The Biden administration’s newly-released National Security Strategy (NSS) states that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) “presents America’s most consequential geopolitical challenge.” This is because the United States is engaged in “a strategic competition to shape the future of the international order” and China is the leading challenger because it is the only state “with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to advance that objective.”
The NSS repeatedly affirms that America’s vision is of a “free, open, prosperous, and secure” world, and infers that the PRC shares neither that vision nor fundamental U.S. interests and values. Instead, Beijing is characterized as leading those autocratic regimes that threaten global peace and stability by working to “undermine democracy” and “create more permissive conditions for [their] own authoritarian model,” which is “marked by repression at home and coercion abroad.”
Against this challenge, the NSS asserts that the United States must prevail by “outcompeting the PRC in the technological, economic, political, military, intelligence, and global governance domains.” Rather than allow China to remake the world in its image, Washington “must proactively shape the international order in line with our interests and values” and “prioritize maintaining an enduring competitive edge over the PRC.” Basically, this is a zero-sum contest in which the United States must stay on top as “the world’s leading power.”
Less than a week after the release of the NSS, Xi Jinping offered Beijing’s own view of the U.S.-China strategic competition in his “work report” to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) 20th National Congress. His speech offered a similar characterization of an emerging and increasingly antagonistic struggle. Without ever mentioning the United States by name, he described “drastic changes in the international landscape, especially external attempts to blackmail, contain, blockade, and exert maximum pressure on China.” He asserted that China has entered a period “in which strategic opportunities, risks, and challenges are concurrent and uncertainties and unforeseen factors are rising.”
In response to this adverse external environment, Xi outlined Beijing’s own strategy to meet the challenge. Mirroring the NSS, he implicitly laid out a prescription for maintaining a competitive edge over the United States and pursuing a world order conducive to China’s interests and values. In this context, he highlighted an increasingly central theme in Chinese strategic thinking: an expansive definition of China’s “national security” and the requirements for ensuring it. Specifically, Xi emphasized the indivisible link between internal stability and external security—with the former drawing support from the latter and from a broader web of political, economic, technological, and even cultural security. This flows in large part from Xi’s promulgation in 2014 of a “comprehensive national security strategy” and accompanying proliferation of laws, administrative structures, and enforcement mechanisms to implement it.
The external projection of this evolving and all-encompassing Chinese national security strategy was apparent in April of this year when Xi unveiled a “Global Security Initiative” (GSI). The speech in which he made this proposal largely reiterated earlier themes in PRC diplomacy, but Chinese officials and scholars have indicated that the GSI was intended as an extension of Beijing’s previously domestically-focused “comprehensive national security strategy.” Predictably, it offers a different perspective on many of the objectives attributed to Beijing in the Biden administration’s NSS.
In presenting the GSI, Xi stressed a vision of “common” and “cooperative” international security, and mentioned, in particular, the “principle of indivisible security” and the need to respect the “legitimate security concerns of all countries”—two phrases that Beijing has used in defense of Russian threat perceptions before and since Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine. More conventionally, Xi reiterated China’s promotion of the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence,” including non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs and acceptance of their “independent choices of development paths and social systems.” He also repeated the Chinese mantra of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries—despite Moscow’s betrayal of that principle in Ukraine. Finally, the GSI aims to uphold “the purposes and principles of the UN Charter,” reject the “Cold war mentality,” and promote international cooperation on global challenges like climate change.
Scholar Sheena Chestnut Greitens has identified several aspects of the GSI that are potentially problematic for other countries. First and foremost, the linkage between the PRC’s “political” and external security clearly reflects the CCP’s overriding preoccupation with regime stability, which was also inherent in Xi’s speech at the 20th CCP Congress. The fact that Beijing’s pursuit of domestic stability and regime legitimacy increasingly appears to require a more assertive Chinese posture abroad is cause for concern. Greitens particularly highlights Beijing’s growing law enforcement cooperation with and export of surveillance tactics and equipment to other countries, enabling authoritarianism elsewhere. Noting that the GSI essentially “aims to revise global and regional security governance to more closely align with [the CCP’s] regime security interests,” she appropriately advises that Washington “should not underestimate the risks of this new Chinese approach to foreign policy.”
At the same time, we should be careful not to overestimate or exaggerate those risks. Much depends on the accuracy of Washington’s assessment of Beijing’s strategic intentions and ambitions. In this regard, the NSS repeats earlier assumptions that are questionable. For example, the Biden administration states that “Beijing has ambitions to create an enhanced sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific and to become the world’s leading power.” The former clause is well-founded, notwithstanding varying interpretations of “sphere of influence.” But the presumption that China seeks to become “the world’s leading power” is highly debatable, given the inconclusive evidence to support it, and the multiple reasons Beijing has to judge that pursuing global hegemony would be destabilizing and sustaining it would probably be impossible. However, it is conceivable that China could eventually embrace that goal if it concluded that the only alternative was perpetual subordination to U.S. hegemony—which the NSS appears to adopt as the U.S. goal.
The NSS also appears to overstate Beijing’s nearer-term intentions with regard to global governance. As noted earlier, China indeed seeks to “reshape the international order” and (as others have described it) “make the world safe for autocracy.” But “reshape” is not the same as “replace” or “supplant.” As Xi reiterated in his 20th Party Congress speech, Beijing’s agenda is the “reform and development of the global governance system” to make it “fairer and more equitable.” This resonates across the developing world with countries that similarly wish to see greater attention to and representation of their interests in multilateral institutions.
In comparing the NSS and Xi’s GSI (and 20th Party Congress speech), what is perhaps most surprising is the overlap they arguably reveal between the two countries’ stated objectives. For example, the NSS observes that “the vast majority of countries want a stable and open rules-based order that respects their sovereignty and territorial integrity, provides a fair means of economic exchange with others and promotes shared prosperity, and enables cooperation on shared challenges.” Might China be one of those countries? All of these themes appear in Xi’s talking points, except for the reference to a “rules-based” order—a Biden administration phrase that is subject to varying interpretations among many countries that question whose rules and interests and what order it represents.
Similarly, the NSS emphasizes the “foundational principles of self-determination ... and political independence”; the notion that “countries must be free to determine their own foreign policy choices”; and the need for the global economy to “operate on a level playing field and provide opportunity for all.” Again, Beijing routinely uses almost the same language when discussing both the GSI and its companion “Global Development Initiative.” The NSS says the United States wants to avoid competition that “escalates into a world of rigid blocs,” while Xi likewise said China opposes “bloc confrontation.” And both sides have insisted that they do not want “a new cold war.”
Of course, Beijing and Washington often talk past each other even when they are using the same language. The CCP clearly is seeking to expand China’s global influence at the U.S. expense, and to legitimize illiberalism in the process. And there obviously are fundamental disagreements between the United States and China over governance and development models, human rights, trade practices, and international law—among other ideological and systemic differences. But do these differences proscribe Beijing and Washington from recognizing and pursuing mutual interests and objectives? The core question here is whether the two sides, despite their inevitable strategic rivalry, can nonetheless maximize the scope for cooperation in areas where their interests and strategic preferences genuinely coincide.
Both the NSS and Xi claim to believe that they can. The NSS acknowledges that the PRC “retains common interests with other countries, including the United States, because of various interdependencies on climate, economics, and public health.” It also affirms that “we will cooperate with any country, including our geopolitical rivals, that is willing to work constructively with us to address shared challenges.” Echoing this, Xi’s GSI speech declared that all countries need to “work together on regional disputes and ... global governance challenges.” The NSS even proclaims that it is “possible for the United States and the PRC to coexist peacefully, and share in and contribute to human progress together.” It asserts that Washington “will always be willing to work with the PRC where our interests align ... because working together to solve great challenges is what the world expects from great powers, and because it’s directly in our interest.”
But the NSS stops short of explaining how this could or will happen. One reason is that it largely frames U.S. strategy as that of forging the “strongest possible coalitions” among “partners” that “share our interests” and our “vision for a better future.” But it never quite allows for the possibility of China itself being a member of such a coalition, largely because it adopts the premise that Beijing is committed to an agenda that is inimical to U.S. interests. Indeed, the frequent reiteration of the U.S. goal of a “free, open, prosperous, and secure” world is clearly a tacit reference to China, which is assumed to oppose and to endanger that vision. However, this both exaggerates Beijing’s intentions and fails to recognize or acknowledge the areas of overlap between the American and Chinese objectives identified above. A key task for Washington and Beijing should be exploring and expanding those areas, as an alternative to letting the U.S.-China relationship drift toward an exclusively confrontational and hostile one.
The NSS insists that Washington “will avoid the temptation to see the world solely through the prism of strategic competition.” But little in the strategy escapes that prism. Indeed, the document concludes that “by deepening and expanding our diplomatic relationships not only with our democratic allies but with all states who share our vision for a better future, we will have developed terms of competition with our strategic rivals that are favorable to our interests and values and laid the foundation to increase cooperation on shared challenges.” But by drawing this line between countries that “share our vision for a better future” and “our strategic rivals,” the strategy appears to exclude the possibility of pursuing a mutually beneficial future with those rivals. It also shows that cooperation with them is only a peripheral consideration, and indeed only allows a narrow arena for it.
This strategic framework reflects an underlying dilemma that is apparent in the most revealing passage in the NSS:
We cannot succeed in our competition with the major powers who offer a different vision for the world if we do not have a plan to work with other nations to deal with shared challenges and we will not be able to do that unless we understand how a more competitive world affects cooperation and how the need for cooperation affects competition. We need a strategy that not only deals with both but recognizes the relationship between them and adjusts accordingly.
This NSS is not such a strategy, because it fails to confront this central dilemma and to “adjust accordingly.” It vaguely recognizes but does not really address the biggest challenge the United States faces in dealing with China: devising a formula for peaceful coexistence that does not subordinate cooperation to competition. This will require both the United States and China to find a way to manage their differences while looking beyond those differences to pursue a shared “vision for a better future.” If this is too much to ask or to hope for, it is difficult to see how Washington and Beijing can prevent the “new cold war” they both insist they are trying to avoid.
Paul Heer is a Distinguished Fellow at the Center for the National Interest and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He served as National Intelligence Officer for East Asia from 2007 to 2015. He is the author of Mr. X and the Pacific: George F. Kennan and American Policy in East Asia (Cornell University Press, 2018).