November 02, 2021

What the New China Focus Gets Wrong

By Richard Fontaine

In 2019, acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan spoke for many in Washington when he implored the Pentagon to focus on “China, China, China.” Indeed, if there is one consensus among U.S. policymakers and political leaders, it is that China represents the United States’ premier strategic challenge and that Washington is woefully behind in redirecting its energies accordingly.

The new resolve is, in large part, a useful corrective to years of insufficient focus on China. In view of its global economic weight, rapidly expanding military capabilities, illiberal values, and growing assertiveness, Beijing poses a formidable long-term threat to American security and freedom. Inarguably, a more comprehensive U.S. approach is called for. In the rush to address the neglect, however, Washington risks making a different blunder: subsuming all U.S. foreign policy to the U.S.-Chinese rivalry. Already, in several parts of the world, troops have been withdrawn, regional diplomacy redefined, and U.S. intelligence assets redirected, all in the name of a more robust posture toward China.

It is necessary for Washington to prioritize China without allowing that focus to harm other interests and priorities. Balance, rather than tilting too far in one direction, should be the watchword.

But the United States is a global power, not a regional one, and China is hardly the only problem it faces. Nor do enduring American interests outside the Indo-Pacific flow merely from the growing competition with China. It is necessary for Washington to prioritize China without allowing that focus to harm other interests and priorities. Balance, rather than tilting too far in one direction, should be the watchword.

The tendency to privilege a single issue has reoccurred periodically across U.S. foreign policy. Policymakers and politicians, often backed by a vocal consensus, elevate serious, legitimate threats—communism, terrorism, now China—in a way that crowds out the attention necessary to deal with other priorities and interests. When it comes to shifting military resources, diplomatic energy, and leader-level attention from other issues to China, policymakers should be wary of an abstract “do more” imperative. By ignoring the consequences for U.S. interests in other regions of the world, the all-in approach to China risks undermining, rather than strengthening, the U.S.-led international order.

Read the full article from Foreign Affairs.