Trans-Pacific View

US-China Competition and Cooperation: The Long View

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Trans-Pacific View

US-China Competition and Cooperation: The Long View

Insights from Cortez A. Cooper III.

US-China Competition and Cooperation: The Long View
Credit: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

Trans-Pacific View author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Cortez A. Cooper III senior international/defense researcher at the RAND Corporation and an affiliate faculty member at the Pardee RAND Graduate School with 20 years of U.S. military service is the 196th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Identify the top three takeaways of the recently released “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2019.”

First, the report notes that China’s military modernization and restructuring are a component of a comprehensive, long-term effort to achieve Chinese preeminence in the Indo-Pacific region. The report gives strategic context for Chinese objectives in economic, diplomatic, and informational activities as well as in the military realm; and is particularly instructive in summarizing Chinese attempts to exercise coercive interference in the policy processes of other nations despite Beijing’s stated foreign nonintervention position.

Second, the report provides a well-organized overview of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) restructuring efforts underway since late 2015. These efforts centralize Chinese Communist Party control over the military, and mobilize the financial, technical, and industrial might of the state to develop a joint military force capable of fighting regional conflicts pursuant to Chinese territorial and sovereignty claims.

Third, the report gives readers a glimpse of China’s threat perceptions and fears of containment. How the U.S. portrays competition with China matters a great deal. The report notes that competition does not necessitate conflict and stresses the importance of open lines of communications between the U.S. military and the PLA to manage air and maritime contact in the region and reduce miscalculation in times of tension.

The 2018 National Security Strategy states, “Economic security is national security.” Explain the correlation between the NSS and the Annual Report to Congress on China. 

Both documents provide evidence that the U.S.-China economic relationship is increasingly enmeshed in a larger security and influence competition. The Annual Report echoes NSS concerns about threats to American economic competitiveness due to Chinese theft of U.S. intellectual property and advanced technologies, and further highlights how this theft facilitates Chinese military advances that put the U.S. and our allies at greater risk. Protecting America’s “National Security Innovation Base” is critical to both domestic economic health and broader national security goals.

The NSS also notes that “China’s infrastructure investments and trade strategies reinforce its geopolitical aspirations.” The Report to Congress elaborates that China’s primary global investment strategy, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), might not only increase China’s coercive influence in certain partner countries, but could also provide a foundation for PLA access or basing agreements. The links between economic activity and security risks include but go beyond the current headline-grabbing trade friction.

What does the Report reveal about Chinese perceptions toward U.S. military might?

The report notes that China prioritizes achieving political objectives while avoiding war with the U.S. This indicates that U.S. commitment to regional forward presence and power projection capabilities continues to have deterrent value. However, concerns regarding conflict with the U.S. also inform China’s development of concepts and capabilities for operations by both military and paramilitary forces below the threshold of war—so-called “grey zone” operations in contested areas that could nonetheless lead to escalation and conflict.

The report portrays a PLA leadership that recognizes U.S. war fighting capabilities as the gold standard; and the PLA hopes to achieve similar joint, networked, precision strike capabilities as those employed by the US in conflicts over the past three decades. This is the PLA China plans to have ready to fight in a regional conflict between now and 2035. The report also gives an inkling about what the Chinese hope to achieve in the more distant future—a new warfighting paradigm where China “leapfrogs” the U.S. and is first to the post in marrying artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies to military affairs. This is very likely what [Chinese President] Xi means when he says that China will have a “world-class military” by 2050.

What emerging geopolitical risks will likely aggravate the U.S.-China trade conflict in the long run?  

U.S. actions related to Taiwan’s status, China’s maritime claims, and Chinese influence operations associated with the BRI and other economic, diplomatic, and intelligence collection activities will create friction that spills over into the larger relationship. Pressure to choose between the U.S. or China in specific areas may become increasingly problematic for countries in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. The Huawei ban and battle over 5G dominance are the opening salvoes in this transnational feud. It is also as important, if not more so, to consider the question in reverse: how will the U.S.-China trade conflict aggravate other areas of geopolitical friction? Chinese fears of economic instability due to trade disruption could increasingly be reflected in growing hostility in other areas.

How should U.S. presidential candidates frame the domestic debate on the future of U.S.-China relations?  

Recent U.S. policy actions mark a bipartisan acknowledgment that China’s behavior warrants a more aggressive U.S. response. Confronting or containing China at every turn may be an option, but it would represent a break from a half-century of U.S. policy and is unsustainable given larger geostrategic and economic realities. The challenge for our leadership is to develop a realistic framework for competition. Candidates should define desired strategic end states and general benchmarks for U.S. responses to Chinese behavior. Managing America’s most consequential foreign relationship requires outlining conditions under which China will be an equal, cooperative partner; areas where competition will occur with outcomes that admit negotiation but protect enduring U.S. interests; and circumstances under which threats to those interests require confrontation.