By Hal Brands
When President Joe Biden took office, he vowed to pursue “extreme competition” with China as part of a historic struggle between democracy and autocracy. Now, his administration is saying that it wants “healthy” competition, in which mutually accepted “guardrails” prevent Washington and Beijing from plunging into the abyss.
It is hard to argue, in principle, with efforts to reduce the risk of war between the world’s greatest powers. In practice, the search for guardrails could prove to be a distraction, or even a trap, for the US.
Biden has been signaling his desire to de-escalate tensions with China for months. He had a phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping in September, meaning to establish a leader-to-leader dialogue that could reduce the risk of miscalculation. Two products of Biden’s virtual summit with Xi on Nov. 15 — expanded military-to-military discussions and a “strategic stability dialogue” focused on nuclear weapons — have a similar thrust.
Biden’s goal, he explained, was to set “common-sense guardrails” that would “ensure that the competition between our countries does not veer into conflict.” The language the administration uses to describe the relationship reinforces the point: “Extreme competition” and even “great-power competition” are out, while “healthy competition,” “responsible competition” and “durable coexistence” are in.
Among the reasons for this shift is the administration’s belated realization that hot war with China is a real possibility. Biden initially emphasized the economic, technological and ideological dimensions of the rivalry. But escalating Chinese threats and military maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait have offered a stark reminder that the shadow of conflict always hangs over great-power competition. Administration officials have likewise been taken aback by China’s accelerating nuclear buildup, which is all too reminiscent of the US-Soviet Cold War.
No one wants to see the US-China rivalry get out of hand, of course, making the emphasis on guardrails understandable and perhaps constructive. If keeping channels open reduces the risk of miscalculation, that’s a good thing. If discussions aimed at strategic stability help Washington learn more about the purposes of China’s growing nuclear arsenal, so much the better. But the administration still needs to be careful, lest its desire for stability become a hindrance to effective competition.
For one thing, Xi has no intention of respecting many of the guardrails Biden might want to put in place. The idea, one of Biden’s advisers explained, is for China to “play by the rules of the road” and accept that it must act as a “responsible nation.”
But Xi is no fool: He knows that accepting America’s definition of responsible behavior would prevent the Chinese government from coercing Taiwan, conducting large-scale cyberattacks and intellectual property theft, forcibly expanding China’s influence along its land borders, and otherwise pursuing its geopolitical agenda. US rules are incompatible with China’s objectives: That’s the reality that drives the rivalry.
Second, Sino-American dialogues too often become self-perpetuating — not because of their value, but because they come to be seen as ends in themselves. High-level negotiations on climate or discussions of strategic stability may or may not produce useful results. But such exercises typically acquire a certain inertia, and they develop bureaucratic constituencies within the US government that become reluctant for Washington to do anything that might disrupt them.
This was the problem with the high-level US-China dialogues pursued, on a range of economic and security issues, during much of the last 30 years: They became forums for endless talk and obstacles to more competitive American policies. Which is precisely why the Chinese government was so keen to make such talks the centerpiece of the relationship.
Third, imposing limits on the rivalry is an important task, but not the most urgent one. That would involve taking the measures, unilateral or multilateral, that will strengthen America’s position: Hardening US and allied defenses in the Western Pacific, reducing reliance on China in critical supply chains, and strengthening export controls and investment screening, among others.
These policies will unavoidably increase tensions between the two nations in the short term. Xi’s China will never respond positively to steps that constrain its power. But they are essential to creating the “situations of strength” Biden’s team has touted, thereby setting the conditions for a relationship that is more stable and advantageous to the US over the long run.
The fundamental question isn’t whether the US wants to preserve peace amid increasing tensions with China. The question is how best to do so while also defending American interests. Biden may have had it right the first time: “Extreme” competition now could be the best guarantee of “healthy” relations later.