Although the view of strengthening competition between the United States and China with the aim of victory in this contest has become a bipartisan consensus, the Biden administration has persistently underscored the need to build “guardrails” to ensure healthy competition and prevent disastrous consequences. The term “guardrail” pertains to a mutually agreed-upon set of rules and principles aimed at managing healthy competition and fostering desired outcomes without escalating into serious conflict.
To that end, Washington has made significant efforts to maintain open high-level military communication channels. However, China has repeatedly rejected U.S. requests to reopen these channels. On July 21, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stated at the Aspen Security Forum that China seems to think that China-U.S. relations would be more secure if they were “unbuckled” and had no “guardrails.”
It is essential for U.S. policymakers to understand the logic behind China’s refusal to establish guardrails in order to reset Washington’s competition strategy.
At present, China’s primary focus rests on the development of its economy, inspiring the confidence of the Chinese people, and maintaining social stability at home. On the international front, a key objective for China is the reunification of Taiwan as a strategic platform for global expansion. In contrast, the United States prioritizes mobilizing its national resources to address China’s comprehensive challenges, maintain its influence in the Asia-Pacific region, and ensure its global dominance. The fundamentally different goals of China and the U.S. are apparent, making it difficult for Washington to persuade Beijing to establish guardrails based on a bilateral consensus within the international order and norms.
China’s current approach of refraining from setting guardrails provides certain advantages for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime. By taking this stance, the CCP projects a strong image in dealing with the world’s first superpower, which aligns with the aspirations of Chinese nationalism. The current backbone of China’s leadership is Xi Jinping’s generation. They were “born in new China and raised under the red flag” (生在新中国，长在红旗下), and thus deeply influenced by Mao Zedong’s ideology, leading to a profound anti-American sentiment. To secure the backing of this generation, the CCP feels compelled to adopt a firm approach toward the United States, even if it is only on the surface.
China is facing economic challenges domestically and strong international backlash, with both having grown to an extent not seen since the CCP began implementing the “reform and open policy.” That includes a serious trend of de-Sinicization that significantly impacts China’s economic and financial security. The CCP has drawn a comparison to the 1960s when China faced a blockade from the Soviet Union. At that time, the CCP blamed the Soviet Union, and now it blames the United States for technological sanctions, political pressure, and international encirclement. Xi’s diplomatic efforts in response are thus crucial in garnering public support within the country.
The CCP’s diplomatic culture values a tit-for-tat approach, often described as “wolf warrior diplomacy.” Consequently, when the U.S. imposed significant chip export restrictions, China responded by banning the export of rare metals. Due to the repeated visits of official US delegations to Taiwan, China conducted frequent large-scale military exercises in the waters surrounding the island. After the United States shot down a Chinese spy balloon that has passed over the continental U.S., China chose to completely sever high-level military communication channels.
These retaliatory actions represent Xi’s worldview that the East is rising while the West declines, and displays a sense that China is superior to the United States. According to Xi, the Chinese people are not easy to provoke but are not afraid to fight, either.
The CCP places great emphasis on “face” in international relations, which refers to the CCP’s image on the global stage. The CCP’s face is a key source of its power, and losing face can be a very serious matter in the Chinese context. In the CCP’s view, China has been a great nation throughout history, and now it must preserve its dignified image in the international arena more than ever. The CCP’s tough stance toward the U.S. helps maintain its face on the global stage and resonates with the nationalist sentiments of the Chinese people, particularly when the international narrative is conveyed domestically.
After the 20th National Congress of the CCP, the appointment of Li Shangfu as minister of defense, despite being sanctioned by the United States in 2018 for purchasing Russian weapons, clearly illustrates the CCP’s intentions. While the U.S. may argue that its officials have also faced sanctions from Russia without affecting communication, the situation is different in the context of China. Having the Chinese defense minister sanctioned by the U.S. can be seen as detrimental to China’s sense of face. Thus China has adopted a harsh line in response, by refusing all military contacts – including refusing a meeting between Li and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin – until the sanctions are removed.
From Beijing’s point of view, if the CCP agrees to set guardrails, it appears to benefit the United States, enabling Washington to increase sanctions while avoiding conflict. By contrast, not setting guardrails has several advantages for China. First, China retains its agility, preventing the U.S. from assessing its real intentions, particularly concerning the military and the Taiwan issue. Second, this flexibility allows China to maneuver with ease, while the U.S. faces challenges in playing its cards, leading to passivity and uncertainty. Third, it could help China win battles by preserving the element of surprise.
If China were to agree to set guardrails, Beijing would be confined to predetermined paths, and constantly on the defensive, essentially ensuring U.S. security. Choosing not to set guardrails makes the United States more anxious and uneasy. The repeated emphasis by Washington on establishing guardrails actually exposes its own vulnerabilities and weaknesses.
In this sense, China’s decision not to set guardrails can be seen as a form of Chinese-style deterrence, partially offsetting the United States’ deterrence. The lack of guardrails forces the U.S. to exercise caution and restraint, reducing risks for China, including the potential for fewer sanctions and a more relaxed containment approach. This approach enables China to employ the “silkworm-eating” strategy, making gradual progress at every step.
Although Sullivan has emphasized that the United States’ fundamental strategic premise toward China is coexistence, it is difficult for the two nations to coexist in harmony due to their divergent national interests. The U.S. aims to achieve dominance while coexisting, whereas the CCP pursues a so-called win-win scenario, which essentially translates to winning twice for China.
Xi’s current aspiration is to stand on equal footing with the United States and ultimately dominate its surrounding regions, if not the world. In response, the United States is seeking to enhance its strengths through competition, while China sees this competition as disadvantageous. Most likely, the longer the world is embroiled in competition, the weaker China’s position becomes. Therefore, it is preferable for China to determine the outcome promptly, especially concerning the Taiwan issue. It is also preferable for China to decline to make competition less risky and more comfortable for the United States.
Despite dealing with the CCP government for over 70 years, Washington still struggles to comprehend its politics and international strategy. The United States wants to deter China while engaging, wants to contain China but denies a Cold War, and wants competition but also needs guardrails. This “having it both ways” mindset might appear stable and safe, and if successful it would serve the United States’ greatest interests. However, the CCP won’t follow the script designed by the U.S. during this period of great power competition. The guardrails strategy is merely wishful thinking and is destined to be a dead end.