The U.S. Doesn’t Need China’s Collapse to Win
A misguided theory of great-power competition will only lead to grief.
I often think of the evolution of U.S.-China policy as the five stages of grief. The United States was too long in denial, unwilling to admit that Washington’s long-standing assumptions about Beijing had proved wrong. Then came former U.S. President Donald Trump’s reckoning and anger for unbridled strategic competition. And now, U.S. President Joe Biden mostly continues that, though he may be headed toward the bargaining stage. I suspect depression will soon follow, though I wonder about getting to acceptance.
But what, exactly, is the goal of current U.S. strategy toward China? Is there a 21st century Cold War-Kennan approach? This month in Foreign Policy, Zack Cooper and Hal Brands argued that “Washington has accepted the reality of competition without identifying a theory of victory.” Perhaps. But maybe that is good, given their idea of victory.
Cooper and Brands explore the directions Biden’s “extreme competition” might go. The authors rightly explain that “there are many possible outcomes to the Sino-American competition, from the United States ceding a sphere of influence to China, to mutual accommodation, to Chinese collapse, to a devastating global conflict.”
Cooper and Brands consider the dilemmas and contradictions inherent in the spectrum of possible strategies, most of them derivative of two basic approaches: competitive coexistence and U.S. dominance. To their credit, there is much thoughtful discussion of the China conundrum and an acknowledgement that there are no easy answers. However, with the help of a few strawmen and flawed assumptions, they advise that “competitive coexistence” will fail—or can only succeed if it results in a change in how China is governed. In the end, they point toward the zero-sum argument, captured in the title “America Will Only Win When China’s Regime Fails.”
To unpack their argument is to illuminate the flawed assumptions guiding post-engagement thinking about China. First, in this universe, it is 1992 forever. For Cooper and Brands, the United States has perpetual primacy and the agency to shape the fate of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). One question that should be foundational to the calculus of U.S. strategy is rarely asked: What does the U.S. government consider China’s legitimate interests? The authors’ theory of victory suggests the Chinese could be forgiven for thinking the answer is none that do not acquiesce to U.S. primacy.
Yet for a reemerging China, shifting the global economic and geopolitical balance is a stark reality. However, in their telling, the long-term trend of a shrinking gap between U.S. and Chinese economic, technological, and military power is absent. You’d never guess that given a China with a mature and growing nuclear arsenal with a survivable second-strike capability, some form of coexistence and balance of power might be a state of equilibrium both sides have to live with. What stable order in the modern era has not been based on some balance of power? And why don’t the similar limits of power that forced the United States to live with the Soviet Union apply to China?
A concern among some analysts is—as two current policymakers, Kurt Campbell and Jake Sullivan, argued in a 2019 Foreign Affairs essay—an assumption that competition, unlike engagement, can transform China. They worried that “in the rush to embrace competition, policymakers may be substituting a new variety of wishful thinking for the old.” Campbell, Sullivan, and other senior Biden officials, aware of the risks of unmitigated confrontation, appear more focused on how to manage competition to find a balance friendly to U.S. interests.
Cooper and Brands have a strawman definition of what proponents of competitive coexistence, seen as the least bad option, have in mind. They write, “advocates of competitive coexistence believe the United States can eventually change the minds of Chinese leaders, convincing them not to seek regional preeminence and upset the U.S.-led international order in Asia and beyond.”
Speaking as one of those advocates, I beg to differ. One can always get lucky; Chinese empires have come and gone over the past 4,000 years. But change in China is far more likely to result from internal pressures and contradictions than from U.S. endeavors. A well-conceived strategy of competitive coexistence is not a Cold War containment-style outcome but rather an effort to manage competition to fashion a strategic balance, irrespective of regime type.
It does not assume the CCP will necessarily mellow over time or that it will reconcile itself to U.S. predominance. It does assume that China has bet its future on a globalized economy, of which it constituted only about 18 percent in 2019. To date, Beijing has been selectively revisionist, seeking, like most great powers, to tilt the institutions of international order toward its interests.
The logic of competitive coexistence is tempered by the Hobbesian reality of two major powers, each possessing the nuclear and advanced technologies to destroy each other. It does not assume, as the authors apparently do, that Beijing’s clearly demonstrated ambitions are necessarily the same as its bottom line. The point of U.S. diplomacy should be to test and probe China’s intentions.
It does assume, as Cooper and Brands correctly argue, that by mobilizing coalitions of like-minded actors on key issues, the United States can test Chinese intentions on economic, technological, and geopolitical issues with counterbalancing pressure to raise the costs and shape the choices Beijing makes—enough to accept outcomes where there is a balance of U.S. and Chinese interests that both can live with.
As the U.S. government had, until recently, exited international institutions (like the World Health Organization, Paris Agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership) and addressed economic and tech issues mainly bilaterally, no one knows what leverage a like-minded coalition, such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue on security matters, or like-minded economic partners on trade and tech rules might have.
Cooper and Brands raise a fair question about whether this approach can work. The honest answer is we don’t know because serious coalition diplomacy hasn’t been tried. The anger stage under Trump was four years of a tit-for tat downward spiral of spiteful rhetoric and reactions as well as deepening official and popular distrust and skepticism on both sides.
It is not a given that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s current policies are immutable. The CCP has reversed its promise at the 2017 19th Party Congress, that markets should “play a decisive role in allocating resources.” Instead, Xi chose a new, hybrid party-state capitalism. Why could it not change again?
Missing from the authors’ essay is any discussion of the actual results of Trump’s China policy, which did appear to seek an end to the CCP. The net effect of Trump tariffs and sanctions has been a loss of U.S. jobs and a decline in U.S. manufacturing. Other than an unfulfilled trade deal that has benefited U.S. farmers and the steel industry, Trump’s approach, marked by a rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership—which both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations viewed as a pillar of U.S.-Asia strategy—was a net benefit to 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 recently opened financial markets. Meanwhile, the United States has effectively vacated the Asia-Pacific economic space.
The one area of U.S. economic coercion that hurt China was tech sanctions. While Huawei and other information technology and semiconductor firms were hit hard and suffered short-term losses, the fear is it may be counterproductive in the long term as Beijing will be further incentivized to accelerate its Made in China 2025 campaign to achieve an autarchic IT industry.
This leads to what the authors acknowledge is a conundrum for the Cooper-Brands preferred theory of victory: that the essential coalition of European and Asian allies to counterbalance China are reluctant to sign onto a U.S. strategy designed to result in regime failure. This is a conundrum where they lack a clear answer. Indeed, they fail to confront the question of whether a weak, unraveling China, that—rather than driving global growth, as it has been—would destabilize global markets, produce refugee flows, and perhaps lead to unsecured nuclear weapons as contending factions compete in Beijing, and would that be in the United States’ interest?
Competitive coexistence has more realistic goals and is more attractive to coalition partners. Of course, it is possible that Middle Kingdom exceptionalism has its own hubris, and Beijing and Washington will eventually get caught in the “Thucydides Trap.” However, all things considered, the strategic logic of the China predicament suggests that, for better or worse, the two major powers will have to find a way of coexisting.
Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council and a former official in the U.S. Department of State during the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @Rmanning4