Competition Without Catastrophe

Competition Without Catastrophe

How America Can Both Challenge and Coexist With China

The United States is in the midst of the most consequential rethinking of its foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. Although Washington remains bitterly divided on most issues, there is a growing consensus that the era of engagement with China has come to an unceremonious close. The debate now is over what comes next.

Like many debates throughout the history of U.S. foreign policy, this one has elements of both productive innovation and destructive demagoguery. Most observers can agree that, as the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy put it in 2018, “strategic competition” should animate the United States’ approach to Beijing going forward. But foreign policy frameworks beginning with the word “strategic” often raise more questions than they answer. “Strategic patience” reflects uncertainty about what to do and when. “Strategic ambiguity” reflects uncertainty about what to signal. And in this case, “strategic competition” reflects uncertainty about what that competition is over and what it means to win.

The rapid coalescence of a new consensus has left these essential questions about U.S.-Chinese competition unanswered. What, exactly, is the United States competing for? And what might a plausible desired outcome of this competition look like? A failure to connect competitive means to clear ends will allow U.S. policy to drift toward competition for competition’s sake and then fall into a dangerous cycle of confrontation.

U.S. policymakers and analysts have mostly, and rightly, discarded some of the more optimistic assumptions that underpinned the four-decade-long strategy of diplomatic and economic engagement with China (which one of us, Kurt Campbell, detailed in these pages last year, writing with Ely Ratner). But in the rush to embrace competition, policymakers may be substituting a new variety of wishful thinking for the old. The basic mistake of engagement was to assume that it could bring about fundamental changes to China’s political system, economy, and foreign policy. Washington risks making a similar mistake today, by assuming that competition can succeed in transforming China where engagement failed—this time forcing capitulation or even collapse.

Despite the many divides between the two countries, each will need to be prepared to live with the other as a major power. The starting point for the right U.S. approach must be humility about the capacity of decisions made in Washington to determine the direction of long-term developments in Beijing. Rather than relying on assumptions about China’s trajectory, American strategy should be durable whatever the future brings for the Chinese system. It should seek to achieve not a definitive end state akin to the Cold War’s ultimate conclusion but a steady state of clear-eyed coexistence on terms favorable to U.S. interests and values. 

Such coexistence would involve elements of competition and cooperation, with the United States’ competitive efforts geared toward securing those favorable terms. This might mean considerable friction in the near term as U.S. policy moves beyond engagement—whereas in the past, the avoidance of friction, in the service of positive ties, was an objective unto itself. Going forward, China policy must be about more than the kind of relationship the United States wants to have; it must also be about the kinds of interests the United States wants to secure. The steady state Washington should pursue is rightly about both: a set of conditions necessary for preventing a dangerous escalatory spiral, even as competition continues. 

U.S. policymakers should not dismiss this objective as out of reach. It is true, of course, that China will have a say in whether this outcome is possible. Vigilance will thus need to remain a watchword in U.S.-Chinese relations in the period ahead. Although coexistence offers the best chance to protect U.S. interests and prevent inevitable tension from turning into outright confrontation, it does not mean the end of competition or surrender on issues of fundamental importance. Instead, coexistence means accepting competition as a condition to be managed rather than a problem to be solved.