Strategic competition beyond confrontation with China

Strategic competition beyond confrontation with China
© Getty Images

The Trump administration is undertaking a historic reorientation of U.S. policy towards China. The 2018 National Defense Strategy highlighted the “reemergence of long-term, strategic competition” as the “central challenge” for American national security. Calling for an open acknowledgement of the reality of this competition, Matt Pottinger, senior director for East Asia on the National Security Council, has quoted Confucius in saying, “If names cannot be correct, then language is not in accordance with the truth of things. And if language is not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.” 

Such clarity and candor should be welcomed in U.S.-China relations. It is necessary and appropriate to undertake a recalibration of the relationship through more forceful responses to Beijing’s predatory and problematic behavior.


The United States and China are entering a new era in which rivalry and confrontation may extend across all dimensions of this relationship. Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceBest path to Jan. 6 accountability: A civil suit against Trump Biden trails generic Republican in new poll, would face tight race against Trump Jan. 6 panel's subpoena furthers complications for Rudy Giuliani, DOJ MORE’s recent remarks on policy towards China highlighted issues of real and serious concern, including China’s “economic aggression,” military modernization, and covert influence and interference. The frictions are ever more apparent, with the reemergence of the South China Sea as a potential flashpoint and the trade war, which continues with no end in sight.

Increasingly, there is talk of a “divorce” or “decoupling” in the U.S.-China economic relationship, motivated by concerns that current levels of entanglement result in dangerous vulnerabilities, including in supply chains. The risks are real and should be managed appropriately, but the United States also must recognize the benefits of continued cooperation, which can enhance American innovation and competitiveness. While the rivalry is starting to be seen as a new “cold war,” this relationship constitutes a much more difficult challenge, given its complexity and interdependence.

Looking forward, American competitive strategy should not concentrate predominantly on confrontation. Pence’s call for “defending our interests with renewed American strength” does reflect a justified response to China’s emergence as a challenger to the current global order and U.S. national interests. However, the policies prioritized so far by this administration primarily have concentrated on reactive and defensive responses, from his emphasis on “making the strongest military in the history of the world stronger still,” to the imposition of tariffs and the strengthening of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) to increase oversight over Chinese investments.

U.S. leaders also must articulate a vision for competition that concentrates on revitalizing U.S. power — an American rejuvenation to contend with China’s own quest for “national rejuvenation.” For example, the United States should indeed, as Pence mentioned, undertake targeted countermeasures against Beijing’s “predatory practice” of tech transfer. The recent arrest and extradition of a Chinese intelligence officer from the Ministry of State Security (MSS), who has been charged with economic espionage, constitutes an apt response to China’s strategy of industrial espionage. However, success in new frontiers of economic and military-technological competition, from biotechnology to artificial intelligence and quantum technology, can be achieved only through going on the offensive.

At the core of a strategy for great power competition must be a quest to enhance American competitiveness through policies that focus on investing in our own future. These imperatives range from education and infrastructure to robustly supporting basic research in today’s strategic technologies.

Competition with China must start at home. That is, investing in science and education is no less important than investing in military dominance. Moreover, letting China provoke us into over- spending on our military could result in the U.S. falling prey to the same competitive strategies that we employed with success against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Our vital advantage has been, and remains, the vitality, openness and inclusivity of our innovation ecosystems. This must be enabled and sustained by immigration policies that welcome talent from around the world. For example, to the extent that an “AI arms race” and race for quantum supremacy are emerging between the United States and China, today’s primary battlefield is talent. As such, rather than contemplating denying student visas to Chinese nationals, the United States should continue to welcome Chinese students and scientists, especially at a time when the human rights situation in China is deteriorating.

We must compete without compromising what makes America truly great. Our commitment to human rights and democracy — at home and abroad — should remain a core pillar of American strategy. Yet there are reasons for fear and dismay about the direction of policy and politics under the current administration. Can a strategy withstand such inherent tensions and contradictions? It is imperative to recommit to living up to our principles and strengthening our democratic institutions, now more than ever. In this regard, U.S. national security strategy cannot be disentangled from domestic politics and policy.

At worst, recent events mark a troubling turn in U.S.-China relations that risks escalation. At best, this rivalry could become a critical catalyst for the revitalization of American democracy and innovation, at a time of crisis and uncertainty.

Elsa B. Kania is an adjunct fellow with the nonprofit Center for a New American Security’s Technology and National Security Program. She is an independent consultant and co-founder of the China Cyber and Intelligence Studies Institute (CCISI). Follow her on Twitter @ebkania.