China’s dramatic rise to major power status will soon present the United States with an across-the- board near peer competitor. The challenge for the United States will be how to project and defend its political, economic, military, and technological interests in the emerging strategic competition without pursuing decoupling from China to the point of entrenching a new Cold War. The magnitude of the Chinese challenge is undeniable. It is on the way to becoming the world’s largest economy, competing with the United States in innovation of technology platforms key to economic and military global leadership, developing military capabilities to balance the United States in the western Pacific and make possible forcible reunification with Taiwan, and exerting decisive influence and leverage in some multilateral institutions and standard-setting bodies where the U.S. has been preeminent. The ideological differences between the United States and China exacerbate their rivalry, but most of the issues are inherent in major power competition. They should be handled without the need to demonize China over systemic differences.
While China can appear to be a behemoth, it suffers from weaknesses that will limit its rise to global leadership. Its emphasis on sovereignty and internal control, especially on its territorial fringes, reflects anxiety, not strength. The need to address serious environmental, social, and public health problems will slow down the pell-mell growth of previous decades, as will the demographic curve that places burdens on a diminishing work force to support an expanding retired cohort. China’s growing and modernizing military will complicate United States strategy regionally but will not approach American force projection capabilities globally.
The principal tasks for the United States to counter the Chinese challenge are to maintain our historic edge in technology platform innovation, to build a multilateral coalition to confront Chinese violations of the rules-based international order, and to rebuild America’s broken political, economic, and social foundations to reposition the country for international leadership. While strategic competition with China will be the overall framework for the immediate future, it would be contrary to American interests to treat China as an enemy. There are transnational issues where U.S.-China cooperation is essential, such as climate change, nonproliferation, public health and combatting epidemics, and tension reduction in regional hot spots. American hostility would be reciprocated by the next generation of Chinese, who have been generally positive about the United States until recently. The United States should not engage with China in a race to the bottom in diplomacy, scientific and student exchanges and cooperation, and economic protectionism. That is a competition that America as an open society should not seek and cannot win.