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Photo by The White House on Wikimedia Commons

Interests, Not Ideology, Should Drive America’s Approach to China

Ryan Hass—

Ideologues prefer to understand the U.S.-China relationship as a contest between good versus evil. They take comfort in clean divisions between democracies versus autocracies. They like parallels between the current U.S.-China great power contest and the U.S.-Soviet Union Cold War. The United States triumphed over the Soviets in the Cold War, after all, so why not repeat the cycle again now with China, they ask.

To be clear, there is much to find reprehensible about the Chinese government’s gross human rights abuses at home and its growing assertiveness abroad. Even so, outrage is an ineffective emotion for advancing strategic objectives. Distilling the relationship down to a morality play between good versus evil does not bring solutions to challenges posed by China’s actions and ambitions within closer reach. Similarly, invoking Cold War analogies misdiagnoses the nature of the U.S.-China relationship and creates a false hope that the United States has the capacity to compel the collapse of China. After all, the Soviet Union was a military power with an anemic economy. China, by contrast, is both a military power and a global economic power who is determined not to repeat Moscow’s mistakes.    

Any American attempt to treat China as its existential enemy (a la the Soviet Union during the Cold War) would isolate the United States from its friends and allies, none of whom have any enthusiasm for joining an anti-China containment coalition. If the United States travels down a new Cold War path on its own, it will struggle to resist the temptation to view its relationships with partners through the prism of great power competition. Countries will come to be seen as either with the United States in seeking to undermine China’s rise or against us by resisting such requests. And if the United States seeks to silo the global economy into an American-led order versus an authoritarian-led economic system, it will undermine its own strength and expose the limits of its appeal. Not even America’s closest partners in Europe or Asia would sign up for a role in erecting such a global economic partition.

Meanwhile, China certainly is advancing efforts to increase its self-reliance and reduce vulnerabilities to outside pressure. Trade data does not support arguments that China is seeking to bifurcate the global economy, though. Over 150 countries view China as their largest trading partner, making China the world’s largest trading power. Even as Beijing pursues more statist economic policies at home, it continues to look for opportunities to gain leverage by locking in other countries’ dependence upon China for future economic growth.  

Looking beyond ideological caricatures to evaluate the deeper structures of the U.S.-China relationship requires analysts to hold two competing thoughts in their head at once. The first is a recognition that the bilateral relationship is deeply competitive. There are near-daily reminders of this reality, from images of Chinese spy balloons penetrating American airspace to news of near collisions between U.S. and Chinese military planes in international airspace over the South China Sea. Both countries also are battling each other to dominate the frontiers of innovation in technological fields that will define the coming century, such as quantum computing, biotechnology, artificial intelligence, and clean energy.

At the same time, the U.S.-China relationship also is deeply and inescapably interdependent. In spite of mounting bilateral tensions and growing calls in the United States for “decoupling” from China’s economy, bilateral trade in goods hit a record in 2022, nearing $700 billion. Similarly, by virtue of their positions as the world’s two most powerful countries, the United States and China also face planetary interdependence. From climate change to the global economy and pandemics, they both are harmed or helped by their (in)ability to pool capabilities to confront shared threats.

The sooner leaders in Washington and Beijing embrace the framework of competitive interdependence for understanding the nature of U.S.-China relations, the better they will be able to compete without resort to conflict. The framework pushes both sides to coexist within a heightened state of competition, not out of amity but rather a sober recognition of the parameters within which the relationship operates. The hard truth is that neither the United States nor China would be able to achieve their national ambitions if they end up in conflict with each other.

Ultimately, the goal of strategy is to minimize risks and maximize benefits. The current trajectory of U.S.-China relations is moving in the opposite direction. Risks of conflict are rising, while benefits from the relationship for American and Chinese citizens are receding.

A different path for the relationship is available. Realizing it would require leaders in Washington and Beijing to take a long-term view of their national requirements and how the U.S.-China relationship relates to them. It would require a degree of strategic maturity that has been in short supply in recent years. It also would require shared buy-in from leaders in both countries to view their interests as best served by a competitive coexistence, where the goal is to outperform the other on a level playing field, rather than focusing on hindering the other’s progress to protect one’s own gains. Each side will run its own race. The goal is to run your own race better.

There is no guarantee that one or both leaders will embrace the framework of competitive interdependence for understanding the nature of the relationship, either now or in the future. There are significant risks in choosing not to do so, however. The current downward trajectory of the relationship, if not arrested, will continue to generate sharp incidents of growing intensity. Expecting that U.S. and Chinese leaders would manage all such future incidents wisely and calmly requires the triumph of hope over reason.

The stakes of the U.S.-China relationship now are too high for flimsy ideological arguments about America triumphing over China. What is needed now is clear-eyed, evidence-based, interest-driven thinking about how the world’s two most powerful countries can compete without resort to conflict, both now and in the future.

Ryan Hass is the Michael H. Armacost Chair in Foreign Policy and the Koo Chair in Taiwan Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is a nonresident affiliated fellow in the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School. He is also a senior advisor at the Scowcroft Group and McLarty Associates.

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