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Foreign Policy

Redefining U.S. Competition with China

Dec 14, 2021
  • Sun Chenghao

    Fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University

As U.S. President Joe Biden approaches the end of his first year in office, the keyword of the administration’s China policy has clearly become “competition.” Although Biden inherited his predecessor’s strategy of “great power competition,” he changed its style and approach from “America alone” to a new method based on using its own strength and making better use of its values, global governance and strategic alliances.

The Biden administration’s competition with China has four features:

First, it’s comprehensive, a feature that began to emerge during the Trump administration. In the National Security Strategy report released at the end of 2017, the attitude of all-around competition with China was already on full display.

Second, it’s mutually reinforcing with domestic politics. The Biden administration has stressed the need to balance domestic and international interests, putting forward the idea of a “foreign policy for the middle class.” To connect both goals, competing with China from a position of strength means increasing U.S. national development, such as pushing forward the infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better program.

Meanwhile, the U.S. needs competition with China to drive its domestic agenda. A hard-line approach to China has become the bipartisan consensus; therefore, it can promote certain agendas and activate internal dynamics to stimulate U.S. vitality against the background of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Third, Biden-style competition is enlarged. The U.S. tries to pull more countries, especially its allies or like-minded partners, into the great power competition by adjusting its posture. On one hand, since no country perceives China as a security challenge, as they did the former Soviet Union, the U.S. hopes to use ideology as a tool to unite more countries to join the competition against China. The Summit for Democracy led by the U.S. is a recent example.

On the other hand, because of differences in interests, ideologies and relations with China, it’s difficult for many countries, including U.S. allies, to form a single anti-China camp. That’s why the Biden administration has taken a new path, strengthening the Five Eyes, activating the QUAD mechanism and establishing the AUKUS group to promote a new alliance arrangement with different categories and focal points. The idea is to gradually strengthen connectivity between these small camps to strengthen competition against China.

Fourth, the new competition is long-lasting. Rush Doshi, the U.S. National Security Council’s China director, published a book called “The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order,” which reflects the understanding among U.S. strategic elites that the competition between China and the U.S. will continue indefinitely.

To achieve sustainable competition without veering into confrontation, the Biden administration has come up with some policy formulas, including Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s 3C approach (competition, cooperation, confrontation) and some revised versions, such as “responsible competition” or establishing “common-sense guardrails” to avoid confrontation.

The evolving concepts and wording are designed to ensure that the U.S. will take the lead in defining China-U.S. relations and preventing the two countries from sliding into hostility after fierce competition, which might ruin possibilities over time.

There are several measures China and the U.S. need to take to defuse the risks in the next phase of Biden’s competition policy:

• The two sides must attach greater importance to military-to-military exchanges to avoid a crisis due to misperceptions or miscalculations. But it might be unrealistic to hold a comprehensive strategic stability dialogue covering arms control, cybersecurity and space. The two sides should first resume talks to build trust and reduce the risk of conflict, and then gradually expand the scope of the topics in light of their respective needs.

• China and the U.S. should do all they can to accelerate the restarting of people-to-people exchanges. After the recent virtual meeting between the two presidents, we have seen some gratifying progress. In the future, the two sides should also consider reopening closed consulates, speeding up visa approvals and encouraging mutual study visits and exchanges once the pandemic winds down.

• China and the U.S. should reshape economic and trade relations to serve as an anchor and stabilizer in the bilateral relationship. Over the past four decades, China-U.S. economic and trade relations have been deeply intertwined. Although there has been a sort of decoupling phenomenon in the science and technology sector, deepening economic and trade cooperation is still in the interests of both countries. If the U.S. side removes the tariffs imposed on China during the Trump administration, it will create a better atmosphere for improving the relations.

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