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Foreign Policy

Managing Strategic Competition

Sep 18, 2020
  • Cui Liru

    Former President, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

Trust between China and the United States has reached a new nadir. Over recent months, an array of actions and words from U.S. hawks suggests they are bent on triggering a new cold war. But even though relations are at a new historic juncture, having assumed a complex structure, the aggressive needling need not shape the course for the future.  

Strategic competition has been front and center in U.S. policy toward China ever since the days when China was regarded as its arch challenger. By definition, challenger means it posed challenges to U.S. world dominance, from the economic and financial fields to the military and technology. The U.S. feels it must recalibrate its China policy and take forceful action to rebalance it. This is a virtual consensus view in the U.S.

Nonetheless, there are still major differences when it comes to the political implications of China as a challenger, and well as important nuances in the calculus of the U.S. response, which are primarily the result of realistic political thinking.  

Realists view China’s rise as a challenge, as is the case with all major country competition, but they recognize China’s unique attributes. Strategic competition has become the dominant theme in China-U.S. relations. But a strategic rival is not the same as an arch-adversary, and so uncertainties abound. The way relations are handled will have a bearing on a complex host of issues such as the global economy, politics and security.

So while pursuing a policy of containing China’s rise, the U.S. must also consider the need for cooperation to cope with real common challenges. The Obama administration’s China policy more or less operated along this line in its latter stage.   

The hawks in the U.S. believe that China has set its sights on replacing the U.S. as a global hegemonic power, and that it has been pursuing full-fledged actions for this purpose, encompassing the economic, military, technological, foreign policy, ideological and publicity fronts. They see considerable hostility in the relationship, so much so that the U.S. is at a tipping point. The comprehensive actions to contain China reflect this view. Decoupling from China is the most important measure in the short term. The right wing uses anti-Communist ideology influence domestic public opinion.

While there is notable difference between U.S. President Donald Trump and the hawks on China policy, the hardliners and their policies have become more dominant over the past three years. As a result, China has been forced to take corresponding counter measures. The new normal of a heated war of words has already eroded the political trust needed to stabilize bilateral ties. Many people believe China-U.S. relations are facing unprecedented threats.

Trump is pinning his hopes on an effort to shift blame to China for the coronavirus pandemic to deflect attention from his own failed response. Nothing seems beneath him in the effort to score political points with potential voters as Election Day approaches. China must not leave anything to chance.

In the foreseeable future, we may be facing the predicament of a structural shift in China-U.S. relations wherein the loss of balance in strategic competition must be managed to prevent the situation from spiraling out of control and ending up in confrontation. Strategic competition has placed China-U.S. relations at the mercy of politics, but even what minimal level of mutual trust remains is too scanty for the effective management of bilateral ties. The most realistic approach is to manage risks to the extent possible, informed by shared understanding based on historic experiences of the consequences of confrontation. This is a passive, fragile response that largely depends on the uncertain competence of personnel involved on both sides. It’s like leaving the future of the two countries to destiny.

Is there any chance to salvage this dangerous situation? Based on the current analysis, the structural configuration will not shift fundamentally. In this context, short-term political evolution in the U.S. will have significant implications on its policy positions. With the election coming soon, people will be watching closely what the next administration’s lineup looks like and and project where policies are likely to head. It bears mention that there will be no fundamental shift in U.S. policy toward China regardless who wins the White House.

At its root, the effective management of strategic competition will hinge on whether the two countries can establish a stable framework to maintain bilateral ties based on a realistic understanding and proper management of the strategic competition under a new configuration. This relationship framework must aim to rebuild the strategic balance.

There are two distinct approaches to this end, first is active thinking and policy guidance on the part of policymakers. This is what China stands for. On the part of the U.S., the realistic thinkers have shown this element in their understanding of China’s rise and the strategic competition between the two countries. 

The other approach is that the worsening situation will mean worsened relations, generating more negative consequences or even effects that go beyond our imagination at this moment. So both sides must work to get on the right track of constructive dialogue and rebuilding balance for a brighter future. 

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