Opinion / Strategy

Bad Idea: China-Driven U.S. Strategy

U.S. national security strategy is overly consumed with China to the detriment of broad global interests. A strategic overcorrection has put China at the center of virtually every U.S. national security conversation and consideration. That positioning is at once distracting the United States from appropriately responding to growing trans-regional geopolitical volatility while also failing to achieve outcomes in U.S. China policy.

In the day-to-day execution of U.S. statecraft, China mania has contributed to a distracted approach to overseeing active U.S. combat operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan, punctuated by episodes of triage as relative neglect leads to crisis. Rather than taking the time to conduct a strategic review of what it would take to responsibly redirect resources from focusing on global counterterrorism to managing great power competition, the United States is trying to jump from one speeding train onto another.

A single-minded, non-consultative focus on China has imperiled U.S. alliances—arguably the greatest tool with which to confront China. U.S. Asian allies and partners feel that the United States is forcing them by dictate to immediately choose sides. They are unready and unwilling to do so in light of questions surrounding the United States’ enduring commitment to the region. Many European allies fear that the United States has moved on in its global commitments, discounting the transatlantic alliance and pushing them to self-reliance, as reflected in the now infamous Macron interview.

U.S. adversaries are exploiting the narrowing aperture and appetite of U.S. strategy as well. Despite a professed accompanying focus on Russia in a great power competition context in U.S. strategic guidance documents, U.S. de facto obsession with China has emboldened Russia. Moscow has exploited the opportunity of a distracted and insecure United States, stepping up regional and country engagement wherever U.S. retreat occurs, from the Middle East to Africa. Meanwhile, Beijing and Moscow alike see opportunity to triangulate relations with Washington just as Washington once did to them, deepening ties in ways unseen since the 1950s. The Pentagon has felt that by simply saying “China and Russia” in one breath, it can avoid the difficult work of disentangling the very different challenges these countries pose, let alone the challenges of North Korea, Iran, and a host of non-state actors.

None of this is to say that China is not a major challenge deserving of significant attention, and coherent U.S. strategy. The People’s Republic of China, under the control of the Chinese Communist Party, poses an immediate threat to the international order. Its authoritarian system of government, mercantilism, and highly selective reading of history pose a risk to basic freedoms of expression, intellectual property rights, and norms surrounding the use of emerging technologies. Its system of government disregards the individual, lends itself to broad corruption, and undermines the global free-market system that propelled its own rise. Its military is increasingly lethal and aggressive toward its neighbors and in disputed areas. All of its worst inclinations have accelerated under the one-man-rule of Xi Jinping.

But the charge remains that U.S. strategy has gone from being too unrealistic and underweight in its policy towards China to being overly consumed with it. That is caused by two principal factors. First, U.S. policymakers fell comfortably back into a Cold War paradigm with China when it became abundantly clear that China was developing contrary to U.S. interests around 2013-2014. Throughout its history, the United States has struggled to “walk and chew gum at the same time” when it comes to strategy formulation and execution. Despite its uniquely global interests, the United States has a longstanding preference to focus on one region or adversary at a time. (The fact that it spent the 2000s obsessed with counterterrorism and placed Iraq at the center of foreign policy at the expense of many other regions and issues, including China’s rise, are a case in point.) Moreover, the United States likes to declare victory and move on. The only reference point in U.S. history for enduring hostilities or threat is the U.S.-Soviet Cold War. It is therefore understandable, if regrettable, that U.S. policymakers have placed China into a Cold War paradigm complete with efforts to economically decouple.

Second, the U.S. foreign policy community is hobbled by a simplistic, commonly held model of the current outlay of geopolitical power. That model understates the relative capacity of the United States and its allies and partners and overstates that of a rising China. Foreign policy elites are seized with the rapid aging of Europe, Japan, and South Korea, and the growing economic and technological power of China. They spend far less time considering that the United States and its allies still constitute more than two-thirds of global GDP, control the lion’s share of proven technology innovation and R&D capacity, and still possess a combined qualitative and quantitative conventional military edge over China. Less consideration is also given to the increasing obstacles facing China, from demographics to global pushback to its outward activities, nearly all of which it must face alone without any meaningful alliances. The United States and its allies preserve remarkable advantages to exercise global leadership through shared action.

Thinking beyond these twin biases driving an incorrect approach, what is the right U.S. strategy in the world and vis-à-vis China? The corporate world offers some useful lessons. When Apple rose to become the most valuable publicly-traded company in the world under Steve Jobs’s second stint as CEO, it first stopped trying to beat Microsoft and PC manufacturers. It chose instead a strategy of market innovation—of building on its strengths and identity and pioneering entirely new products and approaches. And when Microsoft in recent years overtook Apple in market capitalization once more under the leadership of current CEO Satya Nadella, it chose not to be a second mover responding to others’ innovations but a trailblazer in cloud computing and return to its core strength in software. The two now regularly swap top spots—they are both leading. The best way to win in a competition is to focus on one’s own performance, and to build on existing strengths rather than dwell on weaknesses or relative shifts in the overall environment. The United States therefore needs to decide what it wants to be in this century based on its values and unique advantages. After having done so, it can consider the threats that competitors pose to it and seek to reduce those risks.

This is the inverse of current U.S. strategy making where risks—China foremost among them—are a first-order consideration without adequate consideration of strengths and opportunities in a rapidly changing global operating environment. A clean-slate strategy review would undoubtedly reveal that the most valuable of the United States’ unique endowments are its system of alliances, its innovation base, and its alignment with universal human rights. While its share of global power has declined in a relative sense along with that of its allies, the United States is still the global pace setter. It should look to itself, not China, to develop national vision and strategy for the decades ahead. And it should not be bogged down in the history of the Cold War, but should instead take stock of the trends shaping the future, across many of which it remains a leader.

(Photo Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Erwin Miciano)


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Samuel Brannen, "Bad Idea: China-Driven U.S. Strategy," Center for Strategic and International Studies, December 3, 2019, last modified December 3, 2019, https://defense360.csis.org/bad-idea-china-driven-u-s-strategy/.