Academic journal article Asia Policy

Avoiding U.S.-China Competition Is Futile: Why the Best Option Is to Manage Strategic Rivalry

Academic journal article Asia Policy

Avoiding U.S.-China Competition Is Futile: Why the Best Option Is to Manage Strategic Rivalry

Article excerpt

The United States and China find themselves increasingly enmeshed in a strategic rivalry, the basic nature of which remains poorly understood in the United States. To be sure, disagreements between the two countries have gained widespread attention. Disputes involving Chinese confrontations with U.S. allies and partners such as Japan, the Philippines, and Taiwan have frequently grabbed the headlines. At other times, disagreements over Chinese trade practices and U.S. military activities in the South China Sea have occasioned discord. All these sources of conflict are genuine, but they mask the main drivers of rivalry, which are twofold. First, the United States and China are locked in a contest for primacy-most clearly in Asia and probably globally as well. The United States has been the dominant power, and China seeks to eventually supplant it. By definition, two different states cannot simultaneously share primacy at either the regional or global level. Second, economic, demographic, and military trajectories suggest that China has the potential to contend in a significant way for leadership at the global systemic level. At this level, the most decisive competition will be for technological leadership. Should China supplant the United States as the world's premier country in terms of technology, its claim to regional and global supremacy will be difficult to deny. And once it has gained that supremacy, China will be well positioned to restructure institutional arrangements to privilege itself and disadvantage the United States.

Although this competition is occurring simultaneously at both levels, observers have focused primarily on the struggle for primacy at the regional level and overlooked or downplayed the competition at the global systemic level.1 To counter China's pursuit of regional primacy, the United States has bolstered its alliances in Asia (albeit inconsistently), expanded diplomatic outreach to China and rising powers in Southeast Asia, and revised its military posture-efforts captured by President Barack Obama's "rebalance to Asia." President Donald Trump may have abandoned the rebalance, but many of the related initiatives remain more or less in place.2 China's challenge at the global systemic level, especially in the field of technology, has received less attention. Confidence in the proven U.S. ability to produce new technologies and facile assumptions about the difficulties China will face in promoting innovation in new industries have led many to dismiss the challenge posed by China. But the contest for technological leadership is actually even more consequential than that for regional primacy. Should China succeed in surpassing the United States as the world's technological leader, U.S. diplomacy and military power will not suffice to hold the line either in Asia or around the globe. Under those conditions, countries throughout the world, including U.S. allies in Asia, will be forced to come to terms with the new leading economy. Military power projection could be far less relevant as China moves to consolidate its leading status at both the regional and global levels in such a scenario.

Accordingly, although the United States cannot abandon its efforts to bolster its diplomatic and military position in Asia, the country must step up its efforts to strengthen its faltering lead in new technology development. While China clearly grasps the stakes, it is not clear that the United States does. For example, China's government has promoted R&D into quantum computing. The investment appears to be paying off, as the country has leaped ahead of the United States in developing quantum communications/ Similarly, the U.S. Congress has proposed to dispense with subsidies for the purchase of electric vehicles, even as China pushes ahead in its plan to become the lead producer of this technology.4 And while the U.S. government seeks to restrict immigration and discourage foreign students from attending U. …

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