The perception of China as a strategic competitor of the US has been developing among Americans for years now. But there have recently been signs that leading think tanks and analytical groups that influence decision-making have started to appreciate the formulation of a unified strategy.
In July 2020, the China Strategy Group was set up in the US and includes an eclectic mix of experts and politicians who are united by the common idea of curbing China’s growing might. It is telling that the group was created on the initiative of Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google and chair of the US Defense Department’s Defense Innovation Advisory Board. He also happens to be the group’s head. His deputy is Jared Cohen, CEO of Jigsaw (originally Google Ideas) and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He previously served as a member of the US State Department’s Policy Planning Staff and was an advisor to Condoleezza Rice, then to Hillary Clinton. Another prominent member of the group is Richard Fontaine, a former advisor to John McCain and CEO of the Center for a New American Security (a neo-conservative project). He also used to work on the National Security Council and in the US State Department under George W Bush.
At the end of 2020, the China Strategy Group published a report entitled “Asymmetric Competition: A Strategy for China & Technology. Actionable Insights for American Leadership.”
It focuses on technology and innovation, and, within the framework of US–China competition, 13 authors put forward their recommendations in three areas: technological battlegrounds; functional capabilities for the competition; and structures for the future. The first relates to various critical technology platforms, requirements, and US dependence on foreign companies. The second has three overlapping focus areas: intelligence, the brain drain, and supply chains. And the third talks about the need to pursue a policy of multilateralism in international relations and carry out a redesign of the US government, with a focus on increasing the role of expert analysis in political decision-making and the role of the White House as the leader of various agencies and industry, and the construction of a new era of technological statecraft.
Interestingly, the report suggests a new formula for multilateral relations that would require the creation of a “T-12” forum made up of countries like the US, Japan, Germany, France, Great Britain, Canada, the Netherlands, South Korea, Finland, Sweden, India and Australia.
The first paragraph of the introduction brings to mind the Baruch Plan, when the US put forward its proposal to the UN in 1946 that it should be the only country to have nuclear weapons and the relevant technology.
“America’s technological leadership is fundamental to its security, prosperity, and democratic way of life. But this vital advantage is now at risk, with China surging to overtake the United States in a number of critical areas. Left unattended, the U.S. position will further erode as Beijing garners power and influence over the rights and well-being of people around the world, including in the United States This challenge calls for urgent policy solutions to renew American competitiveness, arrest these trends, and sustain critical U.S. technological advantages.”
The report also argues that:
- The competition is asymmetric – China plays by a different set of rules that allow it to benefit from corporate espionage, illiberal surveillance, and a blurred line between its public and private sector. Beijing regards these asymmetries as America’s problem, not China’s. This will be a burden to America.
- The window for competing on technology remains open, but not indefinitely: too often in Washington, concerns about China are vague and ill defined. America’s loss of dominance in foundational and emerging technologies will seriously harm its prosperity and security, as well as dependencies on China in critical sectors that could be weaponised against the US. China is moving towards techno-authoritarianism, and America’s opportunity to intervene is diminishing.
- The current trajectory is not favourable to US interests: the policies of the Trump administration did little to stop the erosion of America’s technological advantage caused by China’s industrial policy (including its illegal and unfair trade and investment practices), as well as by America’s own long-term neglect of its R&D base, the atrophy of federal funding, and the country’s insufficient response to the China challenge. At present, China is in a highly competitive position in several critical technologies, and huge investments are spurring its efforts to bolster local production and ultimately supplant US technological dominance, although it is currently dependent on the United States and its allies in key areas.
- China does not need to be changed, but favourable outcomes for US interests need to be shaped: it is assumed that the US will continue dealing with China as we see it today, and it should not expect to change the trajectory of China’s development or its overall approach to technology and the economy, even if more could be done to pressure China’s choices and limit its power. Key policy decisions could be carried out that would give the US greater opportunities to shape outcomes: restructuring the executive branch (government redesign), new talent and immigration policies (brain drain), dominating the forecasting sphere (intelligence), and forming new multilateral partnerships (multilateralism). This will reinforce America’s distinctive strengths and advantages, even if its vulnerabilities are also clearly recognised.
- There will not be a return to the pre-Trump “status quo”. Trends in both countries, and many of the tools at America’s disposal, are inherently and necessarily pushing towards some degree of bifurcation. In any case, the “status quo” that existed before Trump has been radically disrupted; a return to it cannot, and should not, be a goal of US policy.
- An effective response to the China challenge is largely about striking the right balance between competing objectives.
The task is to develop an approach to the coming period of heightened competition and friction, as well as rapid technological change, that will allow the US to most effectively advance its interests and values.
The conclusion states: “The U.S. security dialogue surrounding China and technology has begun to revolve around a small set of headline-generating topics: the threat of a particular Chinese-owned video app, the battle over 5G, or whether the potential risks of high-skilled immigration outweighs the benefit. But many of the most important questions about U.S. strategy towards China on technology have continued to go unanswered: How do we know if a digital platform is worth our attention and focus? What would it take to build a more resilient supply chain? How do we actually win the brain drain wars?”
To answer these and other questions, the authors of the report have attempted to provide a clear course of action for developing sound policies and strategies. Instead of convincing themselves of America’s technological superiority, their evaluations are made with a clear recognition of the asymmetry that is complicating relations between the two countries and weakening America’s position.
But in the end, they admit that many important questions regarding America’s technology competition with China are still unclear. As a consequence, the China Strategy Group is encouraging decision-makers to use external experts and consultants when planning policies and various programmes.
China is also an area of focus in the RAND Corporation’s latest report: “Implementing Restraint. Changes in U.S. Regional Security Policies to Operationalize a Realist Grand Strategy of Restraint”. Just like the China Strategy Group’s report, there are no clear answers to what the US needs to do.
First, it argues that China, like Russia and Iran, is carrying out activities in the grey zone, which must be prevented in every way possible.
It presents the arguments of those who talk about the threats that China could pose to the US in the Asia-Pacific Region. For example, current US policymakers are concerned that China is developing cyber capabilities that could disrupt US power projection capabilities and damage critical infrastructure. In recent years, the Chinese military has developed a wide array of counterspace capabilities, including jammers, directed-energy weapons, and ground-based anti-satellite missiles that could affect both commercial and military satellites. Therefore, “China’s space and cyber capabilities could affect three vital U.S. Interests – preserving the security of the U.S. homeland, preventing Chinese domination of its region, and retaining U.S. command of the commons”.
The US has not ruled out using force against China should it need to defend Taiwan. As well as preventing China’s dominance over local powers like Japan, advocates of restraint talk about the importance of maintaining US domination in the Asia-Pacific Region as a whole. “These strategists acknowledge that, as China grows, it will expand the contested zone, the airspace and area on its maritime periphery within which it can make U.S. military operations costly or difficult. This suggests that they are willing to accept loss of U.S. command in some areas. However, advocates of restraint have not yet specified whether there is a point at which further growth in the contested zone should provoke greater U.S. military involvement in the region. Put another way, advocates of restraint should specify the geographic areas that constitute the commons within which the United States needs to retain superiority and the level of superiority that the United States needs to maintain within those areas.”
Some believe that Chinese activity in the South China Sea is already a threat to US interests. In the East China Sea, Beijing’s activity is regarded from the position of the US–Japan alliance. What is bad for Japan is bad for the US.
But advocates of restraint also argue that “there are several areas in which the United States and China have shared interests that might allow for cooperation. Both nations seek to combat climate change and terrorism and to forestall nuclear proliferation. Advocates of restraint also favor negotiations to improve trade and investment relationships between the two nations, as well as to limit the size of their nuclear arsenals. In addition, both countries seek stability on the Korean Peninsula. Advocates of restraint have not, however, demonstrated that there is sufficient common ground on these issues such that bargains could be struck that are acceptable to both sides. For example, although both the United States and China seek stability on the Korean Peninsula, they have very different visions for how to achieve it. The next step for operationalizing the recommendations associated with a grand strategy of restraint, therefore, would be to propose approaches to the negotiations and compromises that the United States should be willing to make to bridge these differences.”
The report also says that the views of advocates of restraint “differ on two key points: the extent of China’s ambitions and whether countries in Asia have the capability and willingness to work together to balance effectively against China. Disagreements about these two issues have led to divergent prescriptions for U.S. strategy in the Asia-Pacific that range from substantial military retrenchment in the region to an increase in U.S. military engagement in the region. This is an important difference among advocates of restraint on U.S. policy toward China, the power that all advocates of restraint agree poses the greatest potential threat to U.S. interests.”
At the same time, the US is keeping a close eye on how relations are developing between Russia and China. Two former intelligence officers – Andrea Kendall-Taylor and David Shullman – provide a detailed assessment of interactions between the two countries in the context of global politics and US interests.
They note that their “cooperation accelerates their efforts to erode U.S. military advantages – a dynamic that is especially problematic for U.S. strategic competition with China in the Indo-Pacific. Russia already provides China advanced weapons systems that enhance China’s air defense, anti-ship, and submarine capabilities and better equip the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to keep the United States out of its backyard. The two countries are also increasing their technology cooperation, which could eventually allow them to innovate collectively faster than the United States can on its own, straining an already-stressed U.S. defense budget. Ultimately, sustained – and more problematically, deepening – Sino-Russian cooperation would put at risk America’s ability to deter Chinese aggression in the region and uphold its commitment to maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
The report also says that Russia and China are united in their efforts to weaken cohesion among US allies and partners and weaken US influence with countries and international institutions. Moreover, Russia and China are working to reduce America’s central role in the global economic system. Moscow and Beijing are already cooperating to avoid US sanctions and export controls, mitigating the effects of US economic pressure. If their partnership deepens, or even if each country individually builds up resilience to US pressure, it could lessen the efficacy of America’s coercive financial tools, especially sanctions and exports controls, which are a key part of the US foreign policy arsenal.
At the end of the report, the authors recommend that “the United States should monitor and plan for, create headwinds to, and – where possible – pull at the seams in Russia-China relations.”
But the Jewish Institute for National Security of America is more concerned about China’s growing investments in Israel. It goes without saying that representatives of this organisation have found these to contain a threat to US interests. The 25-year contract that China signed in 2019 to update and operate a terminal at the Haifa Port, for example.
And judging by recent events, decision-makers are still betting on a confrontation with China.
The US Navy’s first operation under the administration of Joe Biden began on 5 February with a clear challenge to Beijing. The 7th Fleet’s USS John S. McCain entered the South China Sea with missiles on board. Yet another diplomatic confrontation between the US and China has begun.