One of the core challenges for U.S.-China relations going forward will be finding the right balance between competition and cooperation. The former is inevitable but the latter will ultimately be essential, not only as a way to avoid conflict but for its own sake because U.S.-China collaboration on any number of transnational issues is vitally important to the future of the world. However, the Biden administration has explicitly affirmed that cooperation will be secondary and subordinate to competition, whereas Beijing—perhaps recognizing that it remains the weaker power even though it calculates that the gap between U.S. and Chinese power is narrower than Washington believes—is genuinely interested in expanding cooperation. This is not a recipe for either progress or peaceful coexistence as long as Washington and Beijing distrust each other’s motives, miscalculate each other’s strength, and are focused more on maximizing their leverage against each other than on seeking any common ground.
Blinken reiterated in Anchorage that “the United States relationship with China will be competitive where it should be, collaborative where it can be, and adversarial where it must be.” But this overlooks areas where the relationship should or even must be collaborative, and where it need not be adversarial. Beijing and Washington should be devoting as much attention to identifying those areas as they do to the competitive elements of the relationship. Unfortunately, Anchorage offered little indication that the two sides are ready and willing to do much more than fortify the barricades.
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.