China-U.S. relations have entered into an era of strategic competition. As such, the U.S. has deemed China its foremost, primary, and long-term strategic rival, highlighted this in multiple official documents, and embarked on a comprehensive approach to contain China in all sectors. In the meantime, China sees the U.S. as its biggest external challenge when it comes to national rejuvenation. The trade war between the two countries unfolding over the past year is only the tip of the iceberg of intensified competition between China and the U.S. in science and technology, military, foreign policy, and other sectors.
Views differ on the essence of China-U.S. competition. Most watchers see it as a classic power competition caused by a shrinking gap in strength between the two countries. That said, some see it as a competition between two competing ideologies, or between two competing systems. In particular, right-wing conservatives in the U.S. government regard it as an ideological competition that decides whether the future world order will be defined by liberal or authoritarian ideas. The Indo-Pacific Strategy Report released by the Department of Defense in June stated that the competition between a liberal and authoritarian world order is a primary security concern of the U.S.
The U.S. believes that China is rising as a power not only in the economic and military domains, but also in soft power, manifested in the appeal power of its development model. China’s political system and ideology are a source of anxiety for the U.S., fueled more by the perception of a “China threat.” The U.S. sees China as “the other,” and finds the rise of China with a different development system difficult to appreciate. Moreover, the U.S. is worried that China intends to alter, and even upend, the current world order and norms led by the U.S. in favor of an anti-U.S. order.
It is dangerous to let China-U.S. competition spill over into the ideological and civilization domains, and undue emphasis on ideological differences will lead to a cold-war style stand-off. Fundamentally, it is a conflict of interests that is driving the current confrontation between the two countries rather than anything ideological. The U.S. aims to contain the rise of China, while China seeks to rise above the current tensions so that it can gain more space for development and become a truly strong country. In sum, it is power and interests that drive the current competition between the two countries, while ideological and political differences are but aggressive tools at their disposal.
As things stand now, the probability of a new Cold War is rather low. The Cold War happened because, over the course of building a post-war world order, the competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union underpinned the process. As both powers upheld a “me or the other” mindset, they gave up talks altogether and confrontation ensued. But for China and the U.S., their competition is unfolding under the same international system, with both parties participating in the same global institutions and norms. China grows and prospers in this global system and order created and led by the U.S., so it is hard to extricate itself from it. Other national and international actors cannot afford the cost of fragmenting the system, either. On the economic front, China and the U.S. are inextricably intertwined as two economic powers, with unprecedented interdependence binding them together. The two countries also share broad interests in non-proliferation, climate change, and other non-traditional security threats on a global level, despite their conflicts of interest in bilateral and regional affairs. Ideological and system competition between China and the U.S. is still only at a moderate level.
As such, China-U.S. competition is still manageable and of low intensity: it is centered on national interests and happens in the context of the same system. Both are nuclear powers, but a hot war between them is unimaginable. A long and tortuous journey, even one lasting decades, may be needed for one or the other to emerge stronger in the competition on trade and other, less sensitive, fronts. Such competition will only conclude when one side believes the other has lost its competitive edge or no longer constitutes a threat. For this reason, the strategy-minded circles in both countries should examine how China and the U.S. could arrive at a new engagement model in the coming decades.
Power competition doesn’t have to be zero sum, either. Like the Chinese saying goes, “the enemy lost one thousand soldiers, but your own army shed eight hundred.” In the Cold War, the U.S. contained and isolated the Soviet Union and led to the latter’s demise. But China has a population of 1.4 billion with a prosperous economy — it would be next to impossible to isolate China into its collapse. Not to mention that the global industrial chain has bound the two countries closely together. Even in the unlikely scenario of a successful containment, the U.S. would still stand to suffer rather than relive the glorious Cold War-era victory it has craved.
If competition is inevitable, the two countries must find a way to avoid zero-sum competition or a slide into a cold war. Any competition should be benign and push the two countries towards co-development and co-evolution. As Dr. Henry Kissinger pointed out in 2018, China-U.S. relations are at a critical moment: the fundamental challenge is not trade disputes, but transcending the you-win-I-lose mentality and finding a way to coexist in a new global political environment.
Therefore, benign competition should be the shared objective of both countries: neither should challenge the core interests of the other and both should work toward managing differences and avoiding conflicts. As the lesser power, China cannot forestall the U.S.’s intention of strategic competition, but it can try to draw the line of competition, and seek to foster an environment for benign competition. The U.S., on the other hand, should find a way to peacefully coexist with China in the world, as that will serve to protect U.S. values and interests.
China and the U.S. could resort to multilateral mechanisms to manage differences. An open, rules-based international order benefits the U.S. and stands for what China pursues, as it would provide a good environment for the internal adjustment of both countries. Both should uphold the current international system and fulfill their international obligations, and more importantly, they should see maintaining China-U.S. relations as part and parcel of such obligations. As such, they could shape the current system to be more resilient and robust, and fend off attempt to reinvent the wheel altogether.
In a nutshell, defining a competitor or rival is one thing, but steering the competition is another. In an era of strategic competition, China and the U.S. will have to focus more on effective and positive competition management and clarify the rules underwriting such a competition, manage the economic consequences, and fend off ideological and military competitions.