Systemic Rivals: America’s Emerging Grand Strategy toward China
Under the Joe Biden administration, a new American grand strategy is coming into view. It is focused on the emergence of China as a peer competitor and organized for long-term strategic rivalry with Beijing to shape the rules, institutions, alliances, alignments and values that undergird world order in the 21st century. For three decades, the United States has watched the rise of China and debated its implications for American interests and the future of the US-led international order. Will China’s rise be peaceful? Will it be a “responsible stakeholder”? Will it seek integration into the world capitalist system dominated by the leading liberal democracies, or seek to contest and overturn it? Will “engagement” with China lead to a more open, pluralistic rule-of-law regime? What kind of challenge does China pose to the US and its allies and partners — military, economic, technological and ideological, or all of these? Will China use its growing power and wealth to try to “push” the US out of East Asia? In an era of intensified US-China competition, how will countries inside and outside of East Asia react and align themselves? Can the US and China find a way to coexist in a two-superpower world?
In the last several years, the answers have become increasingly clear, at least to the US foreign-policy establishment. As a result, a core set of convictions about the rise of China has crystallized to shape Biden administration strategy. First and foremost, China is now seen as a full-spectrum challenger to the US global position and the US-led liberal democratic world. In announcing the creation of a new China Mission Center, the CIA described China as “the most important geopolitical threat we face in the 21st century.” China is deeply embedded in the global system and world economy, and US-Chinese co-operation will be essential to manage problems of security, economic and environmental interdependence. But the US and China are also hegemonic rivals with very different visions of the world order, rooted in increasingly divergent developmental and order-building interests. The US wants to make the world safe for democracy, and China wants to make the world safe for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and political autocracy. The US believes — as it has done for more than two centuries — that it is safer in a world where the liberal democracies predominate.1 China contests such a world. Therein lies the deep roots of Sino-American rivalry.
The Biden administration has thus moved to place long-term strategic competition with China at the center of its grand strategy. The abrupt and chaotic end of the American war in Afghanistan was seen by many as a decision by Biden to step back from global security leadership. But it is better seen as a strategic rebalancing of resources and commitments, repositioning the US to focus on East Asia and competition with China. The post-9/11 grand strategy of fighting a global war on terror has ended, giving way to a China-centered grand strategy organized around the balance of power, hegemonic competition and a struggle to shape the organizing logic of the global system. The Biden administration’s efforts to build counterweights to China in the Indo-Pacific — the Quad and the AUKUS agreement — are harbingers of this strategic reorientation.
Several convictions inform this new grand strategy. First, as China grows in wealth, power and global influence, it is increasingly turning into a “systemic rival” of the US, offering alternative leadership and order-building agendas. As Gideon Rachman notes, “the Biden team believe that China is determined to displace the US as the world’s pre-eminent economic and military power, and they are determined to push back.”2 Fundamentally, China seeks to contest, weaken and shrink America’s liberal hegemonic presence in the world, paving the way for the elevation of its hegemonic leadership that champions an international order more congenial with its own illiberal regime principles and interests. Chinese President Xi Jinping seems to share this view, telling legislative officials in Beijing in April 2021 that “China can already look at the world on an equal level,” suggesting that it no longer sees the US as a superior force. China is a “systemic rival” because it challenges the full spectrum of US power, interests and values. This competition will play out over many decades and across a wide array of areas — military power, alliances and alignments, markets and trade, money and finance, next-generation technology, science and research, and democratic versus autocratic ideology and values.
Second, the engagement strategy of the 1990s that sought to integrate China into the liberal international order mostly failed. Welcoming China into the US-led system — capped by its membership in the WTO in 2001 — did not lead to the hoped-for liberal outcomes. China became more integrated into the world economy, and mutually beneficial trade and growth followed, but Beijing did not continue on its path of reform, opening and liberalization. 2018 was a turning point, when the Deng Xiaoping-era term limits on the Chinese presidency were dropped, making President Xi, in effect, “ruler for life.” The attack on democracy in Hong Kong, the oppression of the Uyghurs, the intimidation of Taiwan, the territorial aggrandizement in the South China Sea, the internal crackdown on Western influences, the cult-like elevation of “Xi Jinping thought” — these are markers of the path China is traveling. Under Xi, China has become more autocratic, anti-liberal, anti-democratic and internationally aggressive. Glimmerings of openness, reform, the rule of law and civil society outside the reach of the communist state have essentially disappeared.
Third, the US is not capable of balancing against China’s illiberal hegemonic ambitions on its own. It will need to work with a coalition of like-minded states and associated partners to create alignments that strengthen the underpinnings of the liberal international order. In his recent UN General Assembly speech, Biden mentioned “allies” eight times and “partners” 16 times. After all, the China challenge is not just aimed at America’s global position. It is a challenge to the wider world of liberal democracies and their longstanding military, economic and ideological dominance in the global system. By working together, liberal democracies can exploit their power to shape global rules and institutions. This strategy of fostering co-operation among the democracies is not a project to build a unified Cold War-era “free world” bloc — this is not possible or even desirable. The goal is to build a wide variety of ad hoc groupings to aggregate military, economic and diplomatic capabilities in various zones of competition. Within East Asia, as Kurt Campbell and Rush Doshi have argued, the “purpose of these different coalitions — and this broad strategy — is to create balance in some cases, bolster consensus on important facets of the regional order in others, and send a message that there are risks to China’s present course.”3
Fourth, the most important step in countering Chinese ambitions is to make liberal democracy work at home. Demonstrating that liberal societies can function effectively and solve problems — this is the goal upon which everything else depends. American internationalism is only sustainable if it advances the life opportunities of the middle class. This means a New Deal-type effort to renew and rebuild American society and institutions, investing in a modernized economy, infrastructure, research and technology and clean energy. The competition between China and the US is really a competition over “modernity projects,” alternative models and ideologies of global development and socioeconomic advancement. America succeeded as a global power in earlier eras because its capitalist democratic model seemed to outperform its rivals. We are entering an era where this competition will again play out.
The ambitious proposals of the Biden administration — with massive funding plans for infrastructure, R&D, education and the social safety net — are driven by this deep worry about the future of liberal democracy in the US and abroad. In this sense, Biden’s grand strategy is an echo of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal-era agenda for domestic renewal.4 Today, as in the 1930s, the future of liberal open societies is uncertain. The emerging hegemonic rivalry between the US and China is really a competition to see which superpower can lead in solving the great problems of the 21st century. The viability for American and Chinese hegemony depends, in the final analysis, on the solutions and public goods that each generates for the world. It is a contest to see who can offer the world a better hegemonic deal.
Fifth, the struggle between China and the US will also center on competition to shape global rules, regulations, technological platforms, and the values and principles enshrined in global institutions and regimes. Multilateral institutions and regimes are not value-neutral. They can be more or less friendly to liberal democracy and human rights and more or less friendly to authoritarianism and autocracy. Technology platforms and their network externalities also can give one side or the other advantages. This struggle favors first movers and countries that work together with other countries to create “critical mass” coalitions. The US will seek to build coalitions with liberal democracies to strengthen their position in these diverse, technology-driven areas of global rule and regime-making.
Here, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade accord, negotiated by President Barack Obama, and later rejected by Donald Trump, is a model. It restricts state-owned enterprises from subsidized dumping, protects intellectual property rights, outlaws human trafficking and requires the legalization of independent trade unions and collective bargaining. The world trade system will have rules, and the question is whether they will or will not incorporate human rights and liberal democratic protections. This piece of the Biden strategy still hangs in the balance, endangered by anti-TPP factions on both the left and the right.
Finally, the US will need to build working relations with China, even as it competes. There are critical and growing “problems of interdependence” that can only be tackled through superpower co-operation. After all, even during the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union worked together through the World Health Organization on finding a cure for small pox, and the two countries engaged in sustained efforts at arms control. The US should not need to “buy” co-operation from China on solving problems such as global warming by pulling its punches on issues such as human rights and Taiwan. The two superpowers will need to identify red lines and establish crisis diplomacy mechanisms to keep competition from spiraling out of control. Both sides will have incentives to build restraints and guard rails into their regional and global rivalry.
The emerging “systemic rivalry” between the US and China will shape world politics for decades. But there are restraints that will limit its intensity and dangerous consequences. One is on the Chinese side: the growth of Chinese power and its aggressive “wolf warrior” actions have triggered a regional and global backlash. If China’s foreign policy continues to become more aggressive and belligerent, it will generate even more pushback. In effect, China faces the problem that post-Bismarck Germany faced, and what historians call the problem of “self-encirclement.” Germany under Bismarck undertook elaborate efforts to reassure and diplomatically engage its neighbors. But by the turn of the century, post-Bismarck Germany began to destabilize and threaten Europe through its economic growth and military mobilization. For the same reasons, China should worry about how it exercises power and look for ways to avoid backlash and self-encirclement. At some point, China will want to moderate its ambitions and signal restraint.
For the US, restraint comes from the fact that most of its alliance partners are deeply tied economically to China. Across both Northeast and Southeast Asia, countries are simultaneously dependent on China for trade and investment and the US for security protection and the maintenance of the military balance. Remarkably, 100 countries in the world have twice as much trade with China as they do with the US. The US needs to worry that if it pushes too hard on its allies to confront or contain China, they will jump off the American bandwagon. The US will have incentives to pursue a “not too hot and not too cold” strategy in East Asia.5 It will need to reassure allies that America “is back” and that it intends to remain a provider of regional security and military balance. But it will also need to convey reassurance in the other direction, that it will not push frontline states into a war with China — or even force these states to make existential choices about which side they are on.
By G. John Ikenberry for Global Asia