And what of China? Most U.S. observers now believe that it constitutes the central challenge to U.S. preeminence. While Beijing is not an adversary, the contours of an intense, long-term, multifaceted competition between the two countries are crystallizing, beginning with China’s military modernization. American observers are increasingly concerned that its growing investments in anti-access/area-denial technologies are intended to undermine the U.S. maritime presence in the Asia-Pacific, and that its growing reclamation and fortification of islands in the South China Sea will give it de facto control of an area through which over a fifth of the world’s maritime trade passes. While its emerging capabilities are still concentrated primarily on the Asia-Pacific, Xi Jinping wants Beijing to “turn itself into a modernized power by 2035” and possess “a top-tier military by 2050.” As its economic interests grow more global, so does its military presence. China established its first overseas military base in 2017, in Djibouti; is reportedly planning to build another one, near Pakistan’s Gwadar Port; and, according to the Afghan government, intends to finance the construction of one in Badakhshan.
China’s economic progress is arguably of even greater concern to the United States. Beijing is on track to displace Washington in absolute economic size well before the middle of this century. It appears intent on constructing and anchoring an expansive Eurasian economic order, especially as seen with its work on the Belt and Road (BRI) initiative. Having been included in the International Monetary Fund’s basket of special drawing rights, the renminbi is embarking on a slow but concerted push to become a global reserve currency. Finally, Beijing is taking significant steps to boost its indigenous economic capacity; its spending on research and development increased over thirty-fold between 1995 and 2013, and the government recently announced a strategy that aims to have China become the world’s foremost leader in artificial intelligence by 2030. There is also an appreciable risk that growing trade tensions between Washington and Beijing could yield security ones; the United States increasingly regards China’s technological ambitions as a threat to its national security, while China believes that its existing degree of economic dependence on the U.S. economy gives the United States an unacceptable measure of leverage over its economy. Given that trade interdependence has been one of the few restraints to date on their competition, an erosion of that connective tissue could thrust their relationship into a far more uncertain, potentially escalatory, phase.
Finally, an erstwhile muted ideological component of U.S.-China relations is acquiring more salience. The Chinese Communist Party’s move to end presidential term limits means that President Xi could well rule over China for as long as he lives. His policies to date suggest that Beijing’s increasing integration into the global economy, far from inducing it to temper its domestic illiberalism, has made it more confident in its authoritarianism. At the first session of the 13th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, he called Chinese governance “a great contribution to political civilization of humanity” and argued that democratic governance, “confined by interests of different political parties, classes, regions, and groups, tears society apart.” In “Document 9,” moreover, issued in April 2013, senior Party leaders warned that China had to counter “Western forces hostile to China,” including the promulgation of “constitutional democracy” and “universal values” of human rights. China is also becoming more aggressive in its crackdown on political dissidents and ethnic minorities.
In the aggregate, then, while most U.S. observers continue to emphasize both the competitive and cooperative elements of U.S.-China relations, they increasingly fear that the former are overtaking the latter.
Still, it is a leap too far to conclude that the United States is in a new Cold War with China. America’s confrontation with the Soviet Union spanned the entire world; today, however, Washington is the lone superpower, while Beijing remains a regional power, albeit one with an increasingly global footprint. Middle powers have far more room to benefit from U.S.-China rivalry than they did from U.S.-Soviet rivalry: they can increase their diplomatic and security ties with the United States while boosting their trade and investment relations with China. Beijing is not undertaking to export revolutionary ideology in the way that Moscow did. The United States and China have also achieved an extraordinary level of economic interdependence over the past four decades, and especially since China’s accession to the WTO in 2001. In addition, notes the Brookings Institution’s Cheng Li, even as the two countries
become increasingly suspicious of one another’s strategic intentions, contact between the two nations has never been broader, deeper, and more frequent than it is today—whether it be at the head of state, military, think tank, sub-national, commercial, educational, cultural, or tourism level.
Because the core of U.S.-China rivalry is economic and technological, not militaristic and ideological, there is greater room for pragmatic cooperation.
China recognizes that the Soviet Union erred by launching a frontal military and ideological assault on the prevailing order; it is more likely to develop its global footprint by building infrastructure than by deploying its armed forces or attempting to inculcate its ideology in distant countries. While it is pressing for greater reforms within the current system and developing a parallel architecture on the outside, it is not agitating for the system’s collapse. There is also little evidence thus far that China seeks to be a superpower in the U.S. mold.
While skeptical observers might not be as sanguine, China has real, increasingly manifest vulnerabilities at home and abroad. Protracted trade tensions with the United States have exposed frailties in Beijing’s economy, beginning with its gross debt, which grew from 171 percent of gross domestic product in the first quarter of 2008 to 299 percent in the first quarter of 2018. A confluence of phenomena—the aforementioned trade tensions, the recent collapse of a wave of peer-to-peer lending schemes, a grim demographic outlook and a scandal over tainted vaccines, among them—has dented the halo of invincibility around Xi’s rule.
Abroad, the BRI is encountering growing pushback, with a striking recent example coming from Malaysia. Announcing that he was canceling two Chinese-funded projects worth some $22 billion, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad declared: “We do not want a situation where there is a new version of colonialism happening because poor countries are unable to compete with rich countries.” While Taiwan continues to lose formal recognition, China has been unable to subdue its ambitions for independence; nor, as noted by Michal Thim of the Prague-based Association for International Affairs, has it been able to disrupt Taipei’s “extensive global engagement, including significant relationships with the United States, Europe and Japan.” Finally, its authoritarianism is coming under harsher scrutiny, with numerous reports detailing the intrusiveness of its surveillance apparatus and its widespread detainment of Uighurs.
If it is wrong to portray Russia as an aggrieved Eurasian player whose influence is selective and constrained, it is at least as unhelpful to characterize it as a resurgent global power whose influence is wide-ranging and ubiquitous. And if it is misguided to depict China as a fatally hubristic upstart, it cannot be constructive to imagine it an inexorably ascendant colossus. U.S. foreign policy would be better served by adopting more nuanced assessments of the Russian and Chinese challenges than by oscillating between these exaggerations: neither reflexive complacency nor indefinite consternation will enable U.S. competitiveness over the long term.
Nor, it should be added, will treating those two countries’ foreign policies as a joint strategic challenge. There is every reason to expect that their relationship will continue to grow along military, economic and political dimensions. Still, Moscow and Beijing are not allies: their relationship is rooted more in shared resentments—for example, of U.S. democracy promotion and the centrality of the U.S. dollar in global finance—than in a common vision. In addition, as the economic gap between the two has grown, so has China’s ability to establish a presence in Russia’s Far East, displace Russia’s economic influence in Central Asia and otherwise establish itself as the dominant partner in the relationship. Perhaps the surest way to hasten their alignment would be to treat them as a joint strategic challenge, as the White House’s new national security strategy and the Pentagon’s new defense strategy do on numerous occasions. While Washington may not be able to accentuate extant strategic fissures between the two countries, it can pursue alternatives to dual containment that appreciate the differences between the Russian and Chinese challenges to the postwar order.
On December 11, 1988, with the Cold War winding down, a top advisor to Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev addressed a group of U.S. and Soviet scientists who had assembled at the University of California Irvine. Georgi Arbatov said to his U.S. colleagues: “Our major secret weapon is to deprive you of an enemy.” He explained: “So much was built out of this role of the enemy. Your foreign policy, quite a bit of your economy, even your feelings about your country.” What the 1930s and the Cold War both furnished was—and perhaps what the invocation of those periods today seeks to restore is—a sense of strategic clarity: an unequivocal adversary sharpens decisionmaking and galvanizes public opinion more effectively than opportunistic spoilers and selective revisionists.