Historians will look back on 2020 as an inflection point in the world’s most consequential bilateral relationship. Ties between the United States and China have reached their lowest level since normalization a little over four decades ago, and they are deteriorating further by the day. The relationship appears to have morphed from one of competitive coexistence into one of systemic antagonism, with tit-for-tat retaliation as the principal motor. While this outcome would be distressing under any circumstances, it is especially sobering when one considers its proximate catalyst: a global health-cum-economic crisis that should have occasioned emergency coordination between Washington and Beijing.
A détente does not, unfortunately, seem to be in the offing; most observers believe that strategic competition between the two countries will continue to intensify, even though there is little consensus on how it will unfold. In facing a resurgent China that is growing increasingly authoritarian at home and assertive abroad, particularly in the Asia-Pacific, the United States confronts vexing questions about the objectives it should pursue and the policies it should adopt to achieve them. There are no easy answers; indeed, just articulating the questions properly is a challenging task. Against that backdrop, this piece offers four principles Washington might consider as it seeks to formulate a sustainable strategy vis-à-vis Beijing.
Find a Middle Ground Between Complacence and Consternation
U.S. observers are engaged in a reinvigorated debate over three interrelated questions. First, to what extent can outside observers discern China’s long-term strategic objectives? Second, which sources most authoritatively establish those objectives? Third, what are those objectives? While it would be impossible to do justice to these questions in such a short piece, and presumptuous to suggest otherwise, National Defense University’s Joel Wuthnow offers useful guidance for approaching them: appreciating that “one would have to be a fly on the wall within China’s central leadership compound in Beijing to have a high level of confidence in [one’s] judgements” about its intentions, he ventures that “Beijing is not so inscrutable that tentative conclusions about its long-term goals cannot be drawn from information in the public domain.”
Suppose that China’s aims are immutable and maximalist—suppose, that is, that China has long sought not only to overtake the United States as the world’s preeminent power but also to establish a Sinocentric hierarchy that is anchored in a Eurasian economic sphere. Will it be able to achieve those ends? It is impossible, of course, to disclaim the possibility. It is safe to posit, though, that however ambitious one’s goals may be in theory, the pursuit of those goals is invariably constrained in practice by a combination of structural realities, exogenous shocks, and diplomatic setbacks. The point of this thought exercise—namely, hypothesizing for argument’s sake that China’s ambitions align with the United States’ greatest fears—is to focus attention on Beijing’s competitive limits. While U.S. strategy toward China should not exaggerate those limits, it should not discount them either.
China was already contending with a bleak demographic outlook and an increasingly inefficient growth model as 2019 drew to a close. The coronavirus pandemic is likely to introduce new economic challenges. If it depresses growth in China’s major trading partners over the medium term, it could reduce Chinese exports. If China manages to increase its share of global exports while much of the rest of the world remains mired in recession, it could face greater pushback from countries that view their burgeoning deficits with China as evidence of unfair bilateral trading relationships. The virus’s spread could also undercut the momentum of the country’s signature geoeconomic undertaking, the Belt and Road Initiative, as many participating countries that already had poor credit ratings are now at heightened risk of defaulting on loans they have received from Chinese banks. Finally, the pandemic could encourage a growing number of companies with significant production operations in China to consider relocating elsewhere, even if they are only able to do so in part and over the medium to long term. (In September, for example, the trade ministers of Australia, India, and Japan announced that they would launch an initiative later this year to strengthen the resilience of supply chains in the Asia-Pacific.)
In view of these possibilities, Chinese President Xi Jinping has announced a “dual circulation” strategy that aims to stabilize the country’s growth by prioritizing domestic consumption and innovation over exports and foreign supplies of technological parts and know-how. Implementation will prove challenging. While China is recovering from the pandemic, it is doing so in a way that will likely compound the extant distortions in its growth model. The Carnegie–Tsinghua Center’s Michael Pettis forecasts that China’s “consumption share of GDP will decline in 2020 to erase most of the gains it made since its low point a decade ago” and that its debt-to-GDP ratio “will rise an astonishing 16–20 percentage points in 2020.” Meanwhile, China’s emergence as a global technological power will be hampered if it cannot reduce its dependence on foreign chips to manufacture semiconductors, which stand to play an increasingly central role in the global economy as the Internet of Things grows in scale and scope.
The pandemic has also placed in sharp relief what may be the principal constraint on China’s ambitions, whatever they may be: its diplomatic aplomb lags far behind its economic heft. Beijing faced harsh criticism abroad for its initial mismanagement of the crisis, which included draconian restrictions on the public—including the imposition of a lockdown on nearly 60 million citizens in Hubei Province alone—and the suppression of doctors and journalists who tried to sound the alarm about the severity of the virus. By mid-March, though, China had gained significant narrative momentum; having largely contained the virus at home, it began shipping personal protective equipment (PPE) and dispatching teams of doctors to many countries in distress. Its principal strategic competitor, meanwhile, was (and still is) struggling to deal with the health and economic fallout of the pandemic, and observers have widely criticized the United States for being insufficiently involved in global efforts to stem the virus’s spread.
Soon, though, China again found itself on the defensive. Reports began to surface about defects in Chinese PPE kits. Questions began to arise about the veracity of the Chinese government’s official data on the country’s number of infections and COVID-related fatalities. And authorities in Guangzhou began facing pointed criticism after evidence emerged that Chinese residents were subjecting Africans living in that province to racist abuse for being perceived as vectors of the virus. The Chinese government reacted angrily—demanding that recipients of its PPE express their gratitude publicly, lambasting countries that criticized its response to the pandemic, and enacting trade restrictions on barley and beef from Australia after Canberra requested an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus. This wolf warrior diplomacy, named for an unapologetically nationalist Chinese blockbuster, has also shaped China’s regional policy in recent months: it has passed what it billed as national security–driven legislation to tighten its grip on Hong Kong, increased military and diplomatic pressure on Taiwan, fought with India along the countries’ disputed border, and pressed its maritime claims further in the South China Sea.
In retrospect, China had an unusually propitious opportunity to cast itself as a more responsible stakeholder. Arvind Subramanian, former chief economic adviser to the government of India, noted that China could have enhanced its diplomatic stature significantly had it “declared a moratorium on all debt service owed to it,” “provided unconditional short-term liquidity . . . to developing and other economies facing major capital outflows,” and/or “offered freer market access to poorer countries ravaged by COVID-19.” Instead, Beijing engaged in diplomatic self-sabotage. Observers have offered different explanations for why it took that course, many of which feature two propositions. First, the Chinese Communist Party felt pressure to deflect attention away from external criticism of its response to the pandemic. Second, party leaders believed that the United States’ domestic preoccupations gave China a window in which to advance its national interests in the Asia-Pacific more forcefully.
Whichever account one subscribes to, the outcomes have been clear. U.S. policymakers’ attitudes toward China are hardening on both sides of the aisle. So, too, is public sentiment; a recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that 73 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of China—the highest figure since the polling organization began inquiring in 2005. The UK, meanwhile, has proposed establishing the D10, a group of ten democracies—Australia, Canada, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, South Korea, the UK, and the United States. The members of this coalition would partner with one another to reduce their reliance on China’s 5G equipment and technology; some observers believe the group should set its sights higher, serving as a democratic bulwark against authoritarianism and a well-resourced catalyst of collective action.
Meanwhile, a growing number of countries are beginning to sour on Huawei. The UK has pledged to remove all Huawei equipment from its 5G networks by 2027, reversing a January decision that would have merely restricted the company’s role, and France has announced provisions that would effectively phase out the company’s network components by 2028. The members of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network—Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK, and the United States—are expanding their collaborative agenda, and Japan is looking to join. The members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (often dubbed the Quad)—Australia, India, Japan, and the United States—are intensifying security cooperation as well. And the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China was established in June to “foster deeper collaboration between like-minded legislators” who seek to “craft a proactive and strategic approach” toward Beijing. As of October 2020, it has thirty-eight cochairs and 133 supporting members, drawn from eighteen countries as well as the European Parliament. (While most of those countries are in Europe, countries from other parts of the world are also represented: Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Uganda, and the United States.)
Even the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), normally reluctant to criticize China’s conduct, are pushing back more noticeably, as seen with a high-profile case in the Philippines. In February, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States; in June, though, the country’s foreign secretary announced that Manila was postponing a final decision on the status of the VFA “in light of political and other developments in the region”—widely believed to be referring to China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea.
The Philippines is not alone. Near the end of July, in an unusually strong statement, Malaysia’s permanent mission to the UN declared that it “reject[ed] in its entirety” the “claim to the maritime features in the South China Sea” that China’s permanent mission had set forth in a December 2019 submission. And in September, a day after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called the United States “the most dangerous factor that damages the peace in the South China Sea,” the foreign minister of Vietnam, the country that serves as the current chair of ASEAN, stated that Hanoi “welcome[d] the [United States’] constructive and responsive contributions to ASEAN’s efforts to maintaining the peace, stability, and developments in the South China Sea.”
On balance, then, China’s conduct is contributing to its own encirclement. While its economic pull and technological progress will enable it to reduce Washington’s margin of preeminence, the widespread distrust it is engendering undercuts the conclusion that it will emerge as the world’s foremost power. Appreciating the self-constraining nature of Beijing’s diplomacy will be important to assessing the magnitude of the challenge that China poses to U.S. national interests.
Embed U.S. China Policy Within a Broader Vision
The first principle is not an invitation to complacence. The United States should not predicate its policy toward China on assessments that the frailties of the Chinese Communist Party portend the regime’s disintegration. Nor should it assume that authoritarian rule and external pressure will indefinitely cap China’s innovative capacity or take for granted that, as coercive Chinese conduct grows more pronounced, U.S. allies and partners will ultimately modify their relations with China in accordance with Washington’s strategic preferences. At the same time, however, the United States should not discount the myriad competitive challenges that confront China internally and externally, overstate the degree of its strategic foresight, or assume that Beijing is poised to supplant Washington as the world’s preeminent power. The Center for Strategic and International Studies’s Jude Blanchette makes the point well: “Rather than being 2 feet tall or 10 feet tall, China is six-foot-nine. That is a size that poses significant challenges but does not—or should not—overwhelm [the United States’] ability to conceive of strategy.”
Rightsizing the competitive challenge China presents will be essential to giving the United States both the psychological reassurance and the strategic bandwidth it requires to formulate a forward-looking foreign policy as opposed to a reactionary one. The more convinced one is that China has not only an abiding intention to pursue global hegemony but also a plausible path to achieve it, the more one would advocate that United States’ principal aim should be to stymie Beijing’s further resurgence. A defensive policy, though, beholden to China’s actions, would cede the strategic initiative to Beijing. An affirmative U.S. policy, by contrast, would begin with a concept of the post-pandemic order that the United States would like to help bring about and thereafter determine where and how selective contestation with China would advance that vision.
Such an affirmative vision should begin with the recognition that transnational challenges—among them macroeconomic instability, pandemics, and climate change—are likely to grow in scope, intensity, and complexity. By amplifying nationalist currents, undercutting the willingness of great powers to cooperate with one another, and reducing the capacity of core international institutions, the coronavirus pandemic may tragically render the world even less prepared to deal with these issues. Against that backdrop, the actors most likely to wield enduring influence will be those that are trusted to mobilize two kinds of collective action among governments, corporations, philanthropic entities, and advocacy organizations, among other entities: short-term, emergency mobilizations to defuse crises when they arise and long-term, forward-looking mobilizations to boost systemic resilience.
The United States has many assets that it can bring to bear should it try and reposition itself to that end: it has the world’s largest economy by a margin of roughly $7 trillion, and its currency continues to be the linchpin of global financial markets—an advantage that has actually grown during the course of the pandemic. It also has a network of alliances and partnerships that, while under considerable strain, remains unrivaled, and it has a long track record of forging coalitions to address global challenges. The reality that many U.S. friends have reacted with “sadness” and “disbelief” to the role Washington has played in global efforts to slow the pandemic’s spread suggests that there is a strong desire for it to resume its traditional galvanizing role, albeit from a place of greater humility.
Reposition Abroad and Rebuild at Home
That said, the United States cannot assume that its allies and partners will automatically trust it to serve in a global leadership capacity, for their anxieties about the path Beijing is taking at home and abroad increasingly coexist with concerns over Washington’s internal competence and external reliability.
U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration have taken several steps that have undercut the United States’ professed commitment to multilateralism. These include declaring its intention to withdraw from a multitude of multilateral agreements and organizations, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership; the Paris Agreement; the Iran nuclear deal; the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; the Open Skies Treaty; the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization; and the UN Human Rights Council. The president has also derided NATO, and his administration announced near the end of May that it would withhold funding from the World Health Organization, even as the coronavirus pandemic was (and is) gaining momentum. Finally, the Trump administration has frustrated many long-standing allies and partners by imposing tariffs on them in the name of national security and deploying sanctions more aggressively, a tendency that has prompted some of them to accelerate efforts to circumvent unilateral U.S. pressure and find alternatives to a global financial system dominated by the dollar.
If U.S. allies and partners conclude that Trump’s America First policies are more likely to prove aberrations than harbingers, they may regain confidence in the United States’ strategic outlook more quickly. If, however, they assess that these policies may have a longer-term impact on Washington’s role in the world, they are likely to be more cautious about making commitments to or even making common cause with the United States. As such, they will be looking for evidence of an enduring U.S. return to multilateral diplomacy. They will also watch for evidence of a more credible U.S. plan to compete with China economically and technologically.
If China manages to weaken the United States’ network of relationships, it will be unlikely to do so by virtue of its ideological allure; indeed, Xi’s continued centralization of power, the expansion of China’s surveillance apparatus, and the mass internment of Uighurs, among other phenomena, are increasingly damaging Beijing’s reputation. Instead, if China does succeed in watering down U.S. relationships abroad, it will likely do so by persuading U.S. allies and partners—by virtue of its economic resilience and an attendant narrative about its inexorable resurgence—that they would advance their long-term national interests more by looking eastward.
It behooves the United States, then, to be more proactive on several fronts, among them investing in basic science and technology R&D, attracting and retaining the most promising students in scientific and technological fields, shaping regional and global trade agreements, working with allies and partners to build technology-intensive infrastructure in the developing world, and coordinating multilateral approaches to the formulation of international standards that will govern the evolution and usage of frontier technologies.
As U.S. partners question the extent to which they can assume a certain baseline of stability in its foreign policy, they are also asking if the United States should be trusted to undergird a global order if it is incapable of managing its domestic affairs more effectively. As of this writing, after all, the United States continues to face a number of bleak realities. It accounts for roughly a fifth of global coronavirus infections and COVID-related fatalities, it faces a fraught path to economic recovery, and it confronts social unrest that has spotlighted many of the country’s systemic socioeconomic challenges.
While China has significantly undercut its own diplomacy amid the pandemic, it will likely tout its recovery as further evidence of a claim similar to one it articulated in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis—that its model of growth is more capable of absorbing and navigating systemic shocks than the United States’. Indeed, China’s economy is the only major one that is forecast to recover this year; the International Monetary Fund projects that it will grow by 1.9 percent, whereas the U.S. economy will contract by 4.3 percent.
Beyond being an imperative unto itself, democratic revitalization will be essential to the United States’ strategic competitiveness. U.S. strategist George Kennan stressed this point near the end of his Cold War–era telegram outlining a strategy to counter the Soviet Union: “Much depends on [the] health and vigor of our own society . . . . If we cannot abandon fatalism and indifference in face of deficiencies of our own society, Moscow will profit—Moscow cannot help profiting by them in its foreign policies.”
Strive for a Durable Cohabitation
Even though China confronts serious economic challenges, it is a linchpin of the global economy. Its GDP was approximately two-thirds as large as U.S. GDP in 2019, whereas the Soviet Union’s was never more than about two-fifths the size of the U.S. economy. The Lowy Institute found that 128 out of 190 countries traded more with China than they did with the United States in 2018, with ninety of them conducting over twice as much trade with Beijing as they conducted with Washington. And while the pandemic could prove to be a drag on China’s exports over the medium run, it does not appear to be denting their numbers for now. Indeed, as the Financial Times’ Rana Foroohar explains, Beijing is quickly adjusting; she notes that “emerging nations [now] represent a larger export market for China than the U.S.” and concludes that China’s “trade-based diplomacy in places such as Africa and the Middle East, combined with the rise of the digital renminbi, will make it ever easier for China to grow its exports to places other than the U.S.”
And though an increasing number of countries are seeking to reduce their reliance on China—especially for vital commodities including PPE and inputs for highly sensitive military technologies—they are discovering that even limited disentanglement, whatever its economic and security virtues, is difficult to achieve in practice. A country as systemically embedded as China is in the global economic order is not a ready candidate for excision—one reason why it is misguided to refract strategic tensions between the United States and China through the lens of the Cold War. That conflict, after all, ended with the dissolution of one of the competitors. While China’s aforementioned competitive liabilities make it unlikely that Beijing will overtake Washington for global preeminence, it is likely to prove a more enduring challenge than the Soviet Union was.
In a speech this July, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo exhorted “the freedom-loving nations of the world [to] induce China to change,” warning that absent sustained, coordinated actions on their part to that end, “our children’s children may be at the mercy of the Chinese Communist Party” and Xi would be emboldened to “tyrannize inside and outside of China forever.” While U.S.-China competition has assumed an increasingly ideological valence, framing it in existential terms will make it more difficult to enlist the support of U.S. allies and partners, who, as the Brookings Institution’s Thomas Wright notes, “are petrified of a full-blown Cold War where the U.S. and China have no interest in diplomacy.”
Even though many U.S. allies and partners are increasingly apprehensive about China’s trajectory, there is little evidence that they would participate in a full-fledged coalition to contain it. They may well make common cause with the United States on select issues—such as 5G infrastructure, intelligence sharing, and security cooperation, for example—but not necessarily with identical levels of commitment. Nor will they always share Washington’s threat perceptions and policy priorities. Even as Brussels, for example, is increasingly aligning itself with Washington in response to China’s coercive diplomacy, a veritably transatlantic approach is still a long way from emerging. A recent report published jointly by the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations, George Washington University’s China Policy Program, and the Bertelsmann Stiftung notes that “the significant, even dominant, role that security concerns play in the American approach to China leads various issues (notably economic and technological) to be ‘securitized’ (to be viewed through a security lens)—whereas in Europe commerce with China is seen more neutrally.” When U.S. allies and partners push back against China, it is important for their own domestic political purposes that they be seen as taking such steps independently, not as a response to U.S. demands.
Recalibrated U.S. diplomacy will be essential to bringing allies and partners on board when the United States chooses to contest China. And recalibration in both Washington and Beijing will be vital not only to ensure that military frictions between them do not escalate into an armed confrontation but also to preserve necessary cooperative space over the long term. After all, one need not have any confidence in the possibility or even merit of a U.S.-China G-2 or a new model of great-power relations to recognize a basic truth: Washington cannot ensure its own vital national interests without maintaining a baseline of cooperation with Beijing.
Triangulating these considerations—China’s centrality within the global economy, the improbability of a counter-China bloc, and the need for U.S.-China cooperation—suggests both an uncomfortable mandate and an urgent undertaking for the United States: to pursue a sustainable modus vivendi with a country that, despite its myriad frailties at home and constraints abroad, is primed to endure as a central actor in world affairs.
Ali Wyne is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a nonresident fellow at the Modern War Institute.