For starters we need to ask: What aspects of our competition/conflict with China are inevitable between a rising power and a status quo power, and what can be dampened by smart policy?
Let’s start with the inevitable. For roughly the first 30 of the 40 years of economic integration, China sold us what I call “shallow goods” — shirts we wore on our backs, tennis shoes we wore on our feet and solar panels we affixed to our roofs. America, in contrast, sold China “deep goods” — software and computers that went deep into its system, which it needed and could buy only from us.
Well, today, China can now make more and more of those “deep goods” — like Huawei 5G telecom systems — but we don’t have the shared trust between us to install its deep technologies in our homes, bedrooms and businesses, or even to sell our deepest goods to China, like advanced logic chips, anymore. When China sold us “shallow goods,” we didn’t care whether its government was authoritarian, libertarian or vegetarian. But when it comes to our buying China’s “deep goods,” shared values matter and they are not there.
Then there is the leadership strategy of President Xi Jinping, which has been to extend the control of the Communist Party into every pore of Chinese society, culture and commerce. This has reversed a trajectory of gradually opening China to the world since 1979. Couple that with Xi’s determination that China must never again be dependent on America for advanced technologies, and Beijing’s willingness to do whatever it takes — buy, steal, copy, invent or intimidate — to guarantee that, and you have a much more aggressive China.
But Xi has overplayed his hand. The level of technology theft and penetration of U.S. institutions has become intolerable — not to mention China’s decision to snuff out democracy in Hong Kong, to wipe out Uyghur Muslim culture in western China and to use its economic power and wolf warrior diplomats to intimidate neighbors like Australia from even asking for a proper investigation into the origins of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan.
Xi is turning the whole Western world against China — we will see just how much when China hosts the 2022 Winter Olympics — and has prompted this U.S. president and his predecessor to identify countering China as America’s No. 1 strategic objective.
But have we really thought through the “how” of how we do this?
Nader Mousavizadeh, founder and C.E.O. of Macro Advisory Partners, a geopolitical consulting firm, suggests that if we are now going to shift our focus from the Middle East to an irreversible strategy of confronting China, we should start by asking three foundational questions:
First, Mousavizadeh says: “Are we sure we understand the dynamics of an immense and changing society like China well enough to decide that its inevitable mission is the global spread of authoritarianism? Especially when this will require a generational adversarial commitment on the part of the United States, engendering in turn a still more nationalistic China?”