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Rivalry is unavoidable; confrontation isn’t

Daniel Tobin
Faculty of China Studies,
National Intelligence University

“Rivalry, however, is not the same as confrontation, and need not lead to conflict.”

China’s leaders and diplomats often cite the Confucian idea of seeking harmony while reserving differences. Harmony between Washington (and its allies) and Beijing, however, is probably not on the cards.

The differences are not a result of misunderstanding, but of incompatible interests and values that matter deeply to each. On issues such as Taiwan and the preservation of US security alliances in Asia, neither side has room to give ground. Political ideas about freedom and human rights, and how they ought to inform international norms and rule sets, are also unlikely to be locations for mutual accommodation.

The term ‘rivalry’ depicts the contest well because what makes for a rivalry are mutually exclusive goals, high stakes, and a lack of trust. Rivalry, however, is not the same as confrontation, and need not lead to conflict. Rivals can cooperate to tackle common threats or help another party in need. Yet, the events of this year have made boosting collaboration, even in areas such as climate change and global health, harder to envision.

Several of the first round of essays suggested accommodating Beijing’s ambitions to play a larger role in international economic and financial institutions. Even five years ago, most Americans would have readily acknowledged those aspirations as legitimate and commensurate with China’s growing wealth and the talents of its people in many domains of human achievement. Today, the sense of disillusionment and betrayal many in Washington feel towards the government in Beijing has poisoned the well. However, when future historians write about US–China relations falling off a cliff this year, they will not place primary blame on Washington. The United States has been extremely slow to anger. The disillusionment, which began in the Obama administration, is the result of Beijing’s actions in many domains over many years. Washington’s May 2020 United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China — a document that has received grudging respect even from critics of the current administration — details this case well.

Another key feature of rivalry is a perception on both sides that the outcome is in doubt. One cannot be a true rival if you do not stand a chance of prevailing. Here, one obstacle to establishing any framework for strategic stability is the uncertainty and dynamism of the economic, military, and technological competition in emerging domains such as artificial intelligence (AI), biotechnology, space, and cyber (what John Culver refers to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution). Both Beijing and Washington are clear that the values that govern rules in these areas will matter in an increasingly interconnected world. For the United States, the Chinese Communist Party’s lengthening record of using economic leverage for coercion does not bode well for how Beijing will behave if it realises President Xi Jinping’s ambitions for global leadership. Here, ‘decoupling’ in areas that each side finds sensitive (such as science and technology collaboration, telecommunications infrastructure, defence and medical supply chains, and some areas of foreign direct investment) may produce more stability over the long term. Separate houses would produce less anxiety than sleeping under the same roof.

Rather than dampening rivalry, Washington and its allies should seek instead a basis for reliably deterring military conflict. China is just beginning a decades-long effort to build a world-class military capable of global operations after concentrating for many years on building the capability to deny or deter Washington from intervening on behalf of an ally or partner in a clash with Beijing. The United States and its allies and partners should respond with a similar force-building strategy aimed not at dominating China militarily, but at preventing Beijing from dominating others.

Daniel Tobin is a faculty member in China Studies at the National Intelligence University (NIU), and Senior Associate (nonresident) with the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position or views of the U.S. Government. Nothing in the contents should be construed as asserting or implying U.S. Government authentication of information or endorsement of the author’s views.