Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute

Competition with China: Debating the Endgame

Senior Fellow
Seaman standing lookout watch on the bridge wing of the guided-missile destroyer USS Higgins (DDG 76) as the ship conducts routine Taiwan Strait transit. (Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Donavan K. Patubo via DVIDS)
Seaman standing lookout watch on the bridge wing of the guided-missile destroyer USS Higgins (DDG 76) as the ship conducts routine Taiwan Strait transit. (Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Donavan K. Patubo via DVIDS)

It was only a few short years ago that the debate between “competition” versus “engagement” in U.S.-China relations was a hot one in the U.S. foreign policy community. It is now largely settled. What has formed is a near-consensus that—like it or not—our relationship with China is competitive. And in many respects, it is adversarial. 

The debate has now moved to the central question of strategy: what are we competing for? What is the ultimate vision for our relations with China and for China itself—the “endgame”—toward which we can craft our policies? What is the objective by which we will know if the United States has won or lost?

While those appear on the surface to be clear questions, the “endgame” debate is by no means simple and clean. You could generalize the recent literature as being divided between those, on one hand, who seek the ultimate replacement of Chinese Communist Party-rule with a more pluralistic China, and those, on other hand, who seek balance and détente with a CCP whose nature they feel is beyond the prudent influence of U.S. policy. But that would be an oversimplification. 

What I sense instead is that participants in this debate offer a diverse array of nuanced arguments that overlap and do not coalesce into distinct sides. And—more often than not—they share many of the same policy prescriptions. I could present you with multiple articles that call for the United States to bolster military spending, increase allied defense cooperation, implement harder technological and investment strictures, build supply chain resiliency, neutralize Chinese influence operations, and cast a light on the depredations of the CCP’s authoritarian and genocidal rule. You would be hard pressed to identify which articles support what general vision for the U.S.-China endgame.

The muddled nature of this debate is not a reflection of the intellect or skill of the writers and policymakers. Instead, it may stem from a reality in which the endgame has already been predestined by the strategic choices of the CCP. It is a reality in which regardless of whether the United States pursues détente with China or democracy within it, the CCP will increasingly be presented with dilemmas for its legitimacy. 

This is because the CCP has based its domestic legitimacy—and its ultimate capacity to rule—on an aggressive international grand strategy. Now, it is axiomatic that there is never a clear delineation for any country of where its domestic policies and foreign policies begin and end. But for China, the linkage between the realization of its international vision and the perpetuation of its domestic rule is unusually deep, deliberate, and essential. To legitimate its rule, the CCP relies on unbalanced mercantilist trade, innovation fueled by foreign investment and technological know-how (either stolen or freely given), coerced international political acquiescence, domestic repression of “restive” minorities in violation of international conventions, actualization of territorial claims, and growing its regional military dominance. In other words, the CCP’s Leninist system is not just incompatible with the liberal order (although it very much is). It is instead, more threateningly, dependent on the abuse of the liberal order for continued survival. 

That is an unacceptable state of affairs for the United States and our partners, whether viewed from either a liberal ideological posture or one more rooted in classical realism. Either approach demands that U.S. policy attempt to bracket and cut off these avenues for abuse, imbalance, and coercion. In her essay, Dr. Deal helpfully labels this counter-strategy one of “extrusion.”   That strategy—one of countering the CCP’s abuses and defending our interests—will inevitably have the effect of straining the CCP’s domestic rule—whether we aim to or not.

If, for instance, the United States establishes measures to insulate partners and itself from Chinese economic and political coercion, is that a deliberate challenge to the nationalist “Middle Kingdom” mythos the CCP leverages to justify its rule?

If the United States enforces international maritime law, defends norms of non-aggression, and seeks to maintain its access to the Indo-Pacific region and peace across the Taiwan Strait with an increased U.S. military presence in the region, is that an explicit challenge to the “territorial integrity” upon which the CCP bases much of its historical legitimacy and motivates its military buildup?

If the United States seeks to restore the reciprocal principles of the world trading system, halt China’s massive theft of intellectual property, and place controls on strategic technologies that could be turned against our own citizens and those of our allies, is that a deliberate attempt to close off the drivers of Chinese economic growth and techno-authoritarianism that maintain the CCP’s grip on power?

Certainly not. These are actions that fall well within a defense of U.S. security, freedom, and prosperity within a liberal order. But these questions and their answers point to the fact that the CCP’s parasitic abuse of both the liberal order and the U.S. economy has backed the United States into an endgame where—regardless of whether we seek to or not—our reasonable counters to Chinese strategy will create legitimacy dilemmas for the CCP. 

And we have to get comfortable with that reality. The CCP will react stridently to U.S. countermoves and accuse us of undermining Chinese society. That’s not a reason to halt the pursuit of our policies. Put aside the fact that the CCP itself is not shy about actively undermining the cohesion of U.S. society. And put aside the fact that we should not be obliged to subjugate U.S. and allied interests to CCP strategy and the continuance of the party state in China. Rather, the proliferation of legitimacy dilemmas for the CCP—in the economic, security, and international political realms—will be a clear metric of whether U.S. strategy is working. This is precisely because the CCP has chosen to predicate its legitimacy on the diminishment of U.S. interests.

This is not a pleasant reality. In fact, it is exceedingly dangerous. The United States and its people have to be prepared for a level of tension, regional destabilization, and—yes—possible conflict that we have not seen since the end of World War II. I deliberately say World War II and not the Cold War because the risks that lie ahead are more worrying than those that existed in the Cold War. It is in fact a more difficult task for us to ensure that our competition with China remains as “cold” as the Soviet competition ended up being.

Whereas the U.S. Cold War strategy of containment aimed to maintain a perimeter around the Soviet Union within which it would either “mellow” or collapse under the weight of Communism’s own inherent internal contradictions, the endgame the CCP has forced upon us is of a different and more dangerous nature. The required U.S. counter actions that Dr. Deal cogently outlines in her essay will in fact directly create contradictions in the CCP’s chosen system. When the CCP has so predicated its rule on financial and technological inputs and spoils from the liberal order, and when its hegemonic and territorial ambitions extend to geographies covered by U.S. security guarantees, assurances, and norm enforcement, there is little space for indirect Cold War-style competition by proxy. The CCP is therefore more likely to view U.S. policy as direct threats. They, in turn, will consider more direct action themselves, including military aggression.

*  *  * 

The term “endgame” arises from chess. Chess theory indicates that the shape of an “endgame” is largely influenced by players’ opening moves and the choices they make in the “middlegame” of a match. 

That is very much the situation we are in now with China. China’s initial stratagem at the literal opening of U.S.-China relations 50 years ago, its “middlegame” moves to leverage the liberal order to expand economically since the 1980s, and the pieces left on the board in our current geopolitical game have largely structured the parameters of the U.S.-China endgame. 

The remaining uncertainty is who will win.

Read in Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute.