Power Is the Answer in U.S. Competition With China

“We face a hostile ideology—global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method.” In Dwight D. Eisenhower’s famed farewell address, the former president offered a clear-eyed assessment of the Cold War threat, a “danger” that would be of “indefinite duration.”

Today, Americans once again face the prospect of a prolonged and complex struggle. In its quest for security, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is seeking to seize for itself the lion’s share of power in the international system, which it will use to neutralize perceived military, economic, and ideological threats. The contest for preponderant power is on.

In his award-winning history of the Cold War’s onset, Melvyn P. Leffler wrote that the United States had “inherited” a “position of preponderance” at the end of World War II and that the Truman administration was intent on maintaining it. Eventually, it would adopt a “strategy of preponderance”:

Preponderance did not mean domination. It meant creating a world environment hospitable to U.S. interests and values; it meant developing the capabilities to overcome threats and challenges; it meant mobilizing the strength to reduce Soviet influence on its own periphery.

Because the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in what was, essentially, a zero-sum competition, a policy-planning paper argued, “to seek less than preponderant power would be to opt for defeat.” While by no means easily achievable, the elegance in thusly defining “preponderant power” as “the objective of U.S. policy” was in its very straightforwardness.

The United States and the coalition of allies and partners it leads have had such a preponderance of power since the collapse of the Soviet Union, if not before. But today, China aims to take that preponderance for itself.

Why does China seek—and from the CCP’s perspective, need—a preponderance of power? The ruling CCP is driven by one primary, overriding imperative of its own: to maintain and sustain its rule. The vaguely defined core interests of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and its defense, foreign, and economic policies all flow from that imperative, as well as from an apparently genuine belief that China deserves to—indeed, is destined to—claim its place atop the international power hierarchy, first in Asia and then globally.

As Kevin Rudd noted in Foreign Affairs in late 2022, Xi Jinping declared as early as 2017 that, “The Chinese nation, with an entirely new posture, now stands tall and firm in the East.”

Xi is also preoccupied with perceived threats that may derail this destiny. For him, “national security” is primarily about regime security and perhaps his own personal security as well, as Sheena Chestnut Greitens has argued. In Xi’s work report to the 20th Party Congress in October 2022, he described “political security” as the CCP’s “fundamental task,” with “international security” only a “support.” Looking forward, he said, “we will resolutely safeguard the security of China’s state power, systems, and ideology.”

In order to secure, in the face of a hostile aspiring hegemon, the fundamental ends of American national security policy—the physical safety of the American homeland; the survival of the American way of life; and the continuing prosperity of the American people—the United States must gather together with coalition partners to amass more power than its great-power rival and its rival’s partners, and then put that power to effective use.

Doing so requires a mix of defensive and proactive approaches, both to counter Chinese advances on the one hand and to boost American and allied power on the other. There are four key areas in which the U.S.-led coalition should act.

First, the United States should work to undermine the utility of China’s maturing military and invest in a military capable of defending the U.S. homeland, defending U.S. interests abroad, and shaping an international security environment in which the United States can thrive. The United States will need to field a nuclear force and embrace a nuclear doctrine tailored to a world in which the Chinese arsenal is growing rapidly.

Sino-Russian comity raises the potential need to deter two major nuclear powers simultaneously (perhaps amid conventional conflict), and regional conflicts with nuclear facets abound. The U.S. military needs to be able to defend Asian allies, maintain the forward defense perimeter, and, yes, contain Chinese military power behind the first island chain.

Allies and partners have a crucial role to play. Complaints about freeloading coalition members under-investing in their own defense are not unfounded. But even when allies disappoint, they increase American power and increase the power of the U.S.-led coalition by contributing forces to coalition units and operations, by providing basing access to the U.S. and other allied militaries, and by contributing to a perception of strength in numbers.

A smart U.S. alliance policy will attend to what former Secretary of State George Shultz called “tending the diplomatic garden,” while also seeking to invest in new partnerships, especially in Africa and Latin America, which are taking on increased significance in U.S.-China competition.

Second, the United States should more vigorously join the fight for economic, and thus diplomatic, influence in both the developed and developing world. When it comes to global trade and financial flows, Beijing is working to ensure that all roads lead to China; the Belt and Road Initiative is a quite literal manifestation of this goal. That outcome is far from assured, but the United States does risk letting its advantages slip away.

The Biden administration is working hard to convince overseas economic partners—and perhaps to convince itself—that market access is no longer the name of the game. Yet access to the American market is precisely what foreign exporters want. Despite China’s far larger population, American consumption expenditure is far higher than China’s, according to World Bank data, and is likely to remain so.

This is an underappreciated American advantage, and one that neither the Trump nor Biden administrations employed. Had they done so, Chinese infrastructure investments in developing countries could essentially be underwriting those countries’ growing trade with the United States. Instead, with initiatives like the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, the United States is essentially tinkering around the edges to promote trade. A positive, aggressive external trade agenda would deepen U.S. influence around the world and enrich the United States and its allies and partners, both crucial to expanding American power.

Third, China’s efforts to export autocratic practices, entrench corruption abroad, and undermine democratic processes in free countries merit a robust American response. To do so, the United States should support the entrenchment and diffusion of liberalism around the world, including in China itself. Washington must remain in the business of democracy promotion, not with the force of arms but with the force of example to support the work of journalists, civil society groups, and liberal activists. Put simply, more democracies means more power for the champions of democratic ideals, including the United States. Importantly, the United States should not give up hope that China could one day be such a champion and should employ what limited means it may have to help bring that future about.

Washington should also challenge Beijing’s order-building offensive. The United States should vie for leadership of international diplomatic and economic organizations, and otherwise maintain a leading role in establishing norms and rules governing the international system. Whether bolstering support for its claims to Taiwan, undermining international human rights norms, or advancing its own preferred technology standards, China has been effective in using international organizations to advance its own interests and accrue for itself more power in the international system. Washington must rediscover its talent for leading and shaping international organizations, with the ultimate aim of entrenching American global power and influence.

Rows of soldiers in camouflage with winter hats and face coverings stand at attention. In the background soldiers man three armored vehicles.
Rows of soldiers in camouflage with winter hats and face coverings stand at attention. In the background soldiers man three armored vehicles.

Chinese People’s Liberation Army soldiers assemble during military training in the Pamir Mountains in Kashgar, northwestern China, on Jan. 4, 2021. AFP via Getty Images

If Washington competes vigorously in these four areas—military power, economic influence, ideological warfare, and order building—the United States and its partners can amass a preponderance of power within the international system, enabling them to successfully deter and defend against aggression and proactively advance their own interests.

Even if the United States wins the contest for a preponderance of power, however, it might still lose its strategic competition with China. Geopolitics is not a simple math exercise; if it was, the United States would have decisively won the wars in Korea and Vietnam, as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan. In each case, the United States faced off against far less powerful adversaries; and even when those adversaries had foreign backers, those partners did not lend their full might. Power—whether military, economic, diplomatic, or otherwise—is a means, not an end. It can be misused, squandered, or underutilized. Securing a preponderance of power will put the United States in position to peacefully win its strategic competition with China, but absent savvy application of that power, victory may well remain out of reach.

But how to define victory? The Biden administration’s National Security Strategy provides the beginnings of an answer: “to achieve a better future of a free, open, secure, and prosperous world.” Such a future would be one in which the physical safety of the American homeland is secured, the American way of life thrives, and the American people prosper.

That vision is a clear echo of what amounted to former President George H.W. Bush’s vision for victory in the Cold War: a Europe that is “whole and free” and “at peace with itself.” That required, of course, either a willing partner in the Soviet Union or a Soviet Union that ceased to be. Bush hoped for the former. “Our goal,” as he put it, “is to convince them, step-by-step, that their definition of security is obsolete, that their deepest fears are unfounded.”

Another American statesman had voiced an alternative view at the Cold War’s onset. Writing in 1947, George Kennan famously described an American policy designed “to promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the breakup or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.” In the end, Bush and Kennan each got his way.

In short, what it took for the United States, along with Western Europe, to achieve its vision of a Europe whole, free, and at peace and to neuter the power of international communism was for the Soviet Union to stop competing and, eventually, to collapse.

Today, strategic competition is a holding action. The effective application of American and allied power is unlikely to be transformative, at least in the near term, but it will forestall PRC efforts to put its own power to transformative uses. This holding action should seek to uphold the postwar and post-Cold War order as best as possible, and to strengthen and update that order when opportunity presents itself; to actively counter Chinese efforts to overturn that order, weaken the United States and its coalition partners, and otherwise gain economic, military, and diplomatic leverage over members of the U.S.-led coalition; to put the Chinese system under persistent pressure, from within and without; and to wait.

Wait for what? Either for future Chinese leadership to reassess PRC interests, objectives, and strategy—this may become more likely as already-existing demographic and economic challenges mount—or for China to crack under the pressure. Victory does not necessarily entail the PRC disintegrating as the Soviet Union did before it—though such an outcome is possible, and perhaps…

This article was originally published by a foreignpolicy.com . Read the Original article here. .