I often think of the evolution of US-China politics as the five stages of grief. The United States has denied for too long and refused to admit that Washington’s longstanding assumptions about Beijing had proven false. Then came the reckoning and anger of former US President Donald Trump over unbridled strategic competition. And now, for the most part, US President Joe Biden is continuing this, although he may be heading for the negotiation stage. I suspect that depression will soon follow, although I am amazed at the acceptance.
But what exactly is the goal of the current US strategy towards China? Is There a Cold War Kennan Approach for the 21st Century? Earlier this month, in foreign policy, Zack Cooper and Hal Brands argued, "Washington has accepted the reality of competition without identifying a theory of victory." Maybe. But maybe that's good, given their idea of victory. .
Cooper and Brands are exploring the directions Biden's "extreme competition" could take. The authors rightly state that "Sino-US competition has many possible consequences, from the United States ceding a sphere of influence to China, to mutual adjustment, to the collapse of China, to a devastating global conflict."
Cooper and Brands consider the dilemmas and contradictions inherent in the range of possible strategies. Most of them derive from two basic approaches: competitive coexistence and US dominance. To their credit, there are many thoughtful discussions about the China mystery and the realization that there are no easy answers. With the help of a few straw men and flawed assumptions, however, they advise that “competitive coexistence” will fail – or can only be successful if it leads to a change in governance in China. In the end, they point to the zero-sum argument captured in the title, "America Will Only Win If China's Regime Fails".
Unpacking your reasoning means shedding light on the flawed assumptions that guide post-engagement thinking about China. First, 1992 is forever in this universe. For Cooper and Brands, the United States has an ongoing primacy and ability to shape the fate of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). A question that should be of fundamental importance in calculating US strategy is seldom asked: What does the US government consider China's legitimate interests? The authors' winning theory suggests that the Chinese could be forgiven that the answer is not one that disagrees with US primacy.
For a resurgent China, however, shifting the global economic and geopolitical balance is a stark reality. What she lacks in her testimony, however, is the long-term trend of a shrinking gap between the economic, technological, and military might of the United States and China. You would never suspect that in the face of a China with a mature and growing nuclear arsenal with a viable second strike capability, some form of coexistence and balance of power could be a state of equilibrium that both sides must live with. What stable order in modern times was not based on a balance of power? And why doesn't China have the same power limits that forced the United States to live with the Soviet Union?
Some analysts are concerned that – as two current policy makers, Kurt Campbell and Jake Sullivan, argued in a 2019 article on foreign affairs – the assumption is that competition, unlike engagement, can transform China. They feared that "in a rush to join the competition, policymakers might replace the old with a new kind of wishful thinking". Campbell, Sullivan, and other high-ranking Biden officials, aware of the risks of full confrontation, seem to focus more on how to manage competition in order to find a balance that serves US interests.
Cooper and Brands have a straw man definition of what competitive coexistence advocates who are viewed as the least bad option have in mind. You write, "Competitive coexistence advocates believe that the United States can ultimately change the minds of Chinese leaders by persuading them not to seek regional primacy and disrupt the US-led international order in Asia and beyond . "
If I speak as one of these proponents, I will disagree. You can always be lucky; Chinese empires have come and gone for the past 4,000 years. However, changes in China are far more likely to result from internal pressures and contradictions than from US efforts. A well thought out strategy of coexistence of competitions is not a result of the containment of the Cold War, but an effort to manage competition in order to strike a strategic balance regardless of regime type.
The CCP is not believed to necessarily weaken over time or to reconcile with US domination. It is believed that China has placed its future on a globalized economy, of which it only made up about 18 percent in 2019. To date, Beijing has been selectively revisionist and, like most of the great powers, endeavored to tilt the institutions of the international order in the direction of its interests.
The logic of competitive coexistence is tempered by the Hobbesian reality of two great powers, each with the nuclear and advanced technologies to destroy one another. Beijing's clearly demonstrated ambitions are not believed, as the authors seem to be, to necessarily coincide with the end result. The point of US diplomacy should be to test and investigate China's intentions.
As Cooper and Brands rightly argue, it is believed that by mobilizing coalitions of like-minded actors on key issues, the United States can test Chinese intentions on economic, technological, and geopolitical issues by offsetting the pressures to increase costs and the Making decisions Beijing makes – enough to accept outcomes where there is a balance between US and Chinese interests that either can live with.
With the US government abandoning international institutions (such as the World Health Organization, the Paris Agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership) and addressing economic and technological issues mostly bilaterally until recently, no one knows what influence a like-minded coalition such as The Square Security Dialogue on Security Issues or Like-minded business partners on trade and technology rules could have this.
Cooper and Brands raise a fair question as to whether this approach can work. The honest answer is: we don't know because no serious coalition diplomacy has been attempted. For four years, the anger phase under Trump was a downward spiral of malicious rhetoric and reactions as well as a deepening of official and popular distrust and skepticism on both sides.
It is not a given that Chinese President Xi Jinping's current policies are immutable. At the 19th Congress in 2017, the CCP reversed its promise that markets "should play a crucial role in the allocation of resources." Instead, Xi opted for a new, hybrid party-state capitalism. Why couldn't it change again?
The authors' essay lacks any discussion of the actual results of Trump's China policy, which apparently sought to end the CCP. The net effect of the Trump tariffs and sanctions was the loss of jobs in the US and a decline in US manufacturing. Aside from an unfulfilled trade deal that benefited US farmers and the steel industry, Trump's approach was marked by a rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which both the George W. Bush administration and Barack Obama considered a pillar of the US-Asia Strategy was viewed – was a net profit for Beijing.
China was the only major economy with positive growth in 2020. It is thriving with a buoyant currency, industrial growth, and billions of dollars pouring into the recently opened financial markets. Meanwhile, the United States has effectively evacuated the Asia-Pacific Economic Area.
The only area of economic coercion in the US that harmed China was technical sanctions. While Huawei and other information technology and semiconductor companies have been hard hit and have suffered short-term losses, there are fears that this could be counterproductive in the long term as Beijing will receive further incentives to launch its Made in China 2025 campaign to achieve self-sufficient IT Industry to accelerate.
This leads to what the authors acknowledge to be a mystery to Cooper-Brands' preferred theory of victory: the essential coalition of European and Asian allies to balance China is reluctant to sign a US strategy that is supposed to lead to the failure of the regime . This is a conundrum that they lack a straight answer. Indeed, they are not wondering whether a weak, unraveled China, which does not drive global growth as it has before, destabilizes global markets, generates flows of refugees and potentially leads to unsecured nuclear weapons when rival factions compete, would be Beijing in the interests of the United States?
Coexistence in competition has more realistic goals and is more attractive for coalition partners. Of course, it is possible that the Middle Kingdom's state of emergency has its own hubris and that Beijing and Washington will fall into the "Thucydides trap" at some point. All in all, however, the strategic logic of the situation in China suggests that the two great powers must find a way for better or for worse to coexist.