fatalism that a crisis is unavoidable and perhaps even necessary: that mutually accepted rules of fair play and coexistence will come only after the kind of eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation that characterized the early years of the Cold War—survival of which was not guaranteed then and would be even less assured now.
Even in the absence of a crisis, a reactive posture has begun to drive a range of U.S. policies. Washington frequently falls into the trap of trying to counter Chinese efforts around the world without appreciating what local governments and populations want. Lacking a forward-looking vision aligned with a realistic assessment of the resources at its disposal, it struggles to prioritize across domains and regions. It too often compromises its broader interests as fractious geopolitics make necessary progress on global challenges impossible. The long-term risk is that the United States cannot manage a decades-long competition without falling into habits of intolerance at home and overextension abroad. In attempting to out-China, the United States could undermine the strengths and obscure the vision that should be the basis for sustained American leadership.
The lodestar for a better approach must be the world that the United States seeks: what it wants rather than what it fears. Whether sanctions or tariffs or military moves, policies should be judged based on whether they further progress toward that world rather than undermine some Chinese interests or provide some advantage over Beijing. They should represent U.S. power at its best rather than mirroring the behavior it aims to avert. And rather than looking back nostalgically at its past preeminence, Washington must commit, with actions and words, to a positive-sum vision of a reformed international system that includes China and meets the existential need to tackle shared challenges.
That does not mean giving up well-calibrated efforts to deter Chinese aggression, enhance resilience against Chinese coercion, and reinforce U.S. alliances. But these must be paired with meaningful discussions with Beijing, not only about crisis communications and risk reduction but also about plausible terms of coexistence and the future of the international system—a future that Beijing will necessarily have some role in shaping. An inclusive and affirmative global vision would discipline competition and clarify what Beijing has to lose. Otherwise, as the relationship deteriorates and the sense of threat grows, the logic of zero-sum competition will become even more overwhelming, and the resulting escalatory spiral will undermine American interests and values. That logic will warp global priorities and erode the international system. It will fuel pervasive insecurity and reinforce a tendency toward groupthink, damaging the pluralism and civic inclusion bedrock of liberal democracy. And if not altered, it will perpetuate a vicious cycle that will eventually bring catastrophe.
The inevitable rivalry?
In Washington, the standard account for why the relationship has gotten so bad is that China has changed. In the past decade or two, Beijing has stopped “biding its time,” becoming more repressive at home and assertive abroad while taking advantage of the relationships and institutions that have enabled China’s economic growth.
That change is undoubtedly part of the story and is a product of China’s growing clout as Xi’s way of using it. But a complete account must also acknowledge corresponding changes in U.S. politics and policy as the United States has reacted to developments in China. Washington has met Beijing’s actions with various punitive and protective policies, from tariffs and sanctions to restrictions on commercial and scientific exchanges. In the process, the United States has drifted further from the principles of openness and nondiscrimination that have long been a comparative advantage while reinforcing Beijing’s conviction that the United States will never tolerate a more assertive China. Meanwhile, the United States has wavered in its support for the international institutions and agreements that have long structured global interdependence, driven partly by consternation over China’s growing influence within the international system.
The more combative approach on both sides has produced a mirroring dynamic. While Beijing believes that only through protracted struggle will Americans be persuaded to coexist with an assertive China, Washington believes that it must check Chinese power and influence to defend U.S. primacy. The result is a downward spiral, with each side’s efforts to enhance its security prompting the other to take further steps to enhance its own.
In explaining growing U.S.-Chinese tensions, some scholars point to structural shifts in the balance of power. Graham Allison has written of “the Thucydides trap”: the notion that when a rising state challenges an established power, a war for hegemony frequently results. Yet a focus on capabilities alone has trouble accounting for the twists and turns in U.S.-Chinese relations, which are also driven by shifting perceptions of threat, opportunity, and purpose. Following President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to Beijing, Washington came to view China as a strategic partner in containing the Soviet Union. And as the post–Cold War era dawned, U.S. policymakers began hedging against growing Chinese military power while seeking to encourage the country’s economic and political liberalization through greater integration.
Throughout this period, Chinese leaders saw a strategic opportunity to prioritize China’s development in a stable international environment. They opened the country’s doors to foreign investment and capitalist practices, seeking to learn from foreign expertise while periodically campaigning against “spiritual pollution” and “bourgeois liberalization.” Despite occasional attempts to signal resolve, including during the 1995–96 Taiwan Strait crisis and after the 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia, Chinese leaders adhered mainly to the former leader Deng Xiaoping’s lying-low strategy to avoid triggering the sense of threat that could precipitate efforts to strangle China’s rise.
If a year marked an inflection point in China’s approach to the world, it is not 2012, when Xi came to power, but 2008. The global financial crisis prompted Beijing to discard any notion that China was the student and the United States’s teacher regarding economic governance. And the Beijing Olympics that year were meant to mark China’s arrival on the world stage, but much of the world was focused instead on riots in Tibet, which Chinese officials chalked up to outside meddling, and on China’s subsequent crackdown. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) became increasingly fixated on the idea that foreign forces were intent on thwarting China’s rise.
In the years that followed, the halting movement toward liberalization went into reverse: the party cracked down on the teaching of liberal ideas and the activities of foreign nongovernmental organizations, crushed pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, and built a sprawling surveillance state and system of internment camps in Xinjiang—all manifestations of a broader conception of “national security,” animated by fears of unrest. Internationally, China gave up any semblance of strategic humility. It became more assertive in defending its territorial and maritime claims (along the Indian border, in the East and South China Seas, and concerning Taiwan). Having surpassed Japan as the world’s second-largest economy in 2010, it began wielding its economic power to compel deference to CCP interests. It ramped up the development of military capabilities that could counter U.S. intervention in the region, including expanding its once limited nuclear arsenal. The decision to develop many of these capabilities predated Xi, but it was under his leadership that Beijing embraced a more coercive and intolerant approach.
As it registered China’s growing capabilities and willingness to use them, Washington increased its hedging. The Obama administration announced that it would “pivot” to Asia. Even as Washington sought a constructive role for China in the international system, the pace of China’s rise quickly outstripped U.S. willingness to grant it a correspondingly powerful voice. With Donald Trump’s election as president, Washington’s assessment became especially extreme: a Marxist-Leninist regime was, in Trump’s telling, out to “rape” the United States, dominate the world, and subvert democracy. In response, the Trump administration started a trade war, began to talk of “decoupling” the U.S. and Chinese economies, and launched a series of initiatives aimed at countering Chinese influence and undermining the CCP. In speeches, senior U.S. officials hinted at regime change, calling for steps to “empower the Chinese people” to seek a different form of government and stressing that “Chinese history contains another path for China’s people.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan concluding talks with Chinese counterparts in Anchorage, United States, March 2021
The Biden administration has stopped any talk of regime change in China and coordinated its approach closely with allies and partners, contrasting with Trump’s unilateralism. But it has continued many of its predecessor’s policies and endorsed the assessment that China’s growing influence must be checked. Some lines of effort have been modified, such as the Justice Department’s China Initiative, which sought to prosecute intellectual property theft and economic espionage. But others have been sustained, including tariffs, export controls, and visa restrictions, or expanded, such as sanctions against Chinese officials and companies. In Congress, meanwhile, ever more vehement opposition to China may be the sole thing that Democrats and Republicans can agree on, though even this shared concern has produced only limited agreement (such as recent legislation on domestic semiconductor investments) on how the United States should compete.
Over five decades, the United States tried a combination of engagement and deterrence to bring China into an international system that broadly sustains U.S. interests and values. American policymakers knew well that their Chinese counterparts were committed to defending CCP rule. Still, Washington calculated that the world would be less dangerous with China inside than outside the system. That bet largely succeeded—and is still better than the alternative. Yet many in Washington always hoped for, and to varying degrees sought to promote, China’s liberal evolution as well. China’s growing authoritarianism has thus fed the narrative of a comprehensive U.S. policy failure. The focus on correcting that failure has entrenched Beijing’s insecurity and belief that the United States and its allies will not accept China as a superpower.
Both countries are intent on doing whatever is necessary to demonstrate that any move by the other will not go unmet. Both U.S. and Chinese decision-makers believe that the other side respects only strength and interprets restraint as weakness. At this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in June, China’s defense minister, General Wei Fenghe, pledged to “fight to the very end” over Taiwan a day after meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
Tell me how this ends
Where the current trajectory leads is clear: a more dangerous and less habitable world defined by an ever-present risk of confrontation and crisis, with preparation for conflict taking precedence over tackling common challenges.
Most policymakers, at least those in Washington, are not seeking a crisis between the United States and China. But there is growing acceptance that a crisis is more or less inevitable. Its consequences would be enormous. Even if both sides want to avoid war, crises, by definition, offer little time for response amid intense public scrutiny, making it difficult to find pathways to de-escalation. Even the limited application of force or coercion could set in motion an unpredictable set of responses across multiple domains—military, economic, diplomatic, and informational. As leaders maneuver to resolve and protect their domestic reputations, a crisis could be challenging to contain.
Taiwan is the most likely flash point, as changes in both Taipei and Beijing have increasingly put the island at the center of U.S.-Chinese tensions. Demographic and generational shifts in Taiwan, combined with China’s crackdown in Hong Kong, have heightened Taiwan’s resistance to the idea of Beijing’s control and made peaceful unification seem increasingly fanciful. After Taiwan’s traditionally pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won the presidency in 2016, Beijing took a hard line against the new president, Tsai Ing-wen, despite her careful efforts to avoid moves toward formal independence. Cross-strait communication channels shut down, and Beijing relied on increasingly coercive measures to punish and deter what it perceived as incremental moves toward Taiwan’s permanent separation.
In response, the United States increased military patrols in and around the Taiwan Strait, loosened guidelines for interacting with Taiwanese officials, broadened U.S. declaratory policy to emphasize support for Taiwan, and continued to advocate for Taiwan’s meaningful participation in international organizations, including the United Nations. Yet many well-intentioned U.S. efforts to support the island and deter China have instead fueled Beijing’s sense of urgency about the need to send a shot across the bow to deter steadily growing U.S.-Taiwanese ties.
Even with an official U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity” on whether the United States would intervene in the event of an attack on Taiwan, Chinese military planners expect U.S. involvement. Indeed, the anticipated difficulty of seizing Taiwan while also holding the United States at bay has long underpinned deterrence across the Taiwan Strait. But many U.S. actions intended to bolster the island’s ability to resist coercion have been symbolic rather than substantive, doing more to provoke than deter Beijing. For example, the Trump administration’s efforts to upend norms around U.S. engagement with Taiwan—in August 2020, Secretary for Health and Human Services Alex Azar became the highest-ranking cabinet member to visit Taiwan since the full normalization of U.S.-Chinese relations in 1979—prompted China to send combat aircraft across the center line of the Taiwan Strait, ignoring an unofficial guardrail that had long served to facilitate safe operations in the waterway. Intrusions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) have become a frequent means for Beijing to register displeasure with growing U.S. support. In October 2021, Chinese intrusions into Taiwan’s ADIZ hit a new high—93 aircraft over three days—in response to nearby U.S.-led military exercises.
This action-reaction cycle, driven by mutually reinforcing developments in Beijing, Taipei, and Washington, is accelerating the deterioration of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. In recent months, Chinese official rhetoric has become increasingly threatening, using phrases that have historically signaled China’s intent to escalate. “Whoever plays with fire will get burnt,” Xi has repeatedly told U.S. President Joe Biden. In May, after Biden implied an unconditional commitment to defend Taiwan, rather than simply expressing the longstanding U.S. obligation to provide the island with the military means to defend itself and to maintain the U.S. capacity to resist any use of force, the Chinese Foreign Ministry stressed that Beijing “will take firm actions to safeguard its sovereignty and security interests.”
Although Beijing continues to prefer peaceful unification, it is coming to believe that coercive measures may be necessary to halt moves toward Taiwan’s permanent separation and compel steps toward unification, particularly given the Chinese perception that Washington’s support for Taiwan is a means to contain China. Even if confidence in China’s military and economic trajectory leads Beijing to believe that “time and momentum” remain on its side, political trends in Taiwan and in the United States make officials increasingly pessimistic about prospects for peaceful unification. Beijing has not set a timetable for seizing Taiwan and does not appear to be looking for an excuse. Still, as the political scientist Taylor Fravel has shown, China has used force when it thinks its sovereignty claims are being challenged. High-profile symbolic gestures of U.S. support for Taiwan are likely to be construed as an affront that must be answered. (As of this writing, Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, the first trip by a U.S. speaker of the house since 1997, has prompted Chinese warnings that “the Chinese military will never sit idly by,” followed by unprecedently threatening military exercises and missile tests around Taiwan.)
As both the United States and Taiwan head into presidential elections in 2024, party politics could prompt more efforts to push the envelope on Taiwan’s political status and de jure independence. It is far from clear whether Tsai’s successor as president will be as steadfast as she has been in resisting pressure from strident advocates of ifreedom Even under Tsai, there have been troubling signs that DPP leaders are not content with the status quo despite its popularity with voters. DPP leaders have lobbied Washington to refrain from stating that the United States does not support Taiwan’s independence. In March, Taipei’s representative office in Washington gave former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a hefty honorarium to visit Taiwan, where he called on the United States to offer the island “diplomatic recognition as a free and sovereign country.”
The risk of a fatal collision in the air or at sea also rises outside the Taiwan Strait. With the Chinese and U.S. militaries operating in proximity in the East and South China Seas, with both intents to demonstrate their willingness to fight, pilots and operators are employing dangerous tactics that raise the risk of an inadvertent clash. In 2001, a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. reconnaissance plane over the South China Sea, killing the Chinese pilot and leading to the 11-day detention of the U.S. crew. After initial grandstanding, the Chinese worked to head off a full-blown crisis, even cracking down on displays of anti-Americanism in the streets. It is much harder to imagine such a resolution today: the desire to display resolve and avoid showing weakness would make it exceedingly challenging to defuse a standoff.
The center can not hold
Even if the two sides can avoid a crisis, continuing the current course will reinforce geopolitical divisions while inhibiting cooperation on global problems. The United States is increasingly focused on rallying countries worldwide to stand against China. But to the extent that a coalition to counter China forms, especially given the ideological framing that both the Trump and Biden administrations have adopted, that coalition is unlikely to include the range of partners that might defend universal laws and institutions. “Asian countries do not want to be forced to choose between the two,” Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wrote of China and the United States in these pages in 2020. “And if either attempts to force such a choice—if Washington tries to contain China’s rise or Beijing seeks to build an exclusive sphere of influence in Asia—they will begin a course of confrontation that will last decades and put the long-heralded Asian century in jeopardy.”
The current approach to competition is also likely to strengthen the alignment between China and Russia. The Biden administration has managed to deter Chinese military assistance to Russia in Ukraine. China has complied chiefly with sanctions, demonstrating that there are limits to Beijing and Moscow’s “no limits” partnership. But as long as the two governments believe they cannot be secure in a U.S.-led system, they will continue to deepen their cooperation. In the months since the invasion of Ukraine, they have carried out joint military patrols in the Pacific Ocean and worked to develop alternatives to the U.S.-controlled financial system.
Ultimately, Chinese-Russian relations will be shaped by how Beijing weighs its need to resist the United States against its need to preserve ties to international capital and technology that foster growth. China’s alignment with Russia is not historically determined. There is an ongoing high-level debate within Beijing over how close to get to Moscow, with the costs of full-fledged alignment producing consternation among some Chinese analysts. Yet unless Washington can credibly suggest that Beijing will see strategic benefits, not only strategic risks, from distancing itself from Moscow, advocates of closer Chinese-Russian cooperation will continue to win the argument.
Growing geopolitical tension also crowds out progress on common challenges, regardless of the Biden administration’s desire to compartmentalize specific issues. Although U.S. climate envoy John Kerry has made some headway on climate cooperation with China, including a joint declaration at last year’s climate summit in Glasgow, progress has been outweighed by acrimony in previous joint areas efforts had borne fruit, including counternarcotics, nonproliferation, and North Korea. On both sides, too many policymakers fear that willingness to cooperate will be interpreted as a lack of resolve.
Such tensions are further eroding the already weak foundations of global governance. It is unclear how much longer the center of the international rules-based order can hold without a broad-based effort at its renewal. But as Beijing has grown more concerned that the United States seeks to contain or roll back its influence—by, for example, denying it a more significant say in international economic governance—the more it has invested in alternative institutions, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Meanwhile, China’s engagement with the multilateral system is increasingly aimed at discrediting U.S. leadership within it. Even though Beijing has not precisely demonstrated fealty to many of the principles it supports, the divide between the haves and have-nots has allowed it to cast the United States as protecting the privileges of a minority of powerful states. At the United Nations, Beijing and Washington too often strive to undercut each other’s initiatives, launching symbolic battles that require third countries to choose between the two.
Lastly, a fixation on competition brings costs and dangers to the United States. Aggressive U.S. efforts to protect research security, combined with increased attacks against Asian Americans, are chilling on scientific research and international collaboration and jeopardizing the United States’s appeal as a magnet for iglobaltalent. A 2021 survey by the American Physical Society found that 43 percent of international physics graduate students and early career scientists in the United States considered the country unwelcoming; around half of international early career scientists in the United States thought the government’s approach to research security made them less likely to stay there over the long term. These effects are particularly pronounced among scientists of Chinese descent. A recent study by the Asian American Scholar Forum found that 67 percent of faculty of Chinese origin (including naturalized citizens and permanent residents) reported having considered leaving the United States.
As the United States has sought to shield itself from Chinese espionage, theft, and unfair trading practices, it has often insisted on reciprocity as a precondition for commercial, educational, and diplomatic exchanges with Beijing. But strict reciprocity with an increasingly closed system like China’s comes at a cost to the United States comparative advantage: the traditional openness, transparency, and equal opportunity of its society and economy, which drive innovation, productivity, and scientific progress.
Watching a CCTV news broadcast about naval operations near Taiwan by the Chinese military, Beijing, August 2022
The climate of insecurity and fear also has pernicious effects on democracy and the quality of public debate about China and U.S. policy. The desire to avoid appearing “soft” on China permeates private and public policy discussions. The echo chamber encourages analysts, bureaucrats, and officials to be politically rather than analytically correct—groupthink results when individuals feel the need to out-hawk one another to protect themselves and advance professionally. A policy environment incentivizes self-censorship, and reflexive positioning forecloses pluralistic debate and a vibrant marketplace for ideas, ingredients critical to the United States’ national competitiveness.
From the World War II internment of Japanese Americans to the McCarthyism of the 1950s to hate crimes against Muslim and Sikh Americans after September 11, U.S. history is replete with examples of innocent Americans caught in the crossfire of exaggerated fears of the “enemy within.” In each case, overreaction did as much as or more than the adversary to undermine U.S. democracy and unity. Although the Biden administration has condemned anti-Asian hate and stressed that policy must target behavior rather than ethnicity, some government agencies and U.S. politicians have continued to imply that an individual’s ethnicity and ties to family abroad are grounds for heightened scrutiny.
If the United States and Soviet Union could arrive at détente, there is no reason that Washington and Beijing cannot do so. Early in the Cold War, President John F. Kennedy, hailing the need to “make the world safe for diversity,” stressed that “our attitude is as essential as theirs.” He warned Americans “not to see conflict as inevitable, accommodation as impossible, and communication as nothing more than an exchange of threats.”
Even while making clear that Beijing will pay a high price if it resorts to force or other forms of coercion, Washington must present China with a natural choice. Deterrence requires that threats be paired with assurances. To that end, U.S. policymakers should not be afraid to engage directly with their Chinese counterparts to discuss terms on which the United States and China could coexist, including mutual bounds on the competition. It was relatively easy for Americans to imagine coexistence with a China thought to be on a one-way path of liberalization. The United States and its partners now have the more challenging task of imagining coexistence with an authoritarian superpower, finding a new basis for bilateral interaction that focuses on shaping outward behavior rather than changing China’s domestic system.
The most pressing need relates to Taiwan, where the United States must bolster deterrence while clarifying that its “one China” policy has not changed. This means ensuring that Beijing knows how costly a crisis over Taiwan would be, putting at risk its broader development and modernization objectives—but also that if it refrains from coercive action, neither Washington nor Taipei will exploit the opportunity to push the envelope further. While Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other senior officials have affirmed that the United States does not support Taiwan’s independence, other actions by the administration (especially Biden’s repeated statements suggesting an end to “strategic ambiguity”) have sown doubt.
While helping bolster Taiwan’s resilience to Chinese coercion, Washington should avoid characterizing Taiwan as a vital asset for U.S. interests. Such statements feed Beijing’s belief that the United States seeks to “use Taiwan to contain China,” as China’s ambassador to Washington put it in May. The United States should instead make its abiding interest in a peaceful process for resolving cross-strait differences rather than in a particular outcome. And as they highlight the costs, Beijing can expect if it escalates its coercive campaign against Taiwan, U.S. policymakers should also stress to Taipei that unilateral efforts to change Taiwan’s political status, including calls for de jure independence, U.S. diplomatic recognition, or other symbolic steps to signal Taiwan’s permanent separation from China, are counterproductive.
These steps will be necessary but not sufficient to pierce the growing fatalism regarding a crisis, given Beijing’s hardening belief that the United States seeks to contain China and will use Taiwan to that end. To put a floor beneath the collapsing U.S.-China relationship will require a more robust effort to establish bounds of fair competition and a willingness to discuss terms of coexistence. Despite recent meetings and calls, senior U.S. officials do not yet have regular engagements with their counterparts that would facilitate such discussions. These discussions should be coordinated with U.S. allies and partners to prevent Beijing from trying to drive a wedge between the United States and others in Europe and Asia. But Washington should also forge a common understanding with its allies and partners around potential forms of coexistence with China.
Skeptics may say that there is no reason for the leadership in Beijing to play along, given its triumphalism and distrust. These are significant obstacles, but it is worth testing the proposition that Washington can take steps to stabilize escalating tensions without first experiencing multiple crises with a nuclear-armed competitor. There is reason to believe Beijing cares enough about stabilizing relations to reciprocate. Despite its claim that the “East is rising, and the West is declining,” China remains the weaker party, especially given its uncertain economic trajectory. Domestic challenges have tended to restrain China’s behavior rather than, as some Western commentators have speculated, prompting risky gambles. The political scientist Andrew Chubb has shown that when Chinese leaders have faced challenges to their legitimacy, they have acted less assertively in areas such as the South China Sea.
Because Beijing and Washington are loath to make unilateral concessions, fearing that they will be interpreted as a sign of weakness at home. On the other side, détente will require reciprocity. Both sides must take coordinated but unilateral steps to combat a militarized crisis. For example, a tacit understanding could reduce Chinese and U.S. operations in and around the Taiwan Strait, lowering the temperature without signaling weakness. Military operations are necessary to demonstrate that the United States will continue to fly and sail wherever international law allows, including the Taiwan Strait. But ultimately, the United States’ ability to deter and Taiwan’s ability to defend against an attempt at armed unification by Beijing has little to do with whether the U.S. military transits the Taiwan Strait four, eight, 12, or 24 times a year.
In the current atmosphere of distrust, words must be matched by actions. In his November 2021 virtual meeting with Biden, Xi said, “We have patience and will strive for the prospect of peaceful reunification with utmost sincerity and efforts.” But Beijing’s actions have undercut its credibility in Taipei and Washington. Biden likewise told Xi that the United States does not seek a new Cold War or want to change Beijing’s system. Yet subsequent U.S. actions (including efforts to diversify supply chains away from China and new visa restrictions on CCP officials) have undermined Washington’s credibility among leaders in Beijing and others in the region. It does not help that some administration officials continue to invoke Cold War parallels.
To bolster its credibility, the Biden administration should also do more to preempt charges of hypocrisy and double standards. Consider U.S. policy to combat digital authoritarianism: Washington has targeted Chinese surveillance technology firms more harshly than similar companies based in the United States, Israel, and other Western democracies.
The world that ought to be
So far, the Biden administration’s order-building efforts have centered on arrangements that exclude China, such as the Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. Although officials have been careful to insist that these initiatives are not targeted at any one country, there is little sign of any corresponding effort to negotiate Beijing’s role in the international or regional order. At the margins, there have been signs that inclusive groupings can still deliver. (The World Trade Organization has struck agreements on fishing subsidies and COVID-19 vaccines.) But suppose investments in narrower, fit-for-purpose coalitions continue to prioritize broader, inclusive agreements and institutions, including those in which China and the United States both have significant roles. In that case, geopolitical tensions will break rather than reinvigorate the international system.
Renewing U.S. leadership will also require doing more to address criticism that a U.S.-led order means “rules for thee but not for me.” Explicit and humble acknowledgment of instances where the United States has violated the UN Charter, such as the invasion of Iraq, would be an essential step to overcoming that resentment. And Washington must deliver value for citizens in developing countries, whether on COVID-19, climate, hunger, or technology, rather than simply urging them not to work with China. At home, Washington must work to rebuild bipartisan support for U.S. engagement with the international system.
As the United States reimagines its domestic and international purpose, it should do so on its terms, not for the sake of besting China. Yet fleshing out an inclusive, affirmative vision of the world it seeks would also be a first step toward clarifying the conditions under which the United States would welcome or accept Chinese initiatives rather than reflexively opposing them. The countries’ divergent interests and values would still result in the United States opposing many of Beijing’s activities. Still, that opposition would be accompanied by an apparent willingness to negotiate the terms of China’s growing influence. The United States cannot cede so much influence to Beijing that international rules and institutions no longer reflect U.S. interests and values. But the greater risk today is that overzealous efforts to counter China’s influence will undermine the system itself through a combination of paralysis and the promotion of alternate arrangements by significant powers.
Finally, the United States must do much more to invest in its example’s power and ensure that steps taken to counter China do not undermine that example by falling into the trap of trying to out-China China. Protective or punitive actions, whether military, economic, or diplomatic, should be assessed based on whether they counter China, how they affect the broader system, and whether they reflect fidelity to U.S. principles.
Competition cannot become an end in itself. Washington will continue to measure success on its own. Rankings are a symbolic construct, not objective. If pursuing human progress, peace, and prosperity is the ultimate objective, the United States does not need to beat China.
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