How to Compete with China without Going to War

| John McLaughlin
John McLaughlin
Former Deputy Director, Central Intelligence Agency

Well before COVID-19 there was a “hardening of expert and public opinion in America on the seriousness of the Chinese threat,” according to Cipher Brief Expert and former Acting Director of the CIA, John McLaughlin, who says the path forward requires deterrence based not just on military strength but on rejuvenating and tightening alliances; enhanced engagement with Beijing based on common interests; and a reformation of the US system for making and implementing national security policy. 

John McLaughlin is a distinguished practitioner in residence at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He served as the Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2000-2004 and Acting Director of the CIA in 2004.

Amidst the uncertainties about the coming U.S. presidential election, one thing is sure: you will hear a lot about China. Contention between Republicans and Democrats over China stretches back decades. It has covered a dizzying array of issues: competitive labor practices at the turn of the 19th century, the Communist rise after World War II, human rights after Beijing’s 1989 massacre of dissidents in Tiananmen Square, and trade and defense policy today.

In recent years, the pattern has had two phases: first, the two presidential candidates seek to outdo each on toughness toward China, trading accusation of softness or naïveté. In phase two (after the election), the victor collides with the reality of having to deal pragmatically with China because of its sheer size, the interdependence of our two economies and Beijing’s growing global influence.

Don’t be fooled. We will see the same pattern this year — but with a new and different context. There is today the closest thing I’ve seen to a consensus among scholars, policy makers and the public that China presents a serious threat coming at us fast. Americans have always seen China as important and potentially troublesome. But as China rose, many Americans took comfort in two thoughts: first that China’s growing entanglement with the world would moderate its behavior; second that the U.S. would always possess a power edge due to things that China lacked, principally the tradition of innovation that fuels our economy, education system and technological prowess.

That comfort level is gone. China is showing surprising strength in technology and by some estimates reaching parity or moving ahead of the U.S. in fields such as biology, artificial intelligence, machine learning and key aspects of military power. It is flexing its muscles to tighten claims on Hong Kong and Taiwan and pushing other claimants aside in the South China Sea. It has moved into the vacuums created by U.S. withdrawal from so many international arenas, such as the Trans-Pacific trade partnership, and drawn U.S. allies into new institutions such as the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 crisis has exposed the deep dependence of our medical supply chains on components from China.

Against this backdrop expert and public opinion in the U.S. on China has hardened. The 2017 U.S. National Defense Strategy places concern for China at its center. A congressional commission examining the strategy concluded there is no assurance we could win a war against China, which has retooled its military around advanced technology. At the same time, in U.S. public opinion, two-thirds of Americans now see China unfavorably, up from 47 percent two years ago.

China has earned this opprobrium with its intellectual property theft, withholding of COVID data, human rights abuses and aggressive behavior on sea and in air — while making little secret of its desire to replace the global order crafted by the U.S. over decades with one revolving around Beijing.

What to do about all of this?  Let’s look at the realities.

  1. There are no easy answers and little guidance from the past. This is the first time America has faced a competitor with genuine potential to outpace us (unlike a declining Soviet Union or the overblown threat many perceived from so-called “Japan Inc” in the 1980s). The challenge China presents spans technology, defense, diplomacy, demographics and the economy.
  2. We can no longer spend our way to success. It’s not just our stressed and debt-ridden budget; economists offer varying timelines but say China will be, and by some measures already is, the world’s largest economy. Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers says we should imagine a Chinese economy twice the size of the U.S. economy by 2050.
  3. No one really wants war with China, a country of 1.4 billion people. We have to plan for it and game it out, but surely our first impulse must be to try everything else first. I believe this would be so even in the two most frequently cited potential causes of war: miscalculation in response to some provocative seaborne or airborne incident, or Chinese provocation of a treaty ally such as Japan that then calls for our intervention. Though diplomacy could fail, we can hope that it would be the instinctive impulse in calmer quarters of both governments.
  4. Real partnership is probably not a realistic possibility anytime soon. A few years ago, a respected U.S. China scholar told me that we should work for a trilateral partnership among China, Japan, and the U.S. rather than trying to organize with Tokyo against China. This expert believed that would only increase Chinese hostility and aggressiveness. Such a partnership could still be a strategic goal, but I think this would require more statesmanship and cunning than is now evident in any of these governments.

To thread our way through this, our strategy needs a realistic goal — an achievable end point. Factoring in all of the realities, it seems that ought to be a China with whom we strenuously and successfully compete, in a contest that does not mute our differences but stops short of war. Here are three things that could facilitate that, none of them easy and all with obstacles currently in the way:

  1. Deterrence based not just on military strength but on reviving, bolstering and tightening our weakening web of alliances, using them not to threaten Beijing but to magnify shared values and as force multipliers to offset China’s expanding power and presence.
  2. Enhanced bilateral engagement focused on areas where we need greater mutual transparency, such as cyber and arms control, or share vital interests — issues such as terrorism, North Korea and space. We would probably have to cajole a resistant and dissembling China to play.
  3. Governance reforms at home designed to streamline the making and implementation of U.S. national security decisions and to dampen the partisanship currently paralyzing us.

This last one may be the hardest bridge to cross but continuing our halting and conflict-laden pace virtually ensures losing our global preeminence.

This column by Cipher Brief Expert John McLaughlin was first published by our friends at Ozy

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The Author is John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is a distinguished practitioner in residence at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.  He served as the Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2000-2004 and Acting Director of the CIA in 2004.

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