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Foreign Policy

Competing for What?

Apr 17, 2021
  • Zhang Yun

    Associate Professor at National Niigata University in Japan, Nonresident Senior Fellow at University of Hong Kong

It’s been quite a while since the United States revealed its tendency to define relations with China as primarily competitive. President Obama once said to the effect that if the U.S. does not set the rules, China will. The national security strategy of President Donald Trump described China as a strategic competitor. And in his first news conference after his inauguration, President Joe Biden vowed not to allow China to defeat the U.S.

By contrast, China has long argued that its relationship with the U.S. mainly features win-win cooperation. But in the face of the competitive rhetoric of the U.S. and the reality of a deteriorating relationship, China has also gradually accepted the increased competitiveness in its relations with America.

For example, in response to Biden’s statement, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said: “Differences and competition exist everywhere in our world. It is only natural for China and the U.S., the largest two economies with intertwined interests, to have competition.”

While most people in the world seem to have accepted or acquiesced in the perception of China-U.S. competition, it remains unclear exactly what the two countries are competing for.

Like interpersonal relationships, any state-to-state relationship may be competitive. Competition means that the two sides struggle with each other over the allocation of some scarce resources. Scarcity is generally what’s behind competition. However, scarcity is not an entirely objective concept; it is subjectively constructed on many occasions. In the view of this author, competition in international relations, especially between major powers, occurs over tangible and intangible resources and those lying somewhere in between.

Competition over tangible scarcity includes territorial disputes or vying for natural resources. There is actually no obvious antagonistic competition between China and the U.S. in this regard. But competition over intangible scarce resources is in play, although highly subjective — for example, in ideology or international political influence, which seems to be the type described in the America’s competitive discourse. Both types of competition are zero-sum in nature. And as the latter is highly abstract, immeasurable and subjectively constructed, it is more likely to lead to conflict   and more difficult to resolve than competition over tangible scarcity.   

The third type of competition occurs over resources that don’t fall into the above two categories. In the case of China-U.S. relations, it most obviously happens in the economic sphere, such as trade and investment agreements, and in the field of technology, such as 5G and artificial intelligence. The competition does not automatically have a zero-sum nature but may easily become zero-sum as it is absorbed into the previous two discourses.

In the eyes of the Donald Trump administration, China’s economic development was akin to territorial expansion and its high-tech advances akin to monopolizing scarce natural resources. It therefore applied maximum suppression. The new Biden administration, while still doing policy reviews, gives more weight to values and tends to view China’s economic and technological development from the perspective of a competing ideology. America therefore uses the competitive or even confrontational “either/or” discourse of democracy versus autocracy and freedom versus coercion, thus bringing itself and China into competition over intangible scarcity.

This author believes that China and the U.S. should consciously avoid driving competitive intermediate zones of their relations in the economic and technological fields into two zero-sum discourse systems of competition, especially the one over intangible scarce resources.

The TPP, RCEP and investment agreements are unlike arrangements during the Cold War and should be interpreted via economic logic rather than ideologically. Similarly, in the high-tech field, the Cold War era was dominated by nuclear technology competition, with the two sides relying on complete decoupling, high militarization and clandestine development. Today, 5G or AI, unlike the nuclear technology of the Cold War era. They are used by everyone and are extensively civilian in nature, with technological exchanges playing an indispensable part.

It is primarily science and market logic that operates behind high-tech development. China-U.S. competition in the economic and technological fields should be defined as a sort of “peer competition.”

The perspective of physical hegemony will drive the two countries into antagonistic competition over tangible scarce resources, since there can be only one hegemon. The perspective of absolute ideological superiority or inferiority will drive them into the zero-sum game of intangible resource competition, since good and the evil are binary opposites. In a peer competition, the competitors may have different appeals that do not necessarily take them into a zero-sum game. The key is how the two sides perceive the competition in these areas.

For their relations to move toward stability and maturity, China and the U.S. need to figure out intellectually what they are vying for. They do not have territorial disputes, nor are they in the sort of binary ideological opposition seen in the U.S.-Soviet era. It is thus particularly important to avoid defining the economic and technological competition in the middle zones as pure zero-sum games over geopolitical or ideological hegemony. This area needs special effort as the two sides try to construct a sound interactive discourse system for their relationship.

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