Opinion / Strategy

Bad Idea: Competing with China (without Knowing What Winning Looks Like)

Bad Ideas in National Security Series

Today, the world seems awash in bad ideas. This abundance of bad ideas is compounded every day by new ‘bad’ ideas, many of which seem to come in the form of pithy 280-character snack-bites—every bit the intellectual empty calories as the holiday candy we are preparing to consume in truly American portions.

Amid this growing competition for bad ideas, one seems to stand out: competing with China without knowing what winning looks like.

The 2017 National Security Strategy makes clear that the United States must once again compete if it is to retain its position as a world leader. China and Russia are now seeking to advance their access, influence, and power, and are doing so at the expense of the United States (and other countries). As China’s wealth and influence have grown, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has reneged on commitments for a freer, more open economy; it has persuaded or bullied countries into sidelining discussions of issues China doesn’t like—including its re-establishment of domestic internment camps—all while systematically devoting state resources to commercial espionage to grow Chinese companies at the expense of foreign-based free-market competition. Most recently, China’s efforts with its supposedly civilian-infrastructure-focused Belt and Road Initiative have come under scrutiny for emphasizing military projects. These are all real problems, not just for the United States, but for the continued prosperity of many countries around the world that depend on trade. Recently, the foreign policy community in Washington has used terms like the rules-based international order to describe this system. In Asia, this administration’s term for a policy whose objective is political equality between states, where all are free to trade equally, and where there are no big counties and small countries is the Free and Open Indo-Pacific.

For all these reasons, the United States should be competing with China. Competing is not the problem. What is a problem is competing without a concept of what success in that competition would look like. If the United States is going to engage seriously in a competition with China, that effort will be long-term. The CCP leadership is (currently) united. China’s population has been uniformly indoctrinated with the Communist Party line for the past 69 years. Its public is now awakened to the possibilities of rising standards of living, and they have decided they would prefer to keep their modern comforts. Competing against such a population will require the United States—and average Americans—to understand what changes we seek from China, what we are willing to risk to achieve those changes, and why. With luck, the competition will not look like the Cold War and will stay well back from the brink of becoming a hot war.

So, let me be clear: I fully support competing with China. However, the current U.S. approach seems to be a combination of the proverbial, “ready, Fire!, aim” and Monty Python’s Argument Clinic sketch, where the reflexive U.S. position is to “automatically gainsay” whatever the CCP proposes.

U.S. actions over the past three years to confront the CCP about actions that undermine U.S. interests have generally been much-needed efforts to inject correctives into the relationship, including the multi-country announcement of efforts to stop cyber-espionage. However, at best, they have generally appeared to be ad-hoc. In other cases, they have been self-inflicted wounds on U.S influence (and economic benefit) in the region. An example of ad-hoc efforts is the trade war—first launched against suppliers of steel and aluminum (including many U.S. allies) and then against broader CCP policies—which seems to have eroded an important policy-amplifier by targeting U.S. allies first and China second. U.S. withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal provided China an opening to double-down on its messaging to its neighbors in Asia that the United States is not interested in their long-term prosperity.

Whether it is called the Free and Open Indo-Pacific, or the Rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, it is clear that successive U.S. administrations recognize that long-term U.S. prosperity, security, and influence, will rest largely on its ability to be present and relevant in the Indo-Pacific region.

Friends in the administration rightly point out that they are not able to wait for a perfect theory of victory before acting. Ensuring their efforts endure beyond their tenure in office will require, at a minimum, laying a foundation that can be built upon by their successors. Let me offer a few items that could contribute to the first layer in that foundation.

First, be clear about who and what the United States opposes. The United States will not benefit by opposing the Chinese people. Quite the contrary. The millions of Americans who have spent more than a passing tourist week in China can attest that the Chinese people are warm, welcoming, and industrious. U.S. policymakers should be clear that it is not China that it opposes, but the CCP and its policies that force countries to choose between their prosperity and their sovereignty, policies that are not mutually beneficial but lead to debt-traps for countries most vulnerable to that type of coercion. One good way to do this would be, as my colleagues Zack Cooper and Samm Sacks suggest, ensuring that U.S. universities remain open to China’s best and brightest. Equally important is to be clear that the United States opposes internment or incarceration based on race, religion, or profession (like human rights lawyers)—or their children.

Second, the United States should be clear about what it expects of China. This could cover a wide range of issues: simple WTO compliance, the cessation of cyber espionage and other cyber activities, enforcement of UN Security Council Resolutions on North Korean weapons of mass-destruction programs, upholding China’s constitutional commitment (and UN signatory-status) on human rights, and adherence to the UN arbitral tribunal ruling on China’s rights in the South China Sea and related abandonment of its militarized artificial islands.

Third, define a minimal acceptable outcome. The United States should be explicit about what a minimally acceptable outcome looks like. Does it look like a policy change from Beijing; a series of verifiable, difficult-to-reverse actions from the CCP leadership; or a change in the CCP leadership? Each one of these outcomes presentsinherent risks and consequences both within Beijing and in Washington. Having a clear concept of which of these outcomes is actually sought will help in thinking through how to approach the CCP and how to plan for a next-phase in U.S.-China relations.

Fourth, begin to develop a framework for response and engagement. Whether this is partly or fully public, it is important for policymakers and leaders in the appropriate congressional committees to have an understanding of the types of activities the United States is, or might, undertake to protect its interests and engage fully in the competition. The framework, or at least parts of it, should be communicated to the American public if they are to understand the potential risks and consequences of the approach being undertaken. Having a clear understanding of both how much the United States is willing to risk of itself and what it is willing to expend fiscally and diplomatically to compel a response, are important issues that need to be known—at least at some level of specificity—before a concerted effort is undertaken.

If the United States is truly planning for a competition with China—and I believe it should be—it will need to plan for a long-term effort. The planning and concept should be clear about who and what are opposed, what the United States expects from China to avoid conflict escalation, the minimal acceptable change it seeks from the CCP, and how far the United States is willing to go.

Undoubtedly other elements will be necessary in developing a plan or strategy that is ultimately successful. These four elements, however, represent the initial steps that can be taken now to both advance the agenda and lay the groundwork for the next steps in the competition.

(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Scott Swofford)