Flashpoints | Diplomacy | East Asia

What Is the End Game of US-China Competition?

Could the two sides agree on a modus vivendi? If so, what would it look like?

By Andy Zelleke for
What Is the End Game of US-China Competition?
Credit: USDA photo by Lance Cheung

What “yesable proposition,” fundamentally, is the United States offering China?

That’s the question that the late negotiation guru, Roger Fisher, would likely be asking today, given the concerning freefall in U.S.-China relations. To avert the massive costs and foregone opportunities of a new cold war — let alone a catastrophic hot war — is there a plausible vision for the future that could keep both Washington and Beijing happy? Or that would at least minimally satisfy each, in light of their alternatives? A stable equilibrium that the two rivals could sign onto, expressly or tacitly?

Should he win tomorrow’s presidential election, Joe Biden will assume responsibility for the United States’ China policy, and will own the vision for which the policy aims. Alongside much that the new president should discard, his predecessor will have bequeathed two building blocks of China policy that Biden should, with significant adjustment, retain: containment, and coalition.

Containment and Coalition

Containment strategy has featured prominently in President Donald Trump’s broader China policy, manifest in actions like its freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, its conceptualization of an Indo-Pacific theater, and its ever-closer embrace of non-treaty ally Taiwan. He has also sought to contain China’s economic power via a dubious trade war, and to contain its ambition to dominate strategically consequential technologies like 5G infrastructure. These policies have built, in part, on foundations laid by Trump’s predecessors. Conspicuously, though, the Trump team added rhetoric harkening back to the Cold War version of containment,  suggesting at times that its China policy’s ultimate objective is to destabilize Chinese Communist Party rule.

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Trump recognized the value of coalition-building in support of his China containment strategy. His efforts focused on the Indo-Pacific, where he has helped cultivate the China-focused Quad security grouping among the United States, Japan, India and Australia. Europe and NATO have figured far less prominently in Trump’s China strategy. Significantly, though, despite his “America First” rhetoric, deriding of NATO, and disrespectful style in dealing with European leaders, he appears to have secured some wins in his effort to exclude Huawei from Europe’s 5G networks.

Biden will be keen to embrace opportunities for fruitful collaboration with Beijing on globally urgent issues like climate change, pandemics, and nuclear proliferation. But he will recognize that that policy domain can only complement — not substitute for — a robust policy response to China’s drive for primacy in the economic, technological, and, ultimately, geopolitical and military realms. Accordingly, his version of containment (and the policy measures that underpin it) should preserve robustness in the military, economic, and technology domains. Containment should aim to preserve a favorable balance of power vis-à-vis China — in East Asia, in the Indo-Pacific more broadly, and globally — and to contain China’s economic and technology-based power to levels with which the United States and coalition members are comfortable. This response is appropriate in light of China’s scale, its accelerating power across domains, and its lofty aspirations.

However, Biden should reject — emphatically and vocally — any notion that containing China in these domains ultimately aims to delegitimize the Chinese Communist Party. George Kennan’s original formulation of containment policy was explicit about the end state it aspired to: the internal collapse of Soviet Communism. Especially on the heels of Trump, Biden should be crystal clear that he recognizes China’s political system to be China’s business alone.

In regard to coalitions, Biden has an opportunity to bring willing European countries more firmly into the containment effort, principally in the economic and technology domains. Going well beyond Trump in this regard, Biden should aim to organize a coalition of like-minded economic powers willing to coordinate their commercial relations with China as needed, and to protect their common interests by (i) acting collectively to ensure that its members aren’t left excessively at risk from critical technologies, products, resources, or supply chains; and (ii) responding punitively to geoeconomic bullying of the type that China has perpetrated in recent years against Australia, South Korea, Norway, the Philippines, Japan, and others. More broadly, the coalition should recognize China’s economic and technology-based power as necessarily a matter of shared interest, to be monitored with a view to keeping it from undermining the coalition’s overall power balance in its favor.

Equilibrium State: Containment’s Endgame

Biden should strive to flesh out an appealing vision for what the U.S.-China relationship could become. He should aim for a modus vivendi that could conceivably satisfy Beijing despite the likely reality of containment—and coalitions in its service—for the foreseeable future.

While many prescriptive commentaries by American analysts have advocated some version of containment, few have elaborated on the “end state” the strategy aims to deliver. Some have even dismissed end state formulation as unnecessary. But a strategy should be tethered to an intended destination, if only an impermanent equilibrium. The United States’ China strategy — with a version of containment at its core — requires clarification of its desired outcome as predicate to its success. For example, European countries will likely be more amenable to joining a U.S.-led coalition with reassurance of Washington’s limited aims.

An equilibrium state, sustainable for a period of years or even decades, could arise if Beijing and Washington each conclude that (i) it has no clear pathway to sustainable primacy over the other across all critical domains; (ii) the likely alternative to a negotiated equilibrium would be exhaustion and massive resource dissipation — essentially, a mammoth tax — accruing over years or decades of cold war, assuming a still more tragic hot war is avoided; (iii) the equilibrium’s substantive terms are acceptable, if far from optimal; (iv) the resolution preserves mutual respect, and face/credibility with domestic audiences; and (v) it opens the door to collaboration on the pressing challenges of mutual and global concern — such as nuclear proliferation, climate change, and pandemics.

Each superpower would have additionally made this deal out of a sense of urgency specific to it: In the United States’ case, concern that the trajectories of power — especially economic — could well favor Beijing; and in China’s, a fear that an anxious Washington might opt for a kinetic confrontation sooner rather than later. The U.S. and China would essentially have committed to a long-term path of self-restraint, each in exchange for the self-restraint of the other.

What might be the terms of a plausible U.S.-China equilibrium state? What follows are a few key elements of a potential modus vivendi, incorporating the United States’ likely insistence on territorial containment of China and the preservation of a favorable balance of power (military, geopolitical, economic, and technological) via coalition.

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Acceptance of balance of power in favor of U.S.-led coalition. For Washington, this would almost certainly be a non-negotiable feature of any equilibrium. The United States presently has the benefit of a large number of capable allies and partners; and despite Trump’s “America First” approach, many of those relationships have been, or can be, reinforced further in light of China’s recent assertiveness. So long as the U.S. is committed to, and capable of, maintaining a high-caliber coalition of the “like-minded,” Beijing would have little choice but to accept that the balance of power would likely persist for some time.

Acceptance of China’s ultimately becoming the biggest, and likely most powerful, economy in the world (on a standalone basis). It will behoove Biden to repair transatlantic relations damaged by Trump, and capitalize on Europe’s recently coming to view China as a “systemic rival.” As noted, Biden should aim to form a coalition (including European powers) focused on defending common interests in the economic and technology domains. Within those parameters, though, the coalition should welcome China’s continued economic progress, including its almost certain emergence as the world’s biggest economy, perhaps by some margin.

Fundamental respect for China as a great civilization, sovereign nation, and superpower, and for its political system and political economy. Washington would fully acknowledge that China’s system of government is up to China and its people. The same holds for its political economy, subject only to the explicit commitments Beijing has made, and may make going forward, as a means to attracting more economic engagement. Washington may well agree that it would confine its criticisms of China’s human rights abuses (most notably, Xinjiang’s Uyghurs) to private communications.

Mutual commitment to stable relations and moderated competition, coupled with routinized dialogue. The two countries would have mutually committed to broadly stable relations, and to bounded levels and modes of competition.

Mutual commitment to work together to address the most urgent global challenges. Reaching a broad settlement of the struggle for primacy would enable more attention to global threats and challenges. What presently crowds out meaningful collaboration in that domain is the priority each country reserves for the competition for primacy. Settling on the broad contours of a new modus vivendi could open the door to meaningful progress on these global challenges.

Beijing would undoubtedly view the equilibrium terms contemplated here as quite tough. But a capable, cohesive coalition would constitute facts on the ground to which Beijing would, in all likelihood, conclude it must adapt.

Andy Zelleke, Ph.D., is a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School.