Celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in Beijing, October, 2019
Xu Yu Xinhua / Redux

Competition between the United States and China is unavoidable. China’s trade practices have cost the United States millions of jobs, and its economic rise has disrupted the international system that underpins American security and prosperity. Beijing now openly aims to surpass the United States as the global technological hegemon, and its defense budget could exceed that of the United States as soon as the 2030s. China’s rise has touched off an intense rivalry with the United States over everything from trade and cyber-espionage to influence within international bodies, such as the United Nations. Demographic and environmental headwinds will likely slow China’s economic growth—but they won’t keep the Middle Kingdom from presenting a formidable threat to American interests for decades to come.

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has embraced rivalry with China, waging a trade war against Beijing and ratcheting up defense spending to counter the “revisionist” and great-power threat in the Indo-Pacific. But whereas the political right in the United States has leaned into competition with China, the left remains uncomfortable with the idea of geopolitical rivalry. Many progressives fear that too much emphasis on competition will fuel xenophobia, chest-thumping chauvinism, and possibly even war. Others on the left worry that great-power rivalry will feed the military-industrial complex and enable the executive branch, including career defense, intelligence, and diplomatic professionals, to wield too much power. Decades of conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq, moreover, have prompted Americans of all political stripes—but especially progressives—to turn inward and focus on “nation building at home.”

Such concerns are understandable. Throughout its history, the United States has trammeled the civil liberties of Americans associated (usually unfairly) with foreign adversaries—interning Japanese Americans during World War II, for example, and persecuting alleged Communists in the McCarthy era. Washington has often proved overeager to find new foes: witness the misplaced angst over Japan’s economic ascendancy in the 1980s and 1990s and the rush to topple Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein after the 9/11 attacks. The Trump administration is now adding to this checkered history by responding to China’s rise through a series of misguided and often counterproductive policies.   

Progressives have rightly criticized Trump’s often erratic approach to China, which Ely Ratner of the Center for a New American Security has characterized as “confrontational without being competitive.” Not only have the president’s aggressive tariff hikes and trade restrictions hurt U.S. farmers and manufacturers; they risk alienating the foreign talent that the United States needs to remain competitive—especially in the fields of science and technology. Moreover, Trump’s narrow focus on expanding the country’s traditional military capabilities by building additional aircraft carriers and fighter jets, for example, won’t be enough to defend U.S. security interests in the Indo-Pacific. Nor will it counter China’s economic, technological, and ideological challenges to U.S. global leadership. Even worse, the Trump administration’s threatened cuts to federal education and applied research-and-development spending; its attacks on long-standing allies, such as Canada and Germany; and its reluctance to publicly criticize China’s assaults on human rights from Xinjiang to Hong Kong have made it much harder to build a durable coalition to contest Beijing’s vision of global order.

But the American left’s reluctance to see China as a threat risks letting Beijing’s regional aggression, predatory economic statecraft, and repressive behavior go unchecked. To back away from confronting this reality is also to miss an opportunity. A progressive strategy to counter China would not only preserve the United States’ prosperity, bolster its security, and renew its ideals but also help mend its broken politics. The left needs to reconsider its traditional aversion to geopolitical competition and recognize that many progressive achievements at home were a response to threats from abroad.

THE POWER OF A COMMON FOE

Americans often think of liberal triumphs, such as the civil rights movement, as domestic affairs. But rivalry with foreign adversaries has played a crucial role in translating left-wing hopes into tangible reforms. Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King, Jr., were both indispensable to the progressive story, but so were Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.

Whenever Americans have struggled against an external foe, they have shown greater willingness to put aside their differences and sacrifice for the common good. In times of war or heightened geopolitical competition, the federal government has raised taxes, tightened economic regulation, and increased spending on science, infrastructure, and social services, boosting opportunities for marginalized groups and reducing wealth disparities. During the World War II era, the federal budget grew from $6.8 billion in 1938 to $98.3 billion in 1945, and the top income tax rate increased to an eye-popping 94 percent (and stayed above 90 percent into the 1960s). As a result, the 1940s and 1950s were characterized by greater economic equality than any other period in modern American history. In the early years of the Cold War, the federal government created the national highway system, partly as a defensive measure against communist invasion. It also provided the first large-scale funding for public education and dramatically increased expenditures on science and technology in response to Soviet scientific advances. In all of these cases, external competition helped to persuade conservative lawmakers, who normally balk at federal spending, to open the purse strings.

Shared sacrifice as a result of war and geopolitical rivalry also empowered women and minority groups. The fight against imperial Germany during World War I was a vital catalyst for female suffrage. “Shall we admit [women] only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?” President Woodrow Wilson famously asked in a speech before Congress in 1918. The Cold War was likewise a critical factor in ending segregation in public schools. In an amicus brief filed in Brown v. Board of Education, Attorney General Herbert Brownell Jr., urged the Supreme Court to rule against segregation not because of social injustice but because “racial discrimination furnishes grist for the communist propaganda mills.” His brief included a letter from Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who lamented that the “continuance of racial discrimination in the United States remains a source of constant embarrassment to this government in the day-to-day conduct of its foreign relations; and it jeopardizes the effective maintenance of our moral leadership of the free and democratic nations of the world.” These arguments appear to have swayed Chief Justice Earl Warren, who months after writing the majority opinion in that case, said, “our American system, like all others, is on trial both at home and abroad. . . . The extent to which we maintain the spirit of our Constitution . . . will in the long run do more to make it both secure and the object of adulation than the number of hydrogen bombs we stockpile.”

Shared sacrifice as a result of war and geopolitical rivalry empowered women and minority groups.

In times of diminished geopolitical rivalry, by contrast, progress at home has often ground to a halt. The end of war should bring a peace dividend or a shift in resources from the military to social programs. But more often than not, the peace dividend accrues to the rich. As threats recede, governments respond by slashing taxes and regulation. Inequality inevitably rises, and the country becomes a playground for the elites. The 1920s was one such era of limited geopolitical rivalry and rampant wealth disparity. The 1970s was another, as Cold War tensions eased in the period of superpower détente and the government started to be seen as the problem instead of the solution. Two decades later, the end of the Cold War left the United States safer than at any time since the 1920s. The result was a bipartisan lurch to the right, underscored by President Bill Clinton’s declaration that “the era of big government is over.”

None of this history implies that war with China is the answer to the United States’ problems. Military conflict would be a global catastrophe, and xenophobia and “othering” should be avoided. But stable, managed competition with Beijing is both necessary to secure U.S. national interests and likely to be beneficial for progressives. The left should seize the opportunity afforded by foreign rivalry to advance a progressive domestic agenda—embracing an ambitious program of investment, innovation, social inclusion, and national renewal. In doing so, progressives should avoid alarmist rhetoric and aim to educate rather than inflame the public.

After all, the alternatives are much worse. If progressives ignore Beijing’s ambitions, they risk ceding China policy to hard-line conservatives who may be less concerned about xenophobia and even the risk of war. They are also more likely to leave the United States at the mercy of market fundamentalism: talking tough but failing to invest in the domestic foundations of U.S. power. Continuing along this path could leave Beijing with the false impression that the United States lacks resolve, prompting it to miscalculate and overplay its hand. If that happens, Americans could wheel from inattention to fury—overreacting to Beijing’s provocations and gearing up for a major conflict. By navigating a middle path between seeing no evil and seeing only evil, the left can manage great-power tensions and rally Americans across the political spectrum to support national renewal.

THE CHINA CARD

Competition with China can advance a progressive agenda by enabling large-scale public investment. In almost every other policy area, Republicans block major new federal expenditures, but initiatives designed to counter China offer a chance for bipartisanship. Framing reform around rivalry with China could dramatically broaden the appeal of progressive projects to moderates and conservatives.

Alarm about China’s industrial and trade policies has already led some Republicans to reconsider conservative economic catechisms that date back to the Reagan revolution. In a December 2019 speech at the National Defense University, Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida argued that the United States must adopt a “twenty-first-century pro-American industrial policy” of “common-good capitalism” because “market fundamentalists won’t win” a competition with China. And last month, Republican Senators signed on to a bill designed to spur U.S. innovation in 5G wireless networks, providing more than $1 billion for investments in technology to compete with Chinese telecom-equipment providers Huawei and ZTE.  

Another remarkable bipartisan achievement was the 2018 BUILD Act, which not only created a new international development agency (something conservatives had fiercely resisted in the past) but authorized it to spend up to $60 billion. Washington hadn’t made that kind of investment in a new federal agency since it created of the Department of Homeland Security in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. The catalyst for this rare show of unity was China’s enormous global development scheme, the Belt and Road Initiative, and bipartisan concern that the United States’ development-assistance architecture wasn’t prepared to compete, even selectively. “There are people who want to do this for humanitarian aid, fine,” Representative Ted Yoho, a Republican from Florida, said in supporting the BUILD Act. “There are people who want to do this for national security, like me, fine.”

Similar cooperation is possible in other realms. The first priority should be boosting public investment in scientific research and development. Although the private sector in the United States remains one of the most innovative in the world, government spending is critical to support promising but unproven technologies with unclear commercial applications. In 2017, U.S. federal investment in basic science and research stood at about $66 billion, or roughly 1.7 percent of the federal budget—half of what it was in the 1960s. That is far too little at a time when China is prioritizing investments in new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, and quantum communications. Although the Trump administration’s budget for the 2021 fiscal year proposes increases for investment in AI and quantum research, it also proposes deep cuts to R & D spending at major science agencies, including the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Another area where the United States lacks an adequate strategy is biotechnology. Just last month, the National Academy of Sciences issued a report warning that, thanks to inadequate investment, the United States is at risk of losing its long-held advantage in biomedical research and development. And although the United States still has an edge in quantum computing, China has made major investments to catch up and could eventually surpass the United States. Chinese banks already use a quantum communications network to send financial data between Beijing and Shanghai, putting them far ahead of their Western counterparts in the adoption of quantum technologies. To remain competitive in the face of these kinds of investments, the United States must double, if not triple, federal R & D spending and, at least in some areas, reconsider deeply held aversions to industrial policy.

To remain competitive, the United States must double, if not triple, federal R & D spending.

Technological competition with China might also persuade conservatives to rethink budget cuts in U.S. higher education. In recent years, conservatives have railed against American universities as bastions of liberalism. Viewed through the lens of international competition, however, universities are the nation’s crown jewels—incubators of knowledge and innovation that give the United States its economic and military edge. In order to protect that advantage, conservatives may be willing to reverse decades of belt-tightening.

Rivalry with Beijing might even spur urgently needed reform in U.S. immigration policy. China can lay claim to the human resources of 1.3 billion citizens. Between 2000 and 2015, the number of science and engineering graduates in China more than quadrupled, from 360,000 to more than 1.7 million. And whereas its total number of university graduates across all academic fields is projected to increase by 300 percent over the next decade, the United States and Europe are likely to see an increase of only 30 percent. And China’s Thousand Talents Program, which recruits Chinese citizens living abroad as well as foreigners, allows the country to compete for top global scientific, technological, and managerial talent.

With its open society and its history of immigration and cultural integration, the United States can draw on a much broader pool of global talent. But Trump’s nativist immigration policies are preventing highly skilled foreigners from studying and settling in the United States and could damage stay rates. Progressives should be able to make common cause with conservatives to preserve U.S. competitiveness by passing legislation that eases the path to citizenship for students, graduates, and entrepreneurs in critical fields.

Having reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to diversity and openness at home, progressives should turn their attention to ideological competition with China overseas. Beijing portrays liberal democracy as an outdated and Eurocentric model, but American soft power arguably remains unmatched around the globe. During the Cold War, competition for foreign hearts and minds underpinned federal investment in the arts and culture, as well as in development and cultural exchange initiatives such as the Peace Corps and the Fulbright Foreign Student Program. Today, the challenge from Beijing can spur Washington to renew and expand these programs. Progressives should also highlight recent gains for the LGBTQ community and for women as a result of the #MeToo movement, contrasting social progress at home with the Chinese government’s woeful record on equal rights.

A PROGRESSIVE CHINA POLICY

The China card must be played with restraint and historical awareness. Washington will have to pursue vigorous competition with China even as it secures cooperation with Beijing on shared concerns such as climate change and the prevention and response to communicable disease. This must include restoring U.S. leadership in multilateral institutions spurned by the Trump administration. Most important, U.S. officials will have to distinguish between competing with China’s government and stoking hostility toward the Chinese people. Beijing’s propaganda willfully conflates the two, but Washington should underscore that it remains a friend of the Chinese people even as it vigorously checks the impulses of their authoritarian government. If progressives play the China card with skill, they can eschew nativism, militarism, and market fundamentalism and usher in a new era of national investment, solidarity, and reform.  

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  • TARUN CHHABRA is a Fellow in the Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institution and served as Director for Strategic Planning on the National Security Council during the Obama administration.
  • SCOTT MOORE is Director of the Penn Global China Program and a lecturer in Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • DOMINIC TIERNEY is Associate Professor of Political Science at Swarthmore College and a Templeton Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
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