The U.S. Is Playing the Wrong Game in the Competition with China

The U.S. Is Playing the Wrong Game in the Competition with China

Washington should take a page out of Beijing’s playbook and rebalance its investments and energy towards economic and diplomatic interactions while at the same time moving toward a smaller but still robust defensive capability.

The Pentagon has defined China as the “pacing threat” driving U.S. military spending and strategy. Hawks on Capitol Hill have come together in a virtual Greek chorus sounding the alarm about how Beijing is outstripping the U.S. militarily—or will soon do so unless U.S. taxpayers spend far more on national security. These claims are both misleading and misguided. When it comes to competing with China for global influence, Washington is playing the wrong game.

One preoccupation of the “confront China” lobby is the assertion that Beijing spends far more on its military than meets the eye for two reasons.

First, China’s official defense budgets don’t cover all defense-related expenditures. Second, China supposedly gets more bang for its buck, spending less than the United States to achieve an equal increment of military power, be it ships or aircraft or numbers of uniformed personnel. To compensate for the latter problem, some analysts rely on purchasing power parity (PPP) to obtain a figure for comparison.

Even accounting for these differences, however, U.S. military spending continues to dwarf that of the PRC. The U.S. defense budget was at least four times larger than China’s official number ($905.5 billion vs. $219.5 billion) and more than twice as large as the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) estimate for China’s spending, adjusting for differences in purchasing power ($407.9 billion). The just-released edition of IISS’s Military Balance notes that China’s “official defense budgets have fallen as a percentage of GDP to an average of 1.23 percent between 2019 and 2023, from 1.28 percent between 2014 and 2018. The small increase in national-defense burden in 2023 to 1.24 percent of GDP mainly stems from the relative slowdown in economic growth.” By contrast, U.S. defense spending as a share of GDP has risen in the last three years, from 3.26 percent in 2021 to 3.36 percent in 2023.

Spending isn’t the only measure of military capabilities, but however one chooses to assess the U.S.-China military balance, Beijing poses no military challenge on a global scale. China has nothing approaching the U.S. network of 750 overseas military bases, its 170,000 troops abroad, or its regular engagement in counter-terror operations—seventy-eight in all during the Biden years, according to an estimate by the Brown University Costs of War project. 

The balance close to China’s shores, as in a potential conflict with Taiwan, is a different matter, but the best way to head off a U.S.-China war over Taiwan is through diplomacy, not military build-ups. Credible deterrence is not simply a matter of military capability; it is also a function of reassurance. As Bonnie Glaser, Jessica Chen Weiss, and Thomas Christensen explained in Foreign Affairs late last year, “A threatened state has little incentive to avoid war if it fears the unacceptable consequences of not fighting.” Paradoxically, an overemphasis on matching or overmatching an adversary’s military capabilities might undermine the effectiveness of deterrent threats by making credible assurance less believable. 

Meanwhile, one could say that China is pursuing a more balanced approach to global engagement, one that does not rely primarily on military power. Instead, Beijing is using trade, development assistance, and diplomacy to spread China’s influence, and the focus is increasingly global, not just in East Asia. 

In the Middle East, for example, some have argued that China is “winning,” but not primarily through demonstrations of military prowess. “As with its other global initiatives, the original linchpin of Beijing’s efforts are economic,” explain New America’s Peter Singer and Kevin Nguyen, an analyst at BluePath Labs. “China sees great economic opportunity in the Middle East, especially with the energy-rich Gulf states, whose ties with China have steadily grown over the last decade.”  

The Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures at the University of Denver compiles information on countries with the most bilateral influence. According to this data, China has displaced France and the United Kingdom as the top influencers in many African countries in just the past decade.

Such “influence” measures might seem ephemeral to those who prefer to count the numbers of ships, planes, and missiles (even if those missiles don’t work), but “soft power” is real. It speaks to the ability of countries to leverage the range of non-military tools at their disposal to produce policies that advance their interests.

Countries logically play to their strengths. The United States once punched well above its weight diplomatically, even when its military was small. Today, countries with relatively meager militaries have outsized influence in international law (e.g., Canada), economics (e.g., Switzerland), and culture (e.g., Nigeria, see Nollywood). Working-level relationships, even at the level of engagement among civilians, build trust, an invaluable asset in international relations. 

To be sure, poorly executed outreach can have the opposite effect. For example, some projects initiated under Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative have elicited popular backlash in partner countries. Critics have complained about the mistreatment or exclusion of workers in countries that receive BRI funding. Others point to the adverse environmental impacts of these projects or the problem of too much debt. Foreign Policy’s Christina Lu proclaimed BRI a “road to nowhere.”

On the whole, however, BRI has allowed China to grow its influence in scores of countries. Beijing is leveraging trade relations and building political ties that have allowed it to broker deals that the United States could not or would not. For example, the Biden administration grudgingly admitted that last year’s Iran-Saudi normalization agreement, which Beijing facilitated, could benefit the region.

The United States’ overmilitarized approach to international relations has other harmful side effects. U.S. involvement in major conflicts, either on the ground or through arms sales, inevitably causes tensions with some nations, especially but not limited to the Global South. By contrast, although it has thrown its weight around via military exercises and missile firings in its own region, China has not fought a war in over fifty years.

The current U.S. strategy towards China leans far too heavily on developing plans for how to win a war with Beijing, grounded in a determination to outpace it in both traditional and emerging technologies, from hypersonics to nuclear weapons. And while there is occasional lip service given to the need to cooperate with China on fundamental challenges like curbing climate change and preventing pandemics, far more rhetoric and resources have been devoted to treating relations with China as primarily a military problem.

A better approach would involve finding ways to lower tensions and cooperate even in the face of profound differences on issues like human rights and the military balance in the Western Pacific.

As for the competition with China for influence in the international arena, Washington should take a page out of Beijing’s playbook and rebalance its investments and energy towards economic and diplomatic interactions while at the same time moving toward a smaller but still robust defensive capability. Remaining on the current military course will not only be enormously expensive but will likely spur an arms race and increase the risk of a superpower conflict. U.S. policymakers should rebalance the foreign policy tool kit to meet the challenges of the future rather than clinging to the methods of the past.

William Hartung is a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Follow him on X @WilliamHartung.

Christopher Preble is a senior fellow and director of the Stimson Center’s Reimagining US Grand Strategy Program. Follow him on X @capreble.