The US government’s National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy both stress the return of great power competition. It does not bode well for China-US relations, as great power competition usually ends up in conflict, as history tells us. It’s important to manage competition and keep it from damaging overall relations.
Competition between China and the United States is natural
Competition is everywhere in nature. International relations, including China-US relations, are driven by competition. There has always been competition or the will to compete in China-US relations. However, competition between the two countries has become even more intense as China is approaching the United States in terms of national power. While the Obama administration briefly mentioned competition with China in its 2015 National Security Strategy, the Trump administration underlines it in its 2018 document. As China is one of the few candidates able to challenge the global leadership the United States wants to maintain, it is natural for it to identify China as the primary competitor.
It is not necessarily bad to have competition
Just as competition drives evolution biologically, it can also spur countries to evolve. It was competition with the Soviet Union that forced the West to develop an appealing politico-economic model and help it win the Cold War without fighting a real war.
Domestically, competition will be helpful in improving education, infrastructure, economic performance and other factors of power in both China and the United States. The lack of skilled workers in the United States drives US businesses to invest in China. Therefore, the United States has to improve its education to attract its businesses back. Such investment has too long a gestation period, so the Trump administration wants to lower the costs of doing business in the United States by taking such measures as reducing taxes, making investment in the United States appealing. In turn, China has to improve its level of services for investors and invest more on education to produce more skilled engineers. That is healthy competition.
Internationally, the two countries can build up their national images by competing to provide public goods, like development aid to underdeveloped countries and leadership in dealing with challenges like climate change, terrorism, and the proliferation of WMDs. The people in both countries may not directly benefit from the competition, but it will generally improve the well-being of human beings. What China and the United States can acquire from image competition is influence and respect.
Competition should be positive
The Chinese side was annoyed by the unfriendly rhetoric regarding China in the above-mentioned documents released and the Cold War mentality and zero-sum mindset behind it. It is reasonable for China to be concerned about the grim prospect of competition with the United States, as the boundary between healthy competition and rivalry, or vicious competition, is always blurred. To have healthy competition, one should not threaten the survival and prosperity of the other. If one regards the other as an enemy or threat, then competition become a war of elimination, and lead to conflict.
How can the US and China have healthy competition?
First, cooperation should be enhanced to hedge against vicious competition. China-US relations should not be defined solely by differences and competition. If cooperation and ties are made strong enough, each side will have to pay high costs if they decide to undermine the other’s interests through vicious competition.
Second, frequent communication is needed to make intentions clear. If one country is confident the other is not seeking interest or status at the expense of others’ survival or prosperity, then they can agree to compete without fearing losing the contest.
Third, both should learn to set lower goals. The United States should learn to coexist with a rising power. China should slow down its expansion of influence overseas, and adjust the way it does so. Its expansion of influence has concerned not only the United States, but other countries.
Fourth, the two should avoid competition in security areas, including an arms race. More arms mean more capability to kill and a higher risk of war. Adhering to a minimum deterrence policy, China will definitely not compete with the United States on nuclear weapons, but in terms of conventional weapons, China must resist the impulse to match the United States and the United States must resist the impulse to have more weapons to deter China. Even if neither intends to attack the other, and military buildup is solely aimed at deterrence, deterrence may fail because of miscalculation and misunderstanding.
Last, the two should manage the consequences of economic competition. Competition for economic predominance is not as dangerous as arms race, but it can sometimes lead to confrontation. For example, the attribution of the loss of blue-collar jobs and the trade deficit to China has soured bilateral relations and made a trade war between the two countries likely. The Trump administration should stop thinking that China intends to undermine US prosperity and should do its best to fix its economic problems from within.