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The Future of US-China Strategic Competition: Minding the Clarity Gaps

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Trans-Pacific View | Diplomacy | East Asia

The Future of US-China Strategic Competition: Minding the Clarity Gaps

While the outlines of a longer-term competition have been cohering, there are also lingering uncertainties as to how this phase of U.S-China relations will evolve.

The Future of US-China Strategic Competition: Minding the Clarity Gaps
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Last week, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence delivered a key address on U.S.-China relations at the Wilson Center, where he underscored that the administration of President Donald Trump remained committed to engaging in strategic competition with China. Pence’s speech, following a landmark address on the same subject at the Hudson Institute a year before, reinforced the bipartisan, wide-ranging effort underway in Washington to reshape the U.S.-China relationship in the face of changing realities. But it also concealed lingering uncertainties that remain with respect to Washington’s future outlook, China’s response, and the region’s reaction to this more competitive phase of U.S.-China relations.

U.S.-China tensions have been visible over the past decade amid changes in the balance of power, the rise of a more assertive Beijing under President Xi Jinping, as well as differences that have emerged between the two countries issues ranging from trade to the South China Sea. But under Trump, those simmering tensions cohered into the outlines of a longer-term strategic competition, as articulated in U.S. official documents such as the National Security Strategy and the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report. Though the headlines have been focused on individual developments – be it the U.S. approach to Huawei or the focus on Chinese influence operations – the bigger picture is that we have seen the outlines being drawn out across a range of areas, including trade, technology, and aspects of democracy and human rights. And while the consensus around a new approach to U.S.-China relations is far from full, the changing nature of the conversation in U.S.-China relations in Washington is nonetheless quite clear.

This increasing clarity in U.S.-China relations we have seen under the Trump administration is potentially significant for U.S. foreign policy more broadly. It represents the crystallization of a trend of Washington’s hardening position toward Beijing and a dissatisfaction with the direction of U.S.-China policy that had begun but never really cohered toward the end of the Obama administration. It prioritizes competition with China as a top U.S. foreign policy objective after years during the post-Cold War period where Washington remained aware of Beijing as a potential threat even as it was consumed by other immediate priorities, including counterterrorism after the September 11 attacks. And it links previously disparate concerns about individual manifestations of Chinese behavior into a single, coherent narrative about the challenge Beijing presents to the United States and to the region, making it easier to mobilize resources to respond.

Pence’s speech at the Wilson Center last week reinforced this clarity. In his remarks, Pence outlined the various actions that the Trump administration had taken across the board in U.S.-China relations: from tariffs on Chinese goods to stepped up freedom of navigation operations to holding Beijing accountable for its actions in Xinjiang, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. And he signaled the administration’s willingness to continue this course, noting that U.S. concerns with respect to China still remained on various fronts and that Washington “will not stand down” in efforts to restructure the U.S.-China relationship, while still advancing practical cooperation where possible.

But while one ought to recognize the full significance and value of clarity, it is also important to understand its limits as well. In particular, clarity can also conceal the lingering uncertainties that remain with respect to U.S. policy, China’s response, and the region’s reaction to this more competitive phase in U.S.-China relations. These so-called clarity gaps are important to recognize and keep in mind over the few years as we see developments and trends in the U.S.-China relationship play out.

The first clarity gap is with respect to how U.S.-China policy evolves in the coming years. Despite the clarity in U.S.-China policy we have seen under Trump and the relatively greater consensus in Washington today about the need for a tougher U.S. approach toward China, it is uncertain whether this approach will be sustained. Some of this relates to the Trump administration itself, where there remain questions about whether the prioritization of the China challenge will continue to be followed through with proper resourcing in the coming years, or if Trump himself may find ways to pursue a more conciliatory path with Beijing that may undermine Washington’s commitment to longer-term strategic competition. But beyond this, there is also the reality that future U.S. administrations may choose to wage U.S.-China competition in a much different way than it is being done under the current one, with implications for how it plays out including on the hierarchy of priorities in U.S.-China policies and the balance of tools used to wage competition.

This clarity gap will remain important to watch. For one, while the Trump administration has placed the focus on U.S.-China strategic competition, the risk of Washington becoming consumed by other priorities still remains a possibility in this administration or a future one, and the task of going from declaring a competition to resourcing it will be a longer-term process whose trajectory is far from certain. For another, while we have seen increasing elite consensus on a new approach toward China, it is still early days within the formation of a broader whole of society approach involving not just Washington, but the rest of the country as well (for instance, metrics such as public opinion polls have only begun to suggest some shifts). Furthermore, as we get closer to the upcoming U.S. presidential elections in 2020, some of the divergences in approaches of managing U.S.-China relations may become more visible.

The second clarity gap is China’s reaction to this strategic competition. While some caricatures may paint China as a static challenge, Beijing has shown an ability to adapt in light of this new phase in U.S.-China relations, thereby reinforcing the need for attentiveness by Washington to these changes. Indeed, amid the heated rhetoric and retaliatory steps, Chinese policymakers have been recalibrating their actions in response to Washington’s approach as well as incorporating their response to wider domestic and foreign policy, be it Beijing’s recalibration on its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) or its maneuvering to position itself as a champion of multilateralism and free trade in the wake of regional concerns about the United States, irrespective of how credible those calls may be. In recent remarks at the Jamestown Foundation’s annual China Defense and Security Conference, Randall Schriver, the assistant defense secretary for Asian and Pacific security affairs, noted that there were efforts by China at “rebranding,” even though the substance of its actions had not really fundamentally changed.

This clarity gap will remain important to watch, both in terms of what China does and does not do. In terms of what China does do, even as it remains focused on the dynamics of U.S.-China competition, including testing Washington’s resolve on specific issues such as Taiwan or the South China Sea, attention should also be on how Beijing adjusts its broader policy, including potential reinvigoration of existing attempts to portray the United States as an unreasonable actor and using U.S.-China competition as a means to push for a Sinocentric order in Asia. And in terms of what China does not do, one should also not dismiss the possibility that even as Beijing may react, there may be aspects of its policy that reflect more of a wait-and-see approach pending the outcome of the U.S. presidential elections in 2020.

The third clarity gap is how the Asia-Pacific is reacting to heightening U.S.-China competition. The overwhelming focus in the headlines on the U.S.-China relationship can obscure the reality that in addition to advancing its own interests, Washington also needs to continue be attentive to the evolution of regional perceptions as well as strategic competition is playing out. Even as the United States focuses on winning U.S.-China strategic competition, the emphasis will also simultaneously need to be on winning over as much of the region as possible.

As of now, while there has been a mix of praise and gloom in the region with the hardening of U.S. China policy, the future direction of this is hard to ascertain. Part of this is due to the fact that while some countries share U.S. concerns about China, they also agree with some of Beijing’s concerns about Washington’s behavior under the Trump administration such as its stances on protectionism or multilateralism. As a result, we have seen even some U.S. partners, such as Singapore, take a much more balanced approach to how they approach the United States and China in this environment. More broadly, to varying degrees, it will take time for countries to assess how heightened U.S.-China competition affects their own interests, and the extent to which they need to adapt their approaches to adapt to contemporary realities to minimize risks and maximize opportunities.

This clarity gap will remain important to watch. Given the fact that the U.S. alliance and partnership network is among the most valuable assets that the United States has in its strategic competition with China, it will be important for Washington to bring along its allies and partners as much as possible. The fact that China has also been stepping up its own efforts to build out its own relationships, at times at the expense of U.S. alliances and partnerships and while portraying Washington as lying outside the very Asian order that it is trying to reshape, also reinforces the importance of this.

To be clear, minding the gaps of clarity in U.S.-China relations ought not to detract from its value in understanding where both sides are in their ties today relative to previous years, or the clear indications that we have gotten from the two countries that they are digging in for longer-term competition. But it is to say that even as we are cognizant of what is clear today, we should remain aware about what remains uncertain tomorrow as well in what is shaping up to be a longer-term competition between the two sides. That will continue to be important to keep in mind as we continue to analyze how the state of U.S.-China relations today will affect where things will end up in the years that follow.