China believes that strategic competition with the United States has been forced upon it by U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration. The Chinese government has never officially adopted such a diplomatic posture and still calls for a relationship of “coordination, cooperation, and stability.” In fact, during its seven decades in power, the current Chinese political regime has not engaged in a comprehensive, strategic competition with any great power. China strived for survival during much of the Cold War and subsequently focused on its own rapid development within a U.S.-dominated international order. Now it is imperative for China to move beyond troubleshooting and to think in broad terms of several general principles to guide Beijing through the uncharted waters of an increasingly competitive relationship with the United States.
Given the stature of Chinese President Xi Jinping, his eponymous Thought on Diplomacy is the overall guiding principle for China’s approach to foreign policy. As Chinese State Councilor and Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi pointed out in July 2020, Xi Jinping’s Thought on Diplomacy “encapsulates the latest achievement of Marxism on the diplomatic front in the 21st century,” “carries forward and elevates the fine tradition of . . . Chinese culture,” and “carries forward and further develops the diplomatic theories of New China.”
Based on this foundation, this article distills six potential principles for competing with the United States, including two each in the following three areas: Marxism, traditional Chinese culture, and China’s historical experiences since 1949. These principles include respecting the balance between impersonal historical forces and the agency of political leaders, acknowledging the structural importance of economics, following the strategic imperative to know one’s competitor, undertaking the quest to win friends and diplomatic partners, avoiding ideological conflict, and keeping domestic policy in sync with China’s external environment.
Respect Both Historical Forces and Human Agency
One of the foundational concepts in Marxism and the political ideology of the Chinese Communist Party is dialectical materialism. This concept states that objective laws of historical development ought to be respected but that there is room for human agency via subjective will. Objective laws refer to impersonal and structural historical forces that constrain human choices and are resistant to change, at least in the short term. Since late 2017, the objective laws of the conflict-prone relationship between China, a rising power, and the United States, a ruling power, have been on full display. Hardly a day passes without the bilateral relationship deteriorating further. With regard to the coronavirus pandemic, even the most cynical observers of international relations have been shocked by the total lack of cooperation and acrimonious finger pointing between Washington and Beijing.
As to the future trajectory of bilateral ties, the only difference among experts of China-U.S. relations seems to be between being more or less pessimistic. When scholar John Mearsheimer first advanced his theory of offensive realism and predicted fierce competition between China and the United States, others readily dismissed him for being too structurally deterministic and for conjuring a self-fulfilling prophecy of deteriorating ties. Now his views are more widely accepted.
Furthermore, not long ago, it was easy to identify how the China-U.S. rivalry was different from the Cold War–era U.S.-Soviet competition. Even just a few years ago, observers noted how U.S.-China relations had a much higher degree of economic interdependence, an absence of ideological conflict, and a lack of two stridently opposing camps. Yet now people are discussing the prospects for a “great [economic] decoupling,” the growing ideological flavor of the competition, and China’s ever closer alignment with Russia and Iran. These developments do not suggest that the world is moving inexorably toward a second Cold War or something worse, but the objective laws of historical development suggest that such outcomes are increasingly likely. Consequently, China must face up to this new reality by accepting that the forces pushing China-U.S. relations toward greater antagonism cannot be easily overcome by a change of government, strong personal relationships between leaders, or decisions to refrain from indulging in a Cold War mentality.
But as powerful as historical laws are in setting the parameters of China-U.S. strategic competition, they do not dictate inevitable conflict. There must be room left for considering the impact of the subjective will of national leaders amid the pressures of these historical forces. Historical laws are invisible, and the China-U.S. relationship is shaped by decisions made by political leaders on both sides, mutually beneficial commercial transactions conducted by Chinese and American companies, the millions of travelers who cross the Pacific between the two countries annually (before the pandemic), and much more. Collectively, these ties determine whether and how human agency rises to challenge the trajectory of historical laws. Indeed, the China-U.S. relationship is where it is now due to the policies adopted by both Beijing and Washington.
It is worth citing the late British philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who criticized historical determinism as “immoral and cowardly” for arguing that impersonal forces determine human history. When historians look back at this period, they may well conclude that objective laws have overwhelmed subjective will, but for contemporaries who are experiencing history in real time, succumbing to the fatalism of an inevitable China-U.S. conflict cannot be an option. It certainly will not be easy, but China and the United States both have to strike a delicate balance between respecting the gravitational pull of historical laws and exerting counteracting subjective will. In simple terms, exerting subjective will means respecting the other side’s vital interests, effectively communicating one’s intentions, cooperating wherever possible, and managing competition in a prudent and restrained way.
Acknowledge the Structural Importance of Economics
One of the most important Marxist axioms is acknowledging the foundational importance of economics. China’s rise is first and foremost an economic success story. Continual economic growth is self-evidently critical to success, as it will determine whether China can escape the middle-income trap, become a technologically innovative and advanced country, and realize the stated goal of national rejuvenation. China’s economic prowess is also the foundation upon which to continue building a more capable military, participating more proactively in international institutions, offering assistance to other countries, and implementing the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Moreover, countries want to play to their strengths in a strategic competition. China’s economic statecraft, or economic diplomacy as Beijing calls it, is arguably the most useful among the country’s various instruments of power. In contrast, military power, indispensable as it is in protecting China’s core interests, is useful only under the most extreme circumstances. In terms of soft power, China’s efforts have produced mixed results to date. In recent years, China has been accused of promoting so-called sharp power in other countries, including in the United States. In contrast to the exercise of soft power through attraction and persuasion, critics perceive that sharp power consists of sources of influence that are “covert, coercive, or corrupt.”
According to the Pew Research Center, unfavorable views of China in the West and the Asia-Pacific are growing more pronounced. This does not mean that China should give up on projecting soft power, but Chinese policymakers have to understand Beijing’s strengths. In short, for China, economic power is more effective than soft power and more versatile than military power. Moreover, positive inducements should be prioritized over coercive leverage. The simple logic is that the more one uses coercive leverage today, the less of it one will have tomorrow because others will feel compelled to adjust and reduce their vulnerability.
The combination of the rise of populist and protectionist sentiments in Western countries, growing competition and antagonism between the United States and China, and the coronavirus pandemic have significantly affected the international landscape and therefore the prospects for China’s continued economic development. These changes have clearly accelerated Beijing’s choice to rebalance more toward self-sufficiency than international integration, a process that started more than a decade ago and culminated in the newly announced “dual circulation” strategy; it emphasizes “domestic circulation” or economic growth more driven by domestic consumption and innovation. Whether or not this new strategy for economic development succeeds will determine the future trajectory of both China’s rise and the China-U.S. competition. Additionally, with slower economic growth and an intensifying China-U.S. rivalry, the classic guns versus butter trade-off of public spending on military assets or consumable goods for citizens’ everyday needs could prove a much greater challenge for China than in previous decades.
Practice Sun Tzu’s Directive to Know One’s Competitor
In addition to the two aforementioned Marxist principles, traditional Chinese culture can offer certain insights into how Chinese strategists think about competition. Ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu’s most famous saying is probably that “if you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” This is perhaps an obvious point, but being oblivious to the most obvious of notions often can bring about disastrous consequences. China and the United States are, of course, competitors or rivals rather than outright enemies, but the axiom still applies. The vast differences that separate the two countries in terms of cultural traditions, value systems, and political processes are not complete unknowns, but they continue to make an objective assessment of the other side’s strategic objectives, interests, strengths, and weaknesses a daunting task.
Compared to the aforementioned differences between the two countries, differences in emotions, aspirations, stereotypes, or political imperatives constitute even greater obstacles to developing a solid understanding of each other. For instance, demonizing a rival may be psychologically appealing, but doing so undermines objective assessments, rational policymaking, and ultimately one’s own strategic interests.
Two further considerations compound this challenge. First, the United States is an enormously diverse society, which makes it relatively easy for outside observers to cherry-pick evidence to support many shaky conclusions, depending whether one wants to portray a good, bad, or ugly America. Second, the Chinese social media landscape is prone to the same information overload and flood of false or unverified information that characterizes the social media landscapes of other countries. This is not just a problem for average citizens, as even experts and analysts are sometimes misled due to not double-checking or further investigating information.
In terms of strategic competition, there are several things that China should want to know about the United States. First of all, knowing a competitor means knowing its likely responses to one’s own moves and the strategic consequences. To make a move and just see what happens is strategic folly. In this sense, although tit-for-tat responses are necessary under certain circumstances, this tactic can be strategically disastrous as it allows the opponent to take the initiative and set the terms of competition.
Second, China should want to avoid overestimating the degree of centralization and coordination of U.S. policymaking and implementation. Columbia University Professor Robert Jervis has noted that the kinds of misperceptions that lead analysts to mistakenly attribute more centralization, unity of purpose, and planning to others than is warranted are pervasive in international relations. And the differences in decisionmaking processes between Beijing and Washington amplify this problem. Despite the Trump administration’s assertion that it is adopting a “whole-of-government” or even a “whole-of-society” approach to competing with China, Beijing should not overlook the multiple built-in layers of separation of power and checks and balances in the U.S. political system.
Third, China should want to avoid underestimating the ability of the U.S. government to marshal its resources after it is fully mobilized—an ability it demonstrated in past crises including the two world wars and the Cold War. The following line from U.S. strategist George Kennan was meant as a warning for U.S. foreign policy makers, but it is also an important facet of China’s understanding of the United States. In one of his lectures at the University of Chicago in 1951, Kennan likened a democratic United States to,
“one of those prehistoric monsters . . . he lies there in his comfortable primeval mud and pays little attention to his environment; he is slow to wrath—in fact, you practically have to whack his tail off to make him aware that his interests are being disturbed; but, once he grasps this, he lays about him with such blind determination that he not only destroys his adversary but largely wrecks his native habitat.”
Win Friends and Influence People
Sun Tzu is not the only historical Chinese strategist that current policymakers should keep in mind. The celebrated Confucian philosopher Mencius once said, “A just cause enjoys abundant support, while an unjust cause finds little support,” highlighting the importance of winning friends to one’s cause. China’s success in winning friends depends on how well Beijing manages its relations with third-party countries in the Asia-Pacific, particularly Washington’s allies and friends. In the last decade, a bifurcated order in the Asia-Pacific has arisen: an economic order centered around China and a security order centered around the United States.
More recently, as the China-U.S. rivalry intensifies, other regional countries increasingly are feeling the polarizing impact of great-power competition and are agonizing over the highly undesirable prospect of having to choose sides. Past experiences, such as the contentious disputes that arose over the founding of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, demonstrate that it is not impossible to win over even Washington’s closest allies to support a Chinese initiative given the right set of circumstances and incentives. In the future, neither Beijing nor Washington will be able to take other nations’ support for granted, as other nations’ decisions will be based on complex strategic calculations on top of any inducements Beijing and Washington have to offer.
One can say with some certainty that the more reassured and secure these other countries feel about the regional security environment, the more emphasis they will put on economics and the more autonomy they will display vis-à-vis Washington. China realized in the 1990s that, as it grows more powerful, it has to reassure others about its long-term intentions. Multilateralism is a good way of both working on regional issues and reassuring lesser powers. According to a 2014 survey of strategists in the Asia-Pacific, 42 percent of Chinese respondents believed that participating in multilateral institutions and cooperating with other countries are in the best interests of China, compared to 17 percent and 11 percent who supported a Sinocentric and U.S.-centric regional order, respectively. Bilaterally, offering such reassurances means sometimes forsaking short-term interests for long-term strategic benefits. Under certain circumstances, this fact might entail making unpalatable tactical concessions.
The push to win friends also touches on the tricky question of whether China should seek formal allies. Since the early 1980s, China has eschewed formal alliances, a policy that has evolved into privileging a “global partnership network” in recent years. Some Chinese strategists are calling for China to build formal alliances, but they remain a minority. Indeed, it is neither desirable nor feasible for China to build formal alliances, as such pacts essentially involve trading some autonomy and flexibility for more security and influence. China can provide for its own security, and it can exert influence through other means. Decreasing its autonomy and flexibility could embroil China in unnecessary disputes and conflicts and lead to strategic overextension. Furthermore, in today’s world, various cross-cutting interests make it difficult to slot countries into an overly simplistic schema of allies and foes.
Avoid Ideological Conflict
In addition to the lessons Chinese strategists can glean from Marxism and traditional Chinese culture, China’s own historical experiences over the past seventy years offer much food for thought. During the Cold War, Chinese foreign policy included a strong ideological component vis-à-vis the United States, developing countries, and even the Soviet Union after the Sino-Soviet split. The lesson is that ideologically driven policies often expand and enlarge conflicts, sow suspicions in other countries, and ultimately run contrary to one’s own national interests. China should try to avoid an ideological conflict with the United States, even as the Trump administration seems to be inciting one.
Indeed, the Trump administration has started framing U.S.-China competition in increasingly ideological terms. The U.S. National Security Strategy declared that “a geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place in the Indo-Pacific region.” Nowhere has the ideological dimension of U.S.-China competition been put in starker terms than in U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent remarks. In a series of speeches using language reminiscent of the Cold War, Pompeo urged Americans not to ignore the “fundamental differences” between each country’s “two systems” and their impact on U.S. national security. He described the challenges posed by China as those between “the Chinese Communist Party and its authoritarian regime and freedom-loving peoples all across the world” to drive a wedge between the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese people.
On the one hand, China should be aware that avoiding an ideological conflict does not mean completely removing ideology from the China-U.S. competition. Indeed, there are several reasons why ideology will remain an important factor. First, strategic competition is, to a large extent, a contest for influence, and the way each country expands its influence is sometimes conditioned by the domestic role that the state plays in its economy and society. Consequently, the process of seeking influence may coincidentally highlight certain institutional and ideological characteristics. Second, the relative power shift between great powers with different ideologies has an international demonstration effect. As political scientist Seva Gunitsky has shown, the success or failure of different regime types often has come hand in hand with the abrupt rise and fall of great powers with different ideologies. Third, in an era of strategic competition, the high degree of interconnectedness between the United States and China actually makes ideological differences more keenly felt on both sides. These three factors mean that different ideologies will continue to have an impact on the U.S.-China relationship.
On the other hand, the United States’ recent moves on the ideological front can best be characterized as tactically offensive yet strategically defensive. Starting under former president Barack Obama’s administration and accelerating under the Trump administration, there has been an overall ideological retrenchment in the U.S. foreign policy community. What Mearsheimer calls the “liberal hegemony” strategy that the United States pursued after the end of the Cold War has drawn to a close. Meanwhile, due to its relative decline and domestic political malaise, the United States’ self-confidence has decreased, while its sensitivity to potential threats and insecurity has grown.
In other words, the United States is no longer trying to transform China to reflect American ideals but is instead trying to attack the Chinese system to fend off a perceived ideological threat. This change in approach could ultimately be a useful way for the United States to mobilize domestic resources to sustain a long-haul competition with China. Beijing should focus on perfecting its own system and avoid overreacting or getting trapped in an ideological conflict with the United States.
Keep Domestic Policy and External Conditions in Sync
Since 2007, top Chinese leaders have repeatedly stressed the need to “take both the domestic and international situations into consideration” or make sure that China’s domestic politics are properly calibrated to the global environment the country finds itself in. At an important foreign policy–themed work conference in 2014, Xi said,
“China’s relations with the rest of the world are going through profound changes; its interactions with the international community have become closer than ever before. China’s dependence on the world and its involvement in international affairs are deepening, so are the world’s dependence on China and its impact on China.”
This interplay between domestic and external conditions has always existed. After all, it is no coincidence that Chinese leaders combined the two halves of “reform” and “opening up” into a single term to define the reform era starting in the late 1970s. Nor is it a pure coincidence that China established formal diplomatic relations with the United States in lockstep with the consequential Third Plenum that set the groundwork for China’s meteoric economic takeoff.
What has changed is that China’s integration with the outside world has deepened, and its ability to influence and shape its external environment has grown considerably. These twin developments have made it more important and more challenging for China’s internal development strategy and foreign policy strategy to work in tandem rather than at cross-purposes. Beijing’s relations with the rest of the world will define what kind of power China will be and vice versa.
Beijing is preparing for a “protracted war”—an oft-used metaphor in China that means facing down long-term challenges—to cope with the uncertainties associated with China-U.S. competition and the changing nature of globalization. In doing so, Chinese leaders must strike a delicate balance between efficiency and resilience. China should focus on safeguarding its economic connections with the outside world while maintaining enough self-sufficiency to mitigate vulnerabilities to hostile policies from other countries or the ebbs and flows of the global economy. That being said, as China’s power and influence grow, there are hardly any policy issues that have remained purely domestic, and what happens domestically in the country could have profound intended or unintended strategic consequences that extend far beyond the country’s borders.
The BRI is a perfect example of how the internal and external dimensions of China’s development have been fused together. Its success could help China better utilize its industrial capacity, redress geographical economic imbalances, diversify its energy supply routes, provide regional public goods, and extend its diplomatic influence. Although foreign observers tend to focus on the strategic motives they see behind the BRI, it is above all a developmental strategy. Incidentally, China should realize that there could be a disconnect between strategic intentions and strategic consequences; even if Beijing does not have strategic intentions, the BRI could still have potential strategic consequences that other countries would respond to.
These six principles that could shape how China acts toward the United States are not meant to be exhaustive, and some of the principles may apply to Chinese diplomacy more broadly. Hopefully, these ideas can help China emerge as a stronger and more respectable power while keeping the strategic competition with the United States manageable and free from outright conflict.
Jie Dalei is an associate professor at the School of International Studies at Peking University.