January 29, 2019

Blunting China’s Illiberal Order: The Vital Role of Congress in U.S. Strategic Competition with China

Testimony Before the Senate Armed Services Committee

By Ely Ratner

Strategic Assessment

Chairman Inhofe, Ranking Member Reed, distinguished members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to discuss a topic of vital importance to the United States. I want to begin with five key observations on the current state of strategic competition between the United States and China:

1) The United States and China are now locked in a geopolitical competition that will endure for at least the next decade. U.S.-China competition is structural and deepening across the central domains of international politics, including security, economics, technology, and ideology. What we are experiencing today is not an episodic downturn or cyclical trough in the U.S.-China relationship, nor is the current rise in tensions primarily due to President Trump or his administration. The United States, the U.S. Congress, and the American people should be preparing for long-term competition with China.

2) The United States, on balance, is currently losing this competition in ways that increase the likelihood not just of the erosion of U.S. power, but also the rise of an illiberal Chinese sphere of influence in Asia and beyond. How this competition evolves will determine the rules, norms, and institutions that govern international relations in the coming decades, as well as future levels of peace and prosperity for the United States. There is no more consequential issue in U.S. foreign policy today. Should the United States fail to rise to the China challenge, the world will see the emergence of a China-led order that is deeply antithetical to U.S. values and interests: weaker U.S. alliances, fewer security partners, and a military forced to operate at greater distances; U.S. firms without access to leading markets, and disadvantaged by unique technology standards, investment rules, and trading blocs; inert international and regional institutions unable to resist Chinese coercion; and a secular decline in democracy and individual freedoms. The net result would be a less secure, less prosperous United States that is less able to exert power and influence in the world.

3) To avoid these outcomes, the central aim of U.S. strategy in the near term should be preventing China from consolidating an illiberal sphere of influence in vital regions and key functional domains. It is imperative that the United States stop China’s advances toward exerting exclusive and dominant control over key geographic regions and functional domains. Only once the United States halts China’s momentum—and in doing so reassures the world about America’s commitment to its traditional leadership role—can Washington conceivably construct a durable and favorable balance of power. This does not mean mounting a Cold War-style containment strategy that seeks to roll back or weaken China. Instead, where China would otherwise develop harmful forms of dominant control, the United States should seek to build “spheres of competition” to contest strategic areas. U.S. policy should focus on enhancing American competitiveness to defend and advance U.S. interests within these vital spheres of competition.

4) The U.S. government is not approaching this competition with anything approximating its importance for the country’s future. Much of Washington remains distracted and unfocused on the China challenge. The Trump administration sounded some important notes in its first National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, and there are strategic thinkers and sophisticated analysts inside the Trump administration who are attempting to piece together a more competitive strategy. That being said, many of the Trump administration’s foreign and domestic policies (for example on alliances, international institutions, trade, human rights, and immigration) do not reflect a government committed to enhancing American competitiveness or sustaining power and leadership in Asia and the world. In key areas, the Trump administration’s China policy is confrontational without being competitive.

5) Despite current trends, the United States can still prevent the growth of an illiberal order in Asia and internationally. Continued Chinese advantage in the overall strategic competition is by no means inevitable. In fact, the United States can successfully defend and advance its interests with a concerted effort that brings together the right strategy, sustained attention, and sufficient resources. Moreover, China has its own substantial vulnerabilities, particularly compared to the robust and enduring foundations of American power. As much as China’s diplomats and propaganda organs have complained bitterly about U.S. officials speaking in more competitive terms, it is no secret that Beijing has been intensely focused on strategic competition with the United States for decades. In fact, China has been gaining ground across the geopolitical competition primarily because it has most often been the only side competing.

How We Got Here and What's at Stake

U.S. policy toward China since the end of the Cold War was predicated on steering its development and shaping the regional environment such that Beijing would ultimately decide not to challenge U.S. dominance in Asia. At its core, it was a strategy for preventing a China challenge from ever surfacing in the first place. This approach was guided by the promise that economic modernization and interdependence would lead to political and market reforms internally, while also creating overwhelming incentives for China to integrate into the prevailing international order. At the same time, given uncertainties about China’s intentions, the United States and its allies developed military capabilities to deter Chinese aggression and dissuade Beijing from aspiring to regional hegemony. There have been ongoing debates in Washington about which element merited greater emphasis, but this combination of “engagement” and “balancing” served as consensus U.S. strategy toward China for decades after the end of the Cold War.

This policy approach was valid as long as there were indications that it was working—or at least enough ambiguity and uncertainty about China’s future behavior. Such was the case throughout most of the 1990s and early 2000s, when China adhered to a fairly cautious and conservative foreign policy. But that era has ended, and the results are deeply troubling. Contrary to U.S. aspirations, China is becoming more authoritarian, the regime is tightening its grip on the economy, and its foreign policies are increasingly ambitious and assertive in seeking to undermine and displace the U.S.-led order in Asia.[1]

This is not to say that Beijing does not deserve greater voice or influence commensurate with its position as a major power. But there is a difference between greater Chinese power (even China being the most powerful country in the region), and a situation in which Beijing exerts hegemonic control over Asia. The latter would include: the Chinese military administering the South and East China Seas; regional countries sufficiently coerced into not questioning or challenging China’s preferences on military, economic, and diplomatic matters; the de facto unification of Taiwan; Beijing with agenda-setting power over regional institutions; a China-centric economic order in which Beijing sets trade and investment rules in its favor; and the gradual spread of authoritarianism, including proliferation of China’s model of a high-tech surveillance state. Preventing that future should serve as the central near-term aim of U.S. China strategy.


Guiding Principles for U.S. Strategy

As the United States embarks on blunting China’s efforts to establish an illiberal order, it should do so with the following four tenets:

  • The foundations of American power are strong: We should be approaching the China challenge from a position of confidence. Despite all the pessimism about American dysfunction and decline, the United States continues to possess the attributes that have sustained its international power and leadership for decades. Our people, demography, geography, abundant energy resources, dynamic private sector, powerful alliances and partnerships, leading universities, democratic values, and innovative spirit give us everything we need to succeed if only we’re willing to get in the game.
  • Rising to the China challenge is ultimately about us, not them: Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. policy toward China has sought to open its society and economy, while also encouraging it to become a responsible member of the international community. Instead, we find ourselves today confronting an increasingly illiberal, authoritarian, and revisionist power. We should expect that China will continue heading in this direction (at least) as long as Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party are in charge. It is therefore no longer viable for the United States to predicate its strategy on changing China. Rather, how the United States fares in its strategic competition with China will ultimately depend on our own competitiveness, which means we need to be committed and focused on enhancing our national strength and influence.
  • We need a comprehensive China strategy across all domains of the competition: Regardless of the specific topic—Chinese economic coercion, human rights, or the South China Sea—the United States needs a comprehensive strategy that enhances U.S. competitiveness across all domains of the competition, including military, economics, diplomacy, ideology, technology, and information. It would be a mistake to approach our China policy as siloed and tactical responses to particular problems. Succeeding on any individual issue will require strength and skill across all areas of the competition.
  • Building and sustaining a bipartisan consensus on the China challenge will be of utmost importance to America’s long-term success: Fortunately, there currently exists a strong degree of bipartisan support for a more competitive U.S. response. It is imperative that this bipartisanship endure in the years ahead. Political fissures on China will have at least three negative consequences: inhibiting the ability of the U.S. government to focus attention and resources on the China challenge; undermining the necessary confidence of U.S. allies and partners that they should side with an America willing to confront China’s revisionism; and creating openings for Beijing to divide and conquer within the U.S. political system. U.S. leaders, including on Capitol Hill, should view bipartisanship as a necessary and core feature of U.S. China policy.

Read the full testimony online.

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