The U.S.'s Strategic Competition with China


The 2018 National Defense Strategy redefined China as a strategic competitor to the United States, which seeks regional hegemony in the Indo-Pacific in the near term and the global displacement of the U.S. in the long term. Because of this, U.S.-China competition will define American foreign and defense policy moving forward. This competition will take place over multiple domains, from traditional realms of military and economic conflict, to competition in cyberspace and the development of emerging technologies. The need to confront China and ensure it does not supplant the United States as the leader of the international order is one of the few areas of true bipartisanship on Capitol Hill. Senators from both parties agree on the challenges we face and the necessity to rise to the occasion and meet them.

To further discuss China's strategic challenge to the United States and how the United States should respond, the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) held a hearing on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. The hearing witnesses included: Mr. Pottinger, a Former Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor under President Trump; Dr. Medeiros, the Penner Family Chair in Asia Studies in the School of Foreign Service and the Cling Family Distinguished Fellow in U.S.-China Studies at Georgetown University; Dr. Greitens, an Associate Professor at Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin; and Ms. Glaser, the Director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

The U.S.-China competition will occur in the undefined areas between war and peace, also called the gray zone. China has been developing a unique set of capabilities in the gray zone to exploit U.S. vulnerabilities and those of its allies. These tactics are activities of non-traditional statecraft designed to achieve strategic advantage without resorting to or provoking the use of force. They include economic coercion, cyber and information operations, disinformation campaigns, military pressure, and the use of state-controlled paramilitary maritime forces. Yet, to date, the U.S. and its allies have failed to appropriately respond to these actions in ways that deter their future use.

U.S. competition with China may not remain in the gray zone, and Taiwan still represents the most dangerous flashpoint in U.S.-China relations. China's goal in Taiwan remains to deter outright Taiwanese independence, with mainland reunification a long-term focus China hopes to achieve without bloodshed. However, China has spent the last 30 years building its military in preparation for a confrontation with the United States. China designed its military capabilities to counteract American strengths and ensure the U.S. cannot come to Taiwan's aid before establishing a fait accompli. If Taiwan is forced to rejoin mainland China, either through coercion or military action, it could dramatically affect U.S. national security. It would undermine the democratic models of other neighboring countries in the Indo-Pacific region, seriously damage U.S. credibility as an ally, and could lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons as other countries scramble for a more reliable deterrent than American security commitments.

The necessity for a strong U.S. presence in the Asian Pacific to deter aggressive Chinese actions underscores the need for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI). The PDI is designed to improve and expand the operating space in the Pacific for U.S. forces and to make our allies more capable and interoperable in the event of Chinese aggression. While the PDI has bipartisan support, there is also bipartisan frustration with the level of funding it received within the Biden Administration's Fiscal Year 2022 Budget Request.

Despite the threat China poses to U.S. national security, it has several key vulnerabilities. Many of these vulnerabilities center around the fact that the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) main driving interest, both domestically and internationally, is remaining in power in China. This fact defines China's rise as the CCP has used the growing Chinese economy and military to justify its legitimacy to rule. It has also led the CCP to crackdown on dissent, including in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and elsewhere. Thus, Chinese national security is synonymous with the security of the CCP's position within China. The internal insecurity of the CCP also drives its economic concerns.

If China fails to make fundamental changes to its economic structure and reorient towards innovation and domestic consumption, internal economic growth may slow, and the CCP will become weaker domestically. It may then look for other, more aggressive ways to justify its rule. On the other hand, America's greatest strengths remain its values, political system, and network of friends, allies, and partners worldwide. It will have to rely on all of these in the growing competition with China.

The U.S.-China competition will drive Defense Department budgets, planning, and investments for years to come, and it represents one of the main areas of bipartisan agreement within the United States Congress. In addition, the growing competition with China will shape the Defense Industrial Base and drive Congressional spending priorities. Accordingly, NDIA will continue to monitor the U.S.-China relationship, Defense Department policies, and attitudes on Capitol Hill.

Topics: Operations, International

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