The great-power competition between the United States and China is a defining feature of the first part of this century, but there is little agreement on how it should be characterized. Some call it an “enduring rivalry” analogous to the one between Germany and Britain prior to the last century’s two world wars. Others worry that America and China are like Sparta (the dominant power) and Athens (the rising power) in the fifth century BC: “destined for war.” The problem, of course, is that a belief in the inevitability of conflict can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“Enduring rivalry” itself is a misleading term. Just think of all the phases the Sino-American relationship has gone through since the Communist Party of China (CPC) came to power in 1949. In the 1950s, American and Chinese soldiers were killing each other on the Korean Peninsula. In the 1970s, after US President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China, the two countries cooperated closely to counterbalance the Soviet Union. In the 1990s, economic engagement increased, and the US supported China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. Not until after 2016 did we enter the current phase of great-power competition, with one US official describing China as a “pacing threat” – meaning “the only country that can pose a systemic challenge” to America “economically, technologically, politically, and militarily.”
But even if enduring rivalry does not imply violent conflict, what about a “cold war”? If that term refers to an intense prolonged competition, we are already in one. But if it is a historical analogy, the comparison is inapt, and risks misleading us about the real challenges the US faces from China. The US and the Soviet Union had a high level of global military interdependence, but virtually no economic, social, or ecological interdependence. Today’s Sino-American relationship is different in all those dimensions.
For starters, America cannot decouple its trade and investment completely from China without causing enormous damage to itself and the global economy. Moreover, the US and its allies are threatened not by the spread of communist ideology, but by a system of economic and political interdependence that both sides routinely manipulate. Partial decoupling or “de-risking” on security issues is necessary, but total economic decoupling would be prohibitively costly, and few US allies would follow suit. More countries count China rather than the US as their leading trade partner.
Then there are the ecological aspects of interdependence, which make decoupling impossible. No country can tackle climate change, the pandemic threat, or other transnational problems alone. For better and worse, we are locked in a “cooperative rivalry” with China, in need of a strategy that can advance contradictory objectives. The situation is nothing like Cold War containment.
Meeting the China challenge will require an approach that leverages the alliances and rules-based system the US created. Allies like Japan, and partners like India, are assets that China lacks. Although the center of global economic gravity has shifted from Europe to Asia over the past century, India, the world’s most populous country, is one of China’s longstanding rivals. Clichés about the “Global South” or solidarity among the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) are highly misleading, because they ignore internal rivalries within those categories. Moreover, the combined wealth of Western democratic allies will far exceed that of China (plus Russia) well into this century.
To succeed, America’s China strategy must set realistic goals. If the US defines strategic success as transforming China into a Western democracy, it is likely to fail. The CPC fears Western liberalization, and China is too big to invade or fundamentally change through coercion. This reality cuts both ways: The US has domestic problems, but they certainly do not owe anything to the attractiveness of Chinese communism. In this important respect, neither China nor the US poses an existential threat to the other – unless they blunder into a major war.
The best historical analogy is not Cold War Europe after 1945 but pre-war Europe in 1914. European leaders welcomed what they thought would be a brief conflict in the Balkans, but instead got the four terrible years of World War I. Some foresee the US and China blundering into a similar war over Taiwan, which China regards as a renegade province. When Nixon and Mao Zedong met in 1972, they could not agree on this issue, but they devised a rough formula for managing it that has lasted half a century: no de jure independence for Taiwan, and no use of force against the island by China. Maintaining the status quo requires deterring Beijing while avoiding the provocation of supporting de jure independence for Taiwan. War is a risk, but it is not inevitable.
The US should expect low-intensity economic conflicts with China, but its strategic objectives should be to avoid escalation – what US Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently called “peaceful coexistence.” That means using deterrence to avoid a hot war, cooperating when possible, leveraging US hard and soft power to attract allies, and marshaling domestic assets to compete successfully. The goal should be to shape China’s external behavior by strengthening America’s own alliances and international institutions.
For example, the key to advancing US interests in the South and East China Seas is Japan, a close ally that hosts US troops. But since the US also needs to bolster its own economic and technological advantages, it would be wise to adopt a more active Asian trade policy, and to offer assistance to the low- and middle-income countries being wooed by China. Global polls suggest that if the US maintains its domestic openness and democratic values, it will have much greater soft power than China.
Investments in America’s own military power of deterrence are welcomed by the many countries that want to maintain trade relations with China but do not want to be dominated by it. If the US maintains its alliances and avoids demonization and misleading historical analogies, “cooperative rivalry” will be a sustainable goal.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.