With the Chinese Communist Party’s decision to remove term limits on the president, Xi Jinping has consolidated his power at the top of Beijing’s leadership. The move ensures Xi’s vision of China, more assertive and confident in its ability to push back on the United States in the Pacific, has won out. This pivotal moment drives home the fact that the two most powerful countries in the world, China and the United States, have crossed a dangerous threshold into superpower competition. But Washington’s failure to act on this new reality presents grave dangers. As long as this problem persists, the United States will find itself at a serious disadvantage in its ability to manage China’s rise.
At a time when global confidence in the United States is declining, China is making concerted efforts to woo countries across Eurasia and the Pacific into its sphere of influence. This strategy is beginning to pay dividends, slowly but surely chipping away at the U.S.-led world order in place since 1945.
After more than a half century of growth, China has become a near-peer competitor with the United States. Although China’s total GDP is about one-third that of the United States, its purchasing power of $25 trillion exceeds that of the United States by a third. China is poised to become the world’s largest consumer market, and its economy is growing at growing at twice the rate of the global economy. According to Bloomberg, by 2028 China will dethrone the United States as the world’s largest economy as measured by GDP.
Money and might go hand in hand, a rule to which China is no exception. In all likelihood the capability gap between United States and China is much smaller than the dollars and cents in their defense budgets indicate. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Index, China’s 2016 defense budget was about one-third of the United States’, but its military procurement system is far more efficient. Sure, China has problems with corruption and inefficiency (the combined effects of which are a massive drag on the Chinese economy), but it is unlikely that it is as great of a burden as the American military industrial complex. In 2016, the Washington Post unveiled an internal study that the Pentagon actively tried to suppress, which revealed that $25 billion of the defense budget was sheer waste. Just a year earlier, then-Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus lamented that 20 percent of the defense budget went to “pure overhead.”
The combined effect of China’s rapid growth and increases in military spending is that the balance of power has shifted. In years past, the United States was able to conduct military maneuvers across the globe without having to consider potential pushback from regional actors. That is no longer the case. Although the United States retains a qualitative edge over China militarily, Beijing is unburdened by two ongoing wars in the Middle East and the the security umbrella that Washington provides its allies. In a head-to-head confrontation in China’s back yard, the United States would almost certainly find itself stretched too thin to project the amount of force necessary to come out on top.
Unfortunately, Washington seems at best split, and at worst in denial of this new reality. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the South China Sea, the place where the U.S. Navy comes face-to-face with the reality that it no longer has the world’s oceans to itself.
For years, the U.S. Navy has conducted freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in an attempt to push back on Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea. As a strategy, this has failed to yield the desired results: deterring Beijing from island building and assertions of “historical rights” to the waters far to its south. To the contrary, China has solidified its territorial claims in the region by establishing military installations on artificially constructed reefs that are large enough to harbor its entire navy. Combined with the introduction of advanced anti-ship missile systems such as the DF-21D, China’s domination of the region is a fait accompli. Despite this, the Trump administration insists that U.S. policy in the region should be based on the status quo, which fails to recognize the new balance of power.
Southeast Asian countries have taken notice of the inability of U.S. policy to thwart China’s rise and have begun to doubt the U.S. security guarantee. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has publicly speculated whether Washington would come to its defense and tried to cast his country’s lot with China. Other countries in the region such as Singapore and Vietnam have expressed grave concerns over the Trump administration’s willingness to maintain the U.S. security presence in the Pacific.
Even as fewer countries around the globe trust President Trump to do the right thing, his administration has advocated for a more assertive strategy to push back on China’s rise. The recently published National Defense Strategy (NDS) asserts that “China is a strategic competitor.” The 2018 National Security Strategy (NSS) goes further and declares that China seeks to “challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity.”
Naming and blaming China might stem from valid national defense interests, but it doesn’t solve the fundamental problem. If the United States is to retain its competitive edge in this relationship, it must acknowledge China’s comparative strength is greater than Washington recognizes, or is comfortable with. In order to play any game skillfully, the players first need to agree to specific rules and develop their strategies accordingly. By refusing to admit that China has become a full-blown superpower, the United States is denying itself the tools it needs to manage the relationship successfully and avert a confrontation that could end in disaster.
What both sides — and strategic stability more generally — require is increased clarity concerning objectives and established redlines. First, both parties need to acknowledge that they have embarked on a new era of superpower competition. Second, if we are going to avoid escalating tensions that lead to a war neither side wants, better conflict management mechanisms need to be set in place.
A good example to build upon is the Code for Unexpected Encounters at Sea (CUES), to which China and the United States are party. Signed in 2014, the agreement is designed to reduce the risk of an incident at sea, and if one does occur, to rely on communication mechanisms aimed at preventing escalation. However, CUES is a voluntary agreement and limited to naval interactions. It fails to include coast guards and maritime militias, groups that have been involved in many of the incidents in the South China Sea. Washington should seek to remedy these flaws and expand bilateral and multilateral military exercises between the United States and China, such as the biennial RIMPAC exercises.
Third, the Trump administration must recognize that it cannot operate an effective grand strategy without a fully resourced and staffed State Department. When Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis told Congress in 2013 that he would “need to buy more ammunition” if the State Department wasn’t fully funded, his message was meant as a dire warning, not a request for more bullets. It is essential that the administration heeds these words, reverses its request to slash the State Department’s budget, and fills key diplomatic positions to flesh out a smart and competitive strategy. In the wake of career foreign service officer Joseph Yun’s announced retirement this week, Washington needs to select a new special representative for North Korea policy. It also has yet to nominate critical ambassadors in South Korea and Singapore, one a U.S. ally and the other a vital partner in the region.
Finally, the National Defense Strategy and National Security Strategy demonstrated that rigorous strategic thinking exists within the bureaucracies of U.S. government. But Trump has failed to show that he comprehends or supports the core premises of these two key documents, blunting their efficacy. Therefore the White House should unequivocally declare that it recognizes what is at stake in this new superpower competition and pledge to responsibly manage what is undoubtedly the most important bilateral relationship in the world.
By undertaking these steps, the United States can manage its relationship with China and continue to enjoy the benefits of a global superpower. But without acknowledging the power struggle it finds itself in and working to shape the rules of the game, Washington has forfeited the competition before even engaging.
Will Saetren is a research associate at the Institute for China-America Studies. You can follow him on Twitter @WillSaetren. Hunter Marston is an Asia analyst at a Washington, DC think tank and can be found on Twitter @hmarston4.