China and the U.S.: The Case for Managed Strategic Competition
An excerpt from Kevin Rudd's newest book 'The Avoidable War'
There is both a moral and a practical obligation for friends of China and friends of the United States to think through what has become the single hardest question of international relations of our century: how to preserve the peace and prosperity we have secured over the last three-quarters of a century while recognizing the reality of changing power relativities between Washington and Beijing. We can allow the primordial dimensions of Thucydidean logic to simply take their natural course, ultimately culminating in crisis, conflict, or even war. Or we can identify potential strategic off-ramps, or at least guardrails, which may help preserve the peace among the great powers while also sustaining the integrity of the rules-based order that has underpinned the stability of the wider international relations system since 1945.
Therefore, to borrow a question from Lenin himself: “What is to be done?” As a first step, each side must be mindful of how their actions will be read by the other through the prism of their accumulated national perceptions — in other words, what buttons light up in the decision-making processes on one side when a particular action is taken by the other. At present, both sides are bad at this, often reflecting a combination of mutually assured non-comprehension and mirror imaging that has long characterized large parts of the U.S.-China relationship. If we are serious about the possibility of developing a joint strategic narrative that might be capable of governing the future of the relationship peacefully, we must, at a minimum, be mindful of how strategic language, actions, and diplomatic signaling will be interpreted within each side’s political culture, systems, and elites. It is this sort of awareness that can help us navigate the practical complexities of competing national interests, values, and perceptions within a stable, albeit still competitive, strategic framework.
Developing a new level of mutual strategic literacy, however, is only the beginning. What follows must be the hard work of constructing a joint strategic framework between Washington and Beijing that is capable of achieving the following three interrelated tasks:
- Agreeing on principles and procedures for navigating each other’s strategic redlines (for example, over Taiwan) that, if inadvertently crossed, would likely result in military escalation.
- Mutually identifying the areas of nonlethal national security policy—foreign policy, economic policy, technology development (for example, over semiconductors) —and ideology where full-blown strategic competition is accepted as the new normal.
- Defining those areas where continued strategic cooperation (for example, on climate change) is both recognized and encouraged.
Of course, none of this can be advanced unilaterally. It can only be done bilaterally by senior negotiators who have been charged by the two countries’ presidents with an overarching responsibility for the totality of the relationship, not just discrete and individual parts of it. In the case of the United States, this would be the national security advisor, given their coordination role across the full range of government agencies. For China, it would probably devolve to the director of the foreign affairs office of the Central Committee, or else the vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, or both. These same individuals would also be charged with operationalizing any joint strategic framework that they negotiated and agreed to around the core principles of managed strategic competition described above. As with all such agreements, the devil will, of course, lie in the detail — and in its enforcement. Such a framework would not depend on trust. It would rely exclusively on sophisticated national verification systems already deployed by each country. In other words, the integrity of these arrangements would not rely on Ronald Reagan’s famous “trust, but verify” approach, which Reagan insisted on with the Soviet Union, but rather on “verify” alone.
A joint strategic framework of this type will not prevent crisis, conflict, or war. But properly negotiated, effectively implemented, and reinforced with effective deterrence, it would reduce their likelihood. Of course, it would also not prevent any premeditated covert attack by one side against the assets of the other as part of a complete violation of the framework. Indeed, such a framework would rest on the assumption that it would not be in the interests of either side to initiate any such unilateral attack for the foreseeable future. But where a joint framework could assist lies in managing escalation or de-escalation in the event of accidental incidents at sea, in the air, or in cyberspace. Were there to be a breach of any of the framework’s subsidiary agreements on strategic redlines (for example, a cyberattack), then the matter would immediately be referred to the principals of both sides for clarification prior to any further escalation being undertaken.
I’m not so naive as to believe that any agreed-upon joint framework arranged on managed strategic competition assumptions would prevent China and the U.S. from still strategizing against the other, deploying their assets and statecraft as best they could to maintain (or obtain) long-term primacy. But the United States and the Soviet Union, following the near-death experience of the Cuban Missile Crisis, eventually agreed on a political and strategic framework to manage their own fraught relationship without triggering mutual annihilation. Surely it’s possible to do the same between America and China in the arguably less trying geopolitical circumstances of today. It is from this hope that the idea of managed strategic competition comes.
Certainly, the rest of the world, and not just Asia, would welcome a future where the strategic temperature came down and where they are not forced to make binary choices between Beijing and Washington in an increasingly bipolar world. These countries would prefer a world in which there is a global order in which each country, large and small, has confidence in its territorial integrity, political sovereignty, and pathway to national prosperity. They would also prefer a world whose stability was underpinned by a functioning international system that was also empowered to act on the great global challenges of our time that no individual nation can solve alone. What happens next between China and America will decide if that is still possible.