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Foreign Policy

The Competitive Conundrum

Feb 16, 2022
  • Cui Liru

    Former President, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations


A significant corner has been turned in China-U.S. relations, the most prominent hallmark of which is that Washington has substituted “major power competition” for “anti-terror” as the No.1 challenge for U.S. global diplomacy, and it has identified China as its main rival, or “near-peer competitor,” and the strongest rival in U.S. history.

A rivalry is a competitive relationship. Washington believes its competition with China is global — involving economics, politics, military, science, technology and culture — and is a kind of strategic competition between major powers. Therefore, all dealings between the two countries, as well as important matters concerning China, must be scrutinized and verified all over again from the perspective of competition.

During the Donald Trump presidency, right-wing forces in high levels of the government went to great lengths to instigate an ideological confrontation and adopted a series of hostile measures. China-U.S. relations nearly dropped to the freezing point. Since Democrat Joe Biden defeated Trump to win the White House in 2020, there has been universal anticipation that at least Washington’s China policy would begin to show more reason. And, hopefully, relatively rational and pragmatic dialogue may first be restored — a position from which they can gradually build a new, stable framework for addressing differences and cooperating.

However, from Alaska to Vienna, three high-level meetings between the two sides were very difficult. Different understandings of the basic nature of China-U.S. relations became the most outstanding divergence. The U.S. side’s high-profile claim that it would deal with China from a position of strength prompted strong backlash from the latter. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s “tripartite” China policy attempts to showcase the Biden administration’s more rational new approach, yet its basic idea of carrying out strategic competition with China as a main rival is identical with that of the previous administration.

The Chinese side stated it could not accept the U.S. side’s basic understanding of China-U.S. relations. Although competition exists between the two parties, it’s not the whole of the relationship. There are many non-competitive realms and topics where they can cooperate. There should and could be a kind of major-country relationship between China and the U.S. featuring win-win cooperation. Defining China-U.S. relationship as competitive is rooted in an incorrect understanding of China.

Because of the tremendous cognitive gap between the two sides, in several rounds of high-level dialogue, failed to find points of convergence where they could reach a consensus. One comment was that they were like “a chicken talking with duck.”

The U.S. identifying China as its main rival is based on the basic logic of preserving U.S. hegemony. Strategic circles and China policy elites in Washington share the belief that China’s rise presents an all-around challenge for the U.S. from in aspects of both strength and ideology. U.S. expansionism, in contrast with Chinese diplomacy, is driven forcefully by rising nationalist feelings and the perception that the U.S. has begun to decline.

The economic statism and political centralism in China are also challenges for the development model and international order the West promotes. As the U.S. itself sinks into serious political crises and unprecedented  escalations of social contradictions, forcefully coping with challenges from China has become a matter of bipartisan consensus and indisputable political correctness.

Changes in America’s China policy started with the Obama administration’s Asia rebalancing strategy, which was first aimed at checking a rising China’s “challenge” of U.S. dominance in the Asia-Pacific, and further developed into a “roll-back” strategy in the later years of the Obama presidency.  In December 2017, the Trump administration announced explicitly in its National Security Strategy that major-power competition has taken the place of anti-terror as the primary challenge for U.S. global diplomacy, and China was handed three titles: main competitor, main challenger and revisionist state.

This open strategic positioning of China was actually a summary of changes in U.S. China policy over the previous 10 years, which represented the mainstream opinion of both Democratic and Republican parties, as well as strategic circles in Washington. It will exist as an essential understanding of U.S. relations with China in the long term.

On the other hand, disputes over China policies have never ceased in the U.S. — what policy, principle, form or approach is in the country’s best interest in the competition. Opinions vary between and within the parties. The radicals advocate a new cold war following the principle of all-around containment. This had the upper hand during the Trump presidency. The pragmatists advocate a strategy of competition plus regulation. Because Chinese and U.S. economic interests are tightly interwoven, and the two countries exist in a same international system, it is the least risky and costly choice for the U.S. to make rules, along with Europe and Japan, and press China to follow them. Biden himself and the majority in his government are pragmatists.    

Washington’s strategic circles share the belief that, despite its toughness, the Trump administration’s China policy was too casual. To effectively cope with challenges from China, the U.S. needs to create a systematic, all-around strategy, and must act in concert with allies. This first requires a consensus on a clear guiding principle and coordinating policies.

So defining the relationship as competitive is not only a core concept shaping U.S. cognition of China but is also at the core of its China strategy. Currently almost all China-related research reports by U.S. think tanks focus on competition with China. The tripartite approach Blinken proposed in Alaska is the basic policy framework of the Biden administration’s strategic competition with China, which treats different realms and issues differently through competition, confrontation and cooperation.

China is completely reasonable and justified in refusing to accept the U.S. understanding of China and its definition of the China-U.S. relationship as primarily competitive. The idea of win-win cooperation is based on building a “community with a shared future for mankind,” a goal that won’t be achievable without joint efforts by all parties. This means the international order and rules of the game that are still dominated by the West need to be changed. But so long as the U.S. sticks to the “realist” international theories that constitute its foreign policy and refuses to forsake its status as hegemon, China must face the reality of U.S. strategic competition.

Chinese cognition of the U.S. actually includes two aspects — policy announcements and policy implementation. The former consists of constructivist ideals focusing on the future; the latter is pragmatic logic rooted in realism. There are obvious gaps and differences between realist diplomacy and idealist foreign propaganda when it comes to how to evaluate and handle specific problems. While China attempts to promote its future-oriented, constructivist grand thinking in the international community, it must at the same time cope with America’s realist strategic containment on its face. The responsible Chinese major-country diplomacy is likely to take a “realist-constructivist” route.   

For a considerable time, the U.S. will generally be the stronger party in many critical fields. Facing various moves of U.S. strategic competition, China can only respond accordingly and push back wherever possible, looking for opportunities to carry out more effective countermoves.

Meanwhile, U.S. anxiety about China also reflects the important fact that China has already become a “near peer” competitor. It is increasingly important for China to figure out how to give full play to its own advantages. “Studying the time, evaluating the trend” and being “on just grounds, to our advantage, and with restraint” are key considerations in doing that.

The U.S. launched its strategic competition with China, but the process won’t be dictated by the U.S. alone. The impacts on the evolution of China-U.S. relations can only be determined by the two sides’ interaction, and to a great extent by their handling of important topics. 

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