Employing an adversarial tone that surprised many observers, the White House’s newly unveiled National Security Strategy described China as a “revisionist power” that “actively competes” against the United States and its allies and partners. It accused China of trying to “shift the regional balance in its favor” and “displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region.” The strategy, the first released by President Donald Trump since taking office, also declared that China seeks to shape a world “antithetical” to U.S. values and interests, and painted China’s expanding economic and diplomatic influence in a decidedly negative light, deploying terms like “extractive” behavior and “unfair trade practices.”
Chinese media predictably expressed outrage at the strategy yet ironically mirrored the antagonistic language. A commentary in the Global Times, a populist tabloid owned by the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, denounced the United States for “recklessness” and for being the “biggest saboteur of international rules and challenger of free trade.”
The parallels go further than recriminatory accusations, however. Earlier this year, China published its first-ever white paper on “China’s Policies on Asia-Pacific Security Cooperation,” in which it signaled its intention to establish itself as the dominant power in Asia and dislodge U.S. influence. And in the 19th Party Congress report, the Chinese Communist Party’s most authoritative strategy document, China articulated for the first time an ambition to contend for global leadership. It stated that by mid-century, China seeks to have “become a global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence.”
Given that China already has the world’s second-largest economy and one of the largest militaries, this phrasing suggests Beijing is mulling the possibilities of competing with the United States for the status of global leader. Reinforcing this point, the report also outlined ambitions to build a network of “partnerships, not alliances,” which a commentary in the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the CCP, explained meant that China intends to form a “global partnership network” of countries, mainly in the developing world, to back Beijing’s agenda.
The shifts in policy on both sides were perhaps inevitable, given the reality that the two countries remain locked in an intractable rivalry for primacy in Asia and, increasingly, at the global systemic level. A narrowing in the gap in comprehensive national power and the proliferation of disputed issues, including trade, has exacerbated the competition. Leaders in both countries are adjusting to these pressures by contemplating strategies to gain a decisive edge while avoiding war. The differences in the two countries’ approaches reflect their respective advantages and disadvantages.
As the U.S. and China carry out their own competitive policies in a way that avoids open confrontation, the result could well be an acceleration toward a bifurcated global order.
As the incumbent global leader, the United States enjoys a tremendous edge in virtually every dimension of national power, not least of which includes a global network of allies and partners. However, domestic opinion that is deeply polarized about America’s involvement in international trade deals and wars abroad imposes severe restraints on Washington’s ability to carry out costly measures to shore up its military power and international standing. China’s leaders and society have the advantage of operating with far less division, but the country approaches the competition with far fewer resources and under the shadow of looming demographic and economic challenges of its own.
Given the depths of economic interdependence, leaders in both countries will continue to face a powerful incentive to maintain cooperative relations. The struggle for advantage will deepen, but most likely in hidden realms less visible to the public eye than was the case in the Cold War. In the competition for technological leadership, both sides can be expected to step up measures to acquire and protect sensitive technologies, and recruit top scientists and experts. For the United States, this could mean reforms to the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States—or CFIUS—process, while Chinese leaders have already signaled an interest in stepping up efforts to recruit ethnic Chinese scientists abroad.
In geopolitics, China can be expected to increase involvement in closed-door multilateral politicking as well as its leveraging of economic benefits and threats to cajole countries along the routes of the Silk Belt and Maritime Silk Road—also known as the Belt and Road Initiative—into aligning more closely with Chinese power. The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy outlined an ambition for the United States to extend its engagement with countries across the “Indo-Pacific” as well as Europe. The two countries could find themselves parrying each other in the cyber domains and in clandestine intelligence operations around the world as well.
As the U.S. and China carry out their own competitive policies in a way that avoids open confrontation, the result could well be an acceleration toward a bifurcated global order featuring competing, overlapping and occasionally consonant institutions, standards and norms. The basic features of the international system, such as the United Nations and the global trade regime, will likely remain in place. But the United States and its partners in Europe, Latin America and Asia are likely to stick to existing standards and norms that uphold liberal values and human rights. By contrast, China is likely to seek to either reform existing institutions or create new norms, institutions and standards that feature far lower consensus on such values while also benefiting Chinese companies.
Such a development may succeed in avoiding war, but the added uncertainty could bring risks of its own. Far-sighted and nuanced leadership will be required in both Beijing and Washington to find ways of managing intensifying competition in a manner that continues to yield the greatest prospects for stability and prosperity for all countries.
-Timothy R. Heath