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Foreign Policy

Benign Competition: It’s a Good Thing

Jan 07, 2020
  • Wu Zhenglong

    Senior Research Fellow, China Foundation for Int'l Studies

At the end of 2017 and the start of 2018, the United States issued three strategic documents defining China as its “major strategic competitor,” and by employing “a whole-of-government approach” stepped up its efforts in curbing China on all fronts — politics, trade, science, technology and military. It has become a pressing issue in Sino-U.S. relations how to maintain competition that is benign rather than hostile.

The recently concluded talks for a phase one trade deal offered experience that taught lessons and summed up the principles of benign competition. Those principles are of extreme importance in guiding bilateral relations.

First, competition should be governed by internationally recognized rules. Competition between countries should abide by those rules, which provide fundamental guarantees for benign competition and the basic guardrails for avoiding malicious competition. All countries are equal before international rules, and no domestic laws should be used as a substitute in an attempt to interfere in others’ affairs. Nor should so-called long-arm jurisdiction be allowed. It is also imperative to reject double standards and the practice of applying international law selectively, or to use the rules as a “flashlight” for checking out the problems of others. The China-U.S. phase one trade deal can be seen as a set of mutual rules to govern and guide bilateral trade relations in the future.

Second, we should adhere to the principle of solving disputes through dialogue, and by preventing competition from running out of control or developing into confrontation or conflict.

It’s only natural that China the U.S., the two largest economies in the world, will have some disputes. But when problems occur, they should communicate on equal footing, identify the causes and work together for win-win results. They should not resort to such coercive measures as sanctions and the imposition of tariffs, or impose their will on the other party by abusing political, economic, diplomatic or judicial means. It is well-established that the first is conducive to solving disputes — the hallmark of benign competition — while the latter only leads to escalation and the abyss of hostile competition that inflicts harm on both.

Sino-U.S. trade frictions, from their emergence to escalation and partial settlement, have shown how the two countries can cooperate and compete against each other. The competition involves both benign and hostile factors, but hostility was most often the result of the U.S. side’s zero-sum game mentality. In the end, cooperation and benign competition will prevail.

Third, it is necessary to constantly improve the existing rules and make new ones at appropriate times to guarantee benign competition. With technological development, new types of business, new industries and new forms of trade have emerged. Some of the existing rules are outdated and some no longer satisfy needs. For some new industries, such as e-commerce, network security and artificial intelligence, comprehensive rules are lacking altogether. The international community is in urgent need of an update of current rules or the formulation of new ones. But no single country is competent to accomplish this mission alone. The task calls for concerted cooperation among all.

Fourth, to ensure benign competition, China and the U.S. need to strengthen and improve risk management mechanisms. To date, through joint efforts, the two have established a number of mechanisms, including hotlines, memorandums of understanding on rules for air and maritime encounters and a space launch notification procedure. However, these represent only the bare minimum. The two sides should explore new mechanisms to control risks in new and emerging sectors, such as space, internet security and reasonable boundaries for internet activities.

The phase one trade deal helped establish mechanisms for settling disputes, an important step toward a regular framework for benign competition.

Fifth, guidance by heads of state provides a fundamental guarantee of benign competition. Phase one trade deal negotiations demonstrated that it would have been impossible to clinch the deal without the guidance of the presidents of the two nations.

China and the U.S. should set up regular meetings to address each other’s concerns frankly and to create a mutually recognized environment for benign competition.

Without doubt, when the U.S. announces that China is its major strategic competitor, its ultimate goal is to obstruct or slow down China’s rise. U.S. policy goals will not change with a change of administration. Whether we admit it or not, competition will be there, and we will have no choice but to face it squarely.

We should also take note that the Chinese and U.S. economies have become highly integrated and interdependent, and the phase one trade deal will naturally bring the two closer in economic and trade cooperation, rather than decoupling.

As China’s capability to reshape bilateral relations grows, the country is gaining the confidence it needs to expand benign competition and reduce the malicious kind, and it can thereby promote bilateral ties based on coordination, cooperation and stability.

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