The United States is in the midst of the most consequential rethinking of its foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. Although Washington remains bitterly divided on most issues, there is a growing consensus that the era of engagement with China has come to an unceremonious close. The debate now is over what comes next.
Like many debates throughout the history of U.S. foreign policy, this one has elements of both productive innovation and destructive demagoguery. Most observers can agree that, as the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy put it in 2018, “strategic competition” should animate the United States’ approach to Beijing going forward. But foreign policy frameworks beginning with the word “strategic” often raise more questions than they answer. “Strategic patience” reflects uncertainty about what to do and when. “Strategic ambiguity” reflects uncertainty about what to signal. And in this case, “strategic competition” reflects uncertainty about what that competition is over and what it means to win.
The rapid coalescence of a new consensus has left these essential questions about U.S.-Chinese competition unanswered. What, exactly, is the United States competing for? And what might a plausible desired outcome of this competition look like? A failure to connect competitive means to clear ends will allow U.S. policy to drift toward competition for competition’s sake and then fall into a dangerous cycle of confrontation.
U.S. policymakers and analysts have mostly, and rightly, discarded some of the more optimistic assumptions that underpinned the four-decade-long strategy of diplomatic and economic engagement with China (which one of us, Kurt Campbell, detailed in these pages last year, writing with Ely Ratner). But in the rush to embrace competition, policymakers may be substituting a new variety of wishful thinking for the old. The basic mistake of engagement was to assume that it could bring about fundamental changes to China’s political system, economy, and foreign policy. Washington risks making a similar mistake today, by assuming that competition can succeed
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