It seems that most China hands in the United States believe that strategic competition has become the keyword or baseline of current China-U.S. relations. But making a concrete explanation of the nature and scope of that competition takes most observers into unfamiliar territory. Even if relations might be defined by strategic competition, views vary as to the content of that framework.
The ambiguity left by strategic competition allows space in which U.S. hard-liners can shape the Biden administration’s China strategy. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee introduced a sweeping 280-page bill called the Strategic Competition Act of 2021 in early April whose aim is to “bolster [U.S.] diplomatic strategy in addressing challenges posed by the Chinese government.” A bipartisan U.S. task force then published a report on April 14, prioritizing the advancement of a democracy strategy to compete with China and Russia.
The timing of the bill and report is significant. The Biden administration’s China strategy is still under review, but it has clearly identified China as its “most serious competitor.” The Biden team might seek competition with China without catastrophe, or to gain a position of strength by focusing on U.S. capabilities and moral leadership in the world, but China hawks in U.S. strategic circles intend to influence the administration’s overall China strategy before it is laid out and set it on a trajectory of vicious strategic competition.
Strategic competition is poised to become the mainstream of the Biden administration’s China policy because of the external and internal circumstances the U.S. is facing. On one hand, the Biden administration, recognizing the current relative decline of American power in the world, has picked up almost entirely Trump’s view of “great power competition” as the only way to regain American leadership.
Biden’s team has adjusted the approaches of competition, no longer squandering power but emphasizing values and diplomacy to build a consensus of like-minded countries. The idea is to share the burden of competition with allies and partners.
On the other hand, diplomacy is an extension of domestic affairs, and politics in the U.S. has increasingly become an important factor in shaping the country’s foreign policy. Although the power transfer of the U.S. government is complete, there has not been a full transition from Trumpism to Bidenism. The forces supporting Trump still exist, and any China policy under Biden continues to be constrained by hawks who advocate a continuation of Trumpism.
There is nothing wrong with the U.S. competing with China, but it should be fair and healthy competition so that both sides can make common progress, rather than a vicious one in which the two countries assault each other for survival. If the U.S. maintains benign competition with other countries in global governance and provides more public benefits, rather than pursuing selective multilateralism, this sort of competition will be more than welcomed.
But U.S. strategic circles increasingly perceive competition between great powers as rooted exclusively at the ideological and economic level, a view that elevates continued hegemony to a position of outsized importance. In this view, the outcome of great-power competition is inevitably linked to the rise or fall of the hegemon.
It is hard for Biden to resist the temptation of defining China-U.S. relations by strategic competition, and political wisdom is needed to navigate the complex bilateral relations against the current political backdrop. The Biden administration should not be brainwashed into a self-fulfilling prophecy by the vicious strategic competition advocated by the China hawks. Instead, it should think calmly and make rational decisions, focusing more on cooperation and less on competition.
John Kerry’s recent visit to China shows that the Biden administration is not willing to push its China policy toward complete decoupling; this sends out positive signals and expectations. Both China and the U.S. are important stakeholders in regional and global issues.
For instance, on the issue of combating COVID-19, the two countries should strengthen cooperation within the framework of the WHO and facilitate global distribution of vaccines, jointly help the international community to get vaccines, resist vaccine nationalism and actively coordinate economic policy under the G20 and other multilateral mechanisms.
Both sides might find difficulty in building mutual trust in a short period, but practical cooperation could help them avoid direct confrontation and gradually nurture mutual confidence. This, in turn, draws a bottom line that avoids vicious competition. It would mean that China is confident the U.S. will not undermine its sovereignty, security and development interests, and the U.S. is confident that China has no intention of challenging or replacing the U.S. on the world stage, let alone driving the U.S. out of Asia or the western Pacific.