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Foreign Policy

A Question of Competition

Jan 22, 2022
  • Wang Honggang

    Deputy Directorof Institute of American Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

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How China should see international competition is a significant strategic question that it can’t avoid in the process of accomplishing its second centenary goal. This is not only because competition, especially major-country competition, is commonly mentioned in international media but because certain countries seem determined to make strategic competition the starting point of their domestic and international strategies, stirring up complex changes in major-country relations. They further assume that China, which is in the process of rejuvenation, will resolutely safeguard its own sovereignty, security and development interests, adhere to its principles and bottom lines and be ready to fight. This inevitably involves the way China perceives and handles competitive relations with other countries. Thus, international competition is unavoidable.

Especially because a small number of countries define China as a strategic competitor and are determined to engage in a long-term game, China should also clarify its own position on international competition. It is necessary to define the position of competition in the overall Chinese strategy, expound well the Chinese outlook on international competition and build up a narrative of international competition with Chinese characteristics based on the country’s own strategic culture, strategic plan and strategic vision.

Two basic truths about what international competition looks like in overall international politics deserve emphasis.

On one hand, international competition is objective, inevitable, and longstanding. In theory, competition is a state and method for individual entities to preserve their own existence in their interactions with others, the logical foundation of which are the differences and universal connections between individual beings. Competition is inescapable so long as this basis persists, which is true in both natural and human environments. International competition is inevitable in relations between modern sovereign states, as humanity enters a new stage of in-depth connectivity, broad exchanges, fierce collisions and common evolution.

From a historical perspective, competition is also broadly perceived as a normal state over the past few centuries in international relations. International competition has been present universally in the periods of laissez-faire capitalism and the later international monopoly period. The past few centuries of world history were characterized by competition between the earliest developed nations and countries that developed later. Competition between European and American powers for dominance in the world market and international order has never stopped. Later-developing nations have been striving for their own sovereignty, security and development interests in their struggle against colonialism, suppression and control.

From the perspective of future trends, so long as we believe it is difficult for the scale of the world market to continue expanding over a fairly long period of time, the logic of capital will continue to play a role in a global context. The internal troubles and challenges in all countries will continue to accumulate and ferment and the strategic mutual confidence between nations will continue to erode as the “security dilemma” steadily escalates. We have reasons to assume that international competition over the next few decades will likely take the form of a stock game, a zero-sum game or even a negative-sum game.

From the perspective of function, the role of competition can be both passive and positive. In many cases, competition conceals ulterior motives of exploitation, suppression and control. And it usually results in serious injustice and destruction.

On the other hand, competition in the process of modernization promotes stronger statehood awareness and growth of the condition of nations. At the same time, as in the natural world, competition facilitates the survival of the fittest. It therefore propels the continuous evolution of the global system.

International competition therefore has an objective and universal existence that doesn’t change as a result of anyone’s will.

On the other hand, international competition in the present moment has its own characteristics.

As mentioned above, international competition is objective, inevitable and long-standing. But that’s not the whole picture. We must at the same time highlight the distinctive characteristics it shares with international competition in the past.

Historical cases of major power competition, which are frequently cited today, occurred either in feudal or earlier stages of world history or during colonial expansion during the period of laissez-faire capitalism, when the means of production, levels of globalization, ways of thinking were not comparable with today’s. International competition in the 21st century has taken on important new characteristics.

First, competition is more vertical than horizontal. The degrees of fine division of labor and production integration are not comparable to any earlier time. Every country occupies a specific position in a complex global production network and within a production chain, which means major country competition now has a greater interest and stake in security within a production system and from different positions in a chain of production. The competition is actually vertical rather than horizontal.

Horizontal competition takes place between two parallel systems. Even if real decoupling occurs between China and the United States in the field of high technology, their overall economic ties cannot be cut off. Thus, total horizontal competition is not possible. Carrying out horizontal competition by creating two parallel economic systems is not viable from the perspective of cost control.

Second, there is more indirect than direct competition. At the present stage, some clear-minded strategists, including some in the U.S., have come to understand that the foundation of national security and prosperity lies at home. Current problems are also mainly domestic ones. Therefore, as severe as the external challenges may be, a rational strategic option is taking advantage of external factors to facilitate changes at home. Should such thinking be adopted, we can be cautiously optimistic that future international competition will be more in the form of indirect competition. Of course twisted domestic politics and a worsening atmosphere at home may subject rational voices to suppression, so we must stay vigilant.

Third, competition is more differentiated than homogeneous, which is especially obvious in China-U.S. relations. What the U.S. wants is to preserve is its hegemony status, and so it attempts to compete with China because it feels China’s development poses a threat to that. But the truth is that China has no intention to be a hegemon like the U.S. Based on Chinese strategic culture, Chinese history and the Chinese vision of the world order, hegemony is to be opposed rather than pursued. If there is a competitive relationship between China and the U.S. over the future of the world order, it will be differentiated, not homogeneous.

Based on such new characteristics of competition, we can make some important inferences.

Inference 1: Competition will absolutely not be the sole factor in relations. Thanks to globalization, there must be other factors, including coordination, cooperation, self-restraint and joint management of competition. It would be problematic to see only competition in international relations without seeing other aspects.

Inference 2: Competition should be about improving oneself, not suppressing others. If problems arise from the inside, external competition is absolutely not the solution. A country must first do its own things well.

Inference 3: Significant changes have taken place in the historical functions of competition. Competition is necessary for human evolution, but it has become incapable of solving significant global issues concerning the overall sustainability of humanity under the condition of unprecedented integration, such as climate change and huge development gaps between countries. The ultimate resolution of such issues depends on cooperation.

It is thus clear what attitude China should take toward international competition in pursuit of its second centenary goal, during which the two catchphrases describing China’s grand strategy are the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and a community with a shared future for mankind.

From the perspective of realizing national rejuvenation, we should place great emphasis on competition. We must be fully aware of the objective, inevitable, long-standing and even fierce nature of international competition, and be vigilant as to the strategic risks that may be brought by omnipresent international competition.

From the perspective of building a community with a shared future for mankind, we should transcend competition and avoid becoming stranded in competition. We should avoid competition for its own sake, as well as rhetorical pitfalls. Based on the Chinese strategic vision and commitment, we should position competition in a broader strategic spectrum and in a longer historical context. We should see international competition with concern for humanity as a whole and handle competition with the goal of managing strategic competition while dissolving malicious competition.

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