Last month, the White House released the Biden administration’s first National Security Strategy (NSS). The forty-eight-page document articulates core U.S. interests, threats, and the administration’s strategy to respectively achieve and meet those. Unsurprisingly, the NSS, like the previous one, mentions a compendium of threats to Washington’s national security, with strategic competition with Beijing and Moscow at the apex. Apropos of threats emanating from Beijing, the NSS is clear that they permeate domains and regions, and therefore are global in scope. The document recognizes that China “is the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it.” This assessment becomes all the more meaningful when it is seen as an important plank of Washington’s bid to protect its interests and advance its global vision. All this, coupled with how China is mentioned elsewhere in the NSS, makes it a must-read for Sino-U.S. relations watchers. The NSS commits the United States to attenuating the Chinese threat through investments at home, actions in concert with allies and partners, and responsible competition with China. If this set of enunciations in the NSS is anything to go by, there are at least two phenomena that could become more pronounced in the brewing acrimony between Washington and Beijing.
First, the cumulative strength of alliances and partnerships will shape Sino-U.S. relations going forward. This is primarily because, for the United States, solidifying ties with allies and partners is critical to reconfiguring the contours of an inclusive, rules-based world. That China is dubbed the biggest hurdle in doing that is reason enough to believe that cooperative mechanisms will be devised, with a view to stopping that country’s meteoric rise. Allies and partners, it must be stressed, will be assisted and courted with a bevy of inducements, ranging from economic to health. Moreover, they are an important cog in Washington’s concept of integrated deterrence, which aims to exact deterrence vis-à-vis its principal adversaries in Beijing and Moscow.
According to the NSS, integration with Washington’s allies and partners can be achieved “through investments in interoperability and joint capability development, cooperative posture planning, and coordinated diplomatic and economic approaches.” Therefore, alliances and groupings like AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom, United States) and the Quadrilateral Security Group (Quad, between India, Japan, Australia, and the United States) will be harnessed so as to enable them to act as bulwarks against China. Here, it is important to mention that the militarization of these alliances will but be a natural outcome. This is reasonable to argue, not least because the United States, cognizant of China’s military prowess, wants to modernize its even otherwise strong military. Also, it wishes to deepen collaboration with allies and partners, especially when it comes to joint capability development. Whether or not these militaristic engagements will be able to negate the effects of China’s strategic investments in its periphery, the Indo-Pacific region, and elsewhere, remains to be seen. That said, allies and partners will be asked to do more. However, it might not be easy for all U.S. allies to pull the plug on China simply because of their burgeoning trade relations with Beijing. Lo and behold, the milieu will become more chaotic and unstable, to say the least.
Second, the race to dominate the technological realm will be key to Sino-U.S. relations going forward. This phenomenon is more critical for the United States than it is for China given that the latter has surged ahead in manufacturing key technologies, including but not limited to semiconductors. What’s more, it is believed that China is poised to take a healthy lead in developing war-related technologies, primarily because it is, according to analysts, applying new substance materials, with a view to boosting their performances. One of the achievements which speaks to China’s advancements in this realm is that, last year, it successfully tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile. Catching U.S. intelligence by surprise, the test demonstrated China’s space capabilities.
All this, it must be stressed, is not lost on the Biden administration. It is mindful of China’s wherewithal to alter the rules of the road. Therefore, the NSS lays greater emphasis on meeting complex threats posed by China through, among other things, the modernization of its military. The United States wants to strengthen its deterrent and war-fighting capabilities, with a view to confronting China. Here, two things are noteworthy. First, the United States realizes full well that emerging technologies, owing to their impacts on the conduct and outcomes of war, lie at the heart of it all when it comes to force modernization. Two, with the United States committing itself to winning wars should diplomacy fail, it is expected that technologies more suited for battlefield operations will draw the administration’s attention. All this, coupled with a renewed focus on upgrading its industrial capacity, suggests that the United States will expend more time and energy on ensuring that China does not take a decisive lead in enmeshing emerging technologies in its deterrent and compellent toolkits.
Taken together, these two factors will make Sino-U.S. relations all the more turbulent. In fact, targeting Beijing through allies, partners, and aggressive interventions in the technological landscape will adversely impact Washington’s bid to act responsibly in its ties with China. Resultantly, managing this competition will become arduous, and, above all, cooperation on issues of common concern, not least climate change, will be minimal and marred by mistrust. Also, with technology-led military modernization being brought into Washington’s integrated deterrence framework, the prospect of having substantive discussions on arms control will reduce precipitously. This, in and of itself, will not bode well for Sino-U.S. strategic stability.
Indeed, the absence of dialogue will exacerbate existing fears that have arisen due to misperceptions. For example, whereas China dubs ambiguity critical to enhancing deterrence, the United States finds it to be deleterious. Further, an action-reaction cycle between the two, coupled with the growing entanglement of conventional and nuclear platforms, is raising many concerns about the future of Sino-U.S. nuclear rivalry. However, there is nothing in the NSS that could assuage such apprehensions and misgivings. In fact, the NSS should worry peaceniks. Therefore, it would be reasonable to expect that Washington and Beijing will find newer avenues to play geoeconomics, geopolitics, and a combination of both. Menacingly, the more muscles they flex, the harder it would be for them to manage their relations going forward. The NSS, one must say, makes it abundantly clear where the Biden administration stands on China.
Syed Ali Zia Jaffery is a Research Associate at the Center for Security, Strategy and Policy Research (CSSPR), University of Lahore.