In a recent interview, President Joe Biden said China should expect a period of “extreme competition” with the United States. While this is early on in his presidency, and it would be helpful to know what exactly “extreme competition” entails, it is clear that, like his predecessor, Biden will treat China more as a rival than as a collaborator. The White House readout of the recent call between Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping mentioned certain potential areas for cooperative engagement, but primarily stressed the American president’s “fundamental concerns” with Beijing’s perceived political, economic, and military aggression.
President Trump’s administration was the first since 9/11 to shift America’s national security strategy back towards Great Power competition — this time in the guise of a strategy that defines a rising China as its focal point. Now, there appears to be growing consensus that China is the major—indeed existential—threat to be dealt with.
Whether the outcome will be more or less restraint-oriented policy is an open question. For some inclined towards a more aggressive, interventionist foreign policy, focusing on China is a useful move: It can serve as justification for why the United States needs to maintain its heavy worldwide footprint. In order to counteract Beijing’s rise as a global power, some argue, the U.S. will need to challenge China across the globe. Former government officials have, in the past two years, advocated an increased U.S. presence in Africa and Asia as a way to counterbalance the growing Chinese footprint.
For others, who prefer a less interventionist policy and reduction in the country’s global military footprint, the rising threat of China can also help frame the debate: They can invoke the China threat to make the case that the United States’ limited resources would be better spent focusing on Beijing instead of expending them on counterterrorism or “secondary” wars elsewhere in the world. Reports from the first few weeks of the Biden administration suggest that he will be following this approach, restructuring the National Security Council to strengthen the team working on Asia at the expense of those focused on the Middle East.
But both of these approaches share the common imperative of countering China and building America’s military power and presence accordingly. Accordingly, both inflate the threat that China poses, treating it as an existential threat rather than a traditional geopolitical rival. As it did during the Cold War (and since) exaggerating any foreign threat to this level will eventually mean that any aggressive action that China takes—even in its own neighborhood—will be interpreted as a major threat to American interests and will necessarily lead to a more militarized and escalatory approach from Washington. The administration’s February 10 announcement of a policy review to form a “coherent policy to counter China, seen as a main U.S. rival on economic, political and security matters” will notably be led by the Pentagon, not the NSC or State Department.
As Daniel Larison recently explained in The American Conservative, just as the obsession with terrorism led successive presidential administrations to launch, and then drag out, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a preoccupation over China will only lead down a path to more militarization and an excuse for more —and longer— wars.
Defining our relationship with China as an inherently hostile one also limits the ability of two global powers to work together on some of the most pressing issues facing the international community, namely the pandemic and climate change. Even if some competition with China is inevitable, the chief threat China currently poses is economic, and not militaristic, in nature. The best way to compete with China is to shore up our strengths at home, through coherent industrial and trade policies that protect American jobs and promote American manufacturing— not by attempting to match or exceed Beijing’s every move in various theaters around the world.
How one frames the problem posed by China, and how one responds to it, is the new frontier in the battle between restrainers and non-restrainers. Heightened focus on China could create an opening for taking a step back from the rest of the world. The challenge will be to persuasively argue that China is not the existential threat that it is often presumed to be, and that the United States should therefore allow it to pursue its own interests in its neighborhood, and that America ought to respond only if China directly threatens U.S. security.
Blaise Malley is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. His work has appeared in The American Prospect, The American Conservative, and Responsible Statecraft.