June 1, 2020 | Policy Brief

Wanted: A Strategy for Long-term Peacetime Competition With China

June 1, 2020 | Policy Brief

Wanted: A Strategy for Long-term Peacetime Competition With China

The Trump administration last week released a report detailing the administration’s whole-of-government approach to China. The document marks an important step for framing the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) strategic threat. But Washington has more to do. The U.S. government needs an affirmative strategy, one that that can marshal stakeholders and competitive advantages for today’s great power contest.

The new report, titled “United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China,” is not a strategy. The document’s second paragraph states that the administration pursues “no particular end state for China.” But the report does take a significant step in framing the U.S.-China competition.

The document correctly assesses that the United States and China are engaged in a strategic contest that is holistic and global. The report asserts that this competition is Washington’s top strategic priority. As the COVID-19 crisis has made clear, the CCP presents an immediate, existential threat to the security, prosperity, and values of the United States and its democratic allies. All other threats should be framed within the context of this contest.

The administration’s new document represents progress in orienting U.S. national security policy for long-term peacetime competition with China. The document ushers in a new stage in U.S. strategic discourse and paves the way for the next step: crafting a responsive strategy.

Defining this strategy will not be easy. Beijing competes with America asymmetrically and across all domains. It turns traditionally cooperative areas into battlefields, weaponizing the private and public sectors through commercial as well as military tools.

Executing a strategy will not be easy, either. The CCP is centralized where the U.S. system is fragmented and diffuse. Beijing plans long-term, while U.S. actors, especially private sector ones, operate based on quarterly and annual metrics. And China wields integrated tools and weapons – as demonstrated by its military-civil fusion program – whereas the U.S. system works in silos.

Beijing has honed its approach by studying and adapting to modern technological trends and by learning from the Soviet Union’s failures. The CCP has crafted a strategy that twists U.S. assumptions about economic cooperation and information technology in the authoritarian’s favor. The United States must adapt to this new competitive threat.

A U.S. strategy tailored to Beijing’s scope and mode of competition will have to be broader, more flexible, and smarter than the Cold War containment strategy. The administration’s report may provide a step in that direction. Earlier offerings, such as the State Department’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific concept, have also contributed to Washington’s strategic orientation. But as COVID-19 has revealed, they fail to address the scope of today’s global peacetime showdown.

Before additional steps are taken, Washington must immediately redress one critical weakness: The new report is overwhelmingly defensive. It focuses on countering the CCP’s false narratives, imposing stricter rules on Chinese foreign investment, conducting freedom of navigation operations to combat China’s unlawful territorial claims, and defending religious adherents in China against persecution.

These are all much-needed actions. But now is the time for Washington to define an affirmative vision for the world and seize the initiative with compelling leadership. The United States has enduring advantages. It has the world’s largest consumer economy, along with an unrivaled alliance network and a value system to underpin it. Washington also holds levers of immediate escalation dominance in the military arena. Washington should marshal these advantages to seize opportunities, shape the competitive environment, and put the CCP on the defensive.

The administration’s report is an important step in the right direction. But to mobilize its network of assets and allies, and to appropriately allocate resources among them, Washington must now present a clear vision of victory.

Emily de La Bruyère and Nathan Picarsic are senior fellows at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and co-founders of Horizon Advisory, a strategy consulting group focused on the implications of China’s competitive approach to geopolitics. Emily and Nathan both contribute to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) and Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from Emily, Nathan, CMPP, and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Emily on Twitter @edelabruyere. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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