Recent revelations that China is building large numbers of missile silos, coupled with the ongoing expansion of its nuclear capabilities, have triggered a number of debates about the future of the U.S.-China relationship. It is valuable to point out that even given the growth in China's arsenal, the United States will retain a huge numerical advantage, just as it is to note that China can already achieve regional military superiority.
A dialogue on nuclear arms control with China's participation remains imperative, but a continued focus on the military dimension of the competition risks obscuring what is really at stake. Instead, the main goal when crafting a China strategy should be a focus on the democratic ideals of freedom and communication.
U.S.-Chinese competition plays out in multiple arenas, of which the military sphere is but one, and perhaps not even the most important. Disagreements over following international trade rules, respecting human rights and protecting intellectual property have a more immediate impact and should be addressed. The potential destruction that a military conflict would visit upon both sides makes it imperative to avoid one, yet there is a bigger issue: The nature of how humans will relate to one another in the latter part of the 21st Century and beyond.
A controversy arose in 2019 about the construction of 5G digital networks and the near monopoly held by the Chinese electronics firm Huawei in many areas. The United States and many western governments were concerned that Huawei's ties to the Chinese government could expose data processed on Huawei-supplied networks to collection and possible manipulation. At the same time, Huawei has completed billions in sales to developing countries based on the efficacy of its equipment for surveillance and network control.
This issue points out the key area of the great power competition: how digital networks will be used. The internet was designed as a means to facilitate communication, initially among academic institutions, but later, between people in general. It has largely lived up to its promise and has become an essential aspect of 21st Century life, but at the same time, with success has come abuse. Use of networks for criminal activity or to distribute false, inflammatory or offensive information has led to efforts to regulate activity and limit abuses.
This is where the challenge lies. Some level of regulation is necessary to prevent misuse of digital networks. China, however, uses the need for appropriate regulation to advance a version of network architectures that enhance the abilities of governments to oversee and even control the lives of their citizens — an Orwellian bargain that some are willing to accept. This is a vital element of the great power competition between the United States and China, a choice between two competing visions for how communications networks should be used. Will network technology be used to facilitate the flows of information and ideas between people, or will it be used to control those flows and the lives of citizens? The answer should inform how new generations of network architecture are designed.
Open debates about policy decisions are essential to the functioning of democratic systems — as is public criticism of governments — but these attributes are deemed to be threats to the rule of the Chinese Communist Party, which promotes government control of information. Should we make the mistake of focusing only on military competition with China, we hand a victory to the advocates of state control. This is not to say that China's military and nuclear buildup is not of concern— especially to China's neighbors — but the leadership in Beijing likely views the possibility of its citizens gaining unfettered access to democratic ideas as more immediately threatening than U.S. missile defenses or nuclear modernization.
The increase in nuclear weapons is still a matter of importance, and dialogue with China on avoiding a potential arms race remains necessary. Competition with China, however, will not be won with weapons, even though the military dimension tends to grab headlines. This could be a strategy of misdirection from Beijing or a default in the United States to the Cold War modes of thinking we understand.
Either way, we should shift the focus away from preparing for a war that would be destructive to all parties. Maintaining a military that can deter conflict should be an element of an overall strategy, but it is one that is already largely in place and is irrelevant to the competition of ideas.
John Erath is the senior policy director for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, overseeing the policy team and guiding work on issues including Iran, Russia, North Korea, China, U.S. domestic nuclear policy, and more. This follows 30 years of government service, much of it in arms control and non-proliferation.