scorecardChina isn't the Soviet Union, and the US needs to find a different way to compete
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China isn't the Soviet Union, and the US needs to find a different way to compete

Daniel DePetris, Defense Priorities   

China isn't the Soviet Union, and the US needs to find a different way to compete
PoliticsPolitics4 min read
  • The US and and China have exchanged sanctions on various senior officials, another sign of how relations between the two powers have deteriorated.
  • Despite being cast as a new Cold War, competition with China will not be a repeat of the one with the Soviet Union, and the US needs to find a new way to counter and cooperate with Beijing, writes Defense Priorities fellow Daniel R. DePetris.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

The Chinese Communist Party is nothing but consistent.

Three days after the US Treasury Department sanctioned 11 Chinese and Hong Kong officials for implementing the territory's new national security law, Beijing announced sanctions of its own on 11 US lawmakers and heads of organizations.

The latest designations mimic the previous rounds of retaliatory sanctions imposed by the CCP, including last month's imposition of travel bans on certain US officials in response to Washington's action on four Chinese officials for involvement in human rights abuses.

US-China relations are at their most severe since the US established ties with the PRC more than 41 years ago. It will take a significant dose of pragmatism, prudence, and wisdom on both sides if the two economic superpowers have any hope of rescuing one of the world's most important bilateral relationships.

Right now, such a task looks almost impossible. Differences are becoming increasingly pronounced, constraining the few avenues of collaboration that exist. Each power now views the other as a chief strategic adversary, a belief that often results in paranoia and worst-case assumptions about the other's intentions. China's vast territorial claims in the South China Sea, its persistent stealing of American intellectual property and its unfair trade practices have provided grist for those in Washington, DC, who seek to base US-China policy on full-fledged confrontation.

Unfortunately, simplifying China as a modern-day Soviet Union misdiagnoses the problem and leads to a faulty cure. Combatting Chinese power everywhere and anywhere will exhaust the US, deplete its resources and weaken US power over the long-term.

For nearly 30 years, the Washington foreign policy establishment has gotten used to the United States being the paramount power in the global system. But this is no longer the world we are living in.

While the US is still the world's largest military and economic power, China is a close second. Since the dawn of the century, the Chinese economy has increased from $1.2 trillion to $14.3 trillion. China's exponential growth has allowed the CCP to invest additional resources into building up a capable, modernized and proficient military, including a world-class navy.

With its frequent forays into Japanese waters, flyovers across the Taiwan Straits, and trillion-dollar Belt and Road initiative in Eurasia, China is doing what rising powers have done throughout history — translating its economic success into geopolitical leverage. A US policy of containment would have the adverse affect of heightening the sense of alarmism in Beijing.

The U.S. can and should compete with China economically. But it should do so responsibly in order to prevent this competitiveness from drifting into military affairs.

A decoupling from China, Washington's largest trading partner outside of North America, is not a realistic proposal. A complete severance of economic ties will produce unprecedented pain for middle-class Americans and roil the international financial system.

A military-to-military showdown, meanwhile, simply entrenches hardline positions in both Washington and Beijing and lessens the credibility of those who call for dialogue and deescalation.

What would a better US policy look like?

First, officials in Washington must realize that not every dispute with Beijing can be solved. In fact, some of these disputes will likely be off limits to compromise regardless of who is at the top of the CCP hierarchy. China is a proud nation that takes the defense of its sovereignty with the utmost seriousness.

As brutal as some of China's domestic practices are, the US has little power to change them. US sanctions on Chinese individuals, organizations or financial entities will not persuade Beijing to reform its system of government anymore than Chinese sanctions will persuade the US to do so.

Second, if the US wants to avoid conflict with Beijing while simultaneously preventing potential Chinese expansionism, Washington should switch its role in Asia from first responder to balancer of last resort. US allies and partners in the region, including Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia are sophisticated countries with both the will and power to defend their own interests and safeguard their own sovereignty.

Rather than purchasing additional fighter aircraft or land-based missile systems, the US should encourage China's neighbors to invest in the kinds of defensive technology that would complicate hypothetical Chinese aggression. Working together, Asia's middle-powers can balance Beijing and thereby allow the US military to minimize the prospects of a military entanglement.

Third, US officials must continue to keep lines of communication open with their Chinese counterparts at all levels of the relationship. Conversations like Defense Secretary Mark Esper's August 6 telephone call with Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's June meeting with Chinese State Counselor Wang Jeichi in Hawaii should occur far more frequently.

The absence of communication is a recipe for mistakes. Dialogue is a central ingredient in a successful strategy of great power competition that improves understanding and avoids dangerous miscalculations.

The US and China are the world's two largest economic powers. They hold approximately 40% of the world's entire GDP between them. Both need to learn how to coexist peacefully — even more so today when policy divergences characterize the relationship.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a columnist at the Washington Examiner.