In your book, “Stronger: Adapting America’s China Strategy in an Age of Competitive Interdependence” you introduced the concept of competitive interdependence as a way to understand China-US relations. Could you explain why competitive interdependence is such a crucial aspect of this relationship?
The idea is intended as a framing device for understanding how the world's two most powerful countries relate to each other. It is not intended to be a cure-all or a magical elixir for the problems that exist in the relationship. The reality is that some of the issues that exist in the relationship are fundamentally zero-sum in nature. With issues like Taiwan, there is not going to be a mutually satisfying compromise available. So there are certain issues in the relationship that will have to be managed without having to resort to conflict. However, there are other issues in which the United States and China will both be harmed together or helped together depending on how these problems are treated. Our strategy needs to be flexible enough to be able to differentiate between the issues that are irreconcilable in nature versus those that could be managed. Hopefully, the concept of competitive interdependence will help us distinguish between which issues fit within each category. At its core, the concept is that the relationship has both a competitive dimension and an interdependent dimension that exists alongside each other. The United States and China have different visions for the international order, different regional ambitions, different views on fundamental issues such as the role of the individual versus the primacy of social stability over individual liberties. There will be inescapable sources of competition, but at the same time, there's deep interdependencies between both countries. Our two countries trade over $600 billion each year. Both of our economies move in similar directions together. There’s also certain ecological interdependencies that neither side can escape. We're both stuck on the same planet and we are both impacted by the same global trends. If we can't impose our will on each other, then we need to figure out a way to make this relationship function in a manner that maximally advances American interests.
Should China ever become the dominant power, would competitive interdependence still be viable?
China would like to become the central actor in Asia and have its economic and political models respected and legitimized. However, I also think that China's ambitions need to be measured alongside their capabilities and limitations. For example, I have an ambition to become a pro basketball player, but I have limitations that are probably going to prevent me from making the NBA. Many countries have interests, and the question is whether they will be able to realize them. China has a lot of strengths, but it also has a lot of challenges. So we need to recognize the challenges that China confronts even as we focus on their ambitions. It’s important to remember that the United States has navigated periods of fear of our own decline before. In the last 70 years, we have had similar episodes after the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite, after the consolidation of the Iron Curtain, and after our defeat in Vietnam. If you look at this as a cyclical pattern, we're actually pretty overdue for another surge of fear of decline. We’ve risen to the challenge before and America has proven itself to be pretty resilient. I'm betting my book on the fact that we can continue to do so again.
How has the Biden administration differed from the Trump administration concerning its views on China?
My sense is that the Biden administration has largely accepted the diagnosis that the Trump administration made of China being America's most formidable geostrategic challenger in the 21st century. However, they chose a different set of policy prescriptions for dealing with that diagnosis. First, the Biden administration rejected the idea that there is a deterministic view of the US-China relationship. President Biden often speaks about the need for competitive coexistence, so that competition does not veer into conflict. Second, there are no longer any advocates of full-scale economic decoupling in senior positions of policy influence in the Biden administration. I think that President Biden and President Xi have both, in their own words, found ways to acknowledge that it's necessary for competitors to cooperate with each other when it serves their interest. There have been some nascent efforts to find ways to do that, such as the statement that was released at the Glasgow climate conference. If someone from the administration were here, they would say that the most prominent distinction between the previous and current administration is that rather than trying to confront China on our own, we've spent a lot of time coordinating and knitting together cohesive groupings to deal with discrete challenges that China poses. There has been a real reinvestment in alliances and partnerships. The Biden Administration hasn't publicly repudiated the Trump administration's approach but has sought to subtly reorient the manner in which they deal with those issues.
In your book, you discuss the benefits of having China take a larger role in dealing with global issues. How can the US ensure that China will handle these issues in a way that coincides with American values and interests?
The starting point for thinking through your question is for us to be clear about where China’s actions challenge American interests and values and where they do not. So, for example, I believe it is important for the United States to prevent any power from dominating Asia, which could lead to the exclusion of the United States from the most dynamic region in the world. It's also essential for the United States to prevent any country from limiting freedom of navigation or overflight, because that's the central nerve system of the global economy. The United States must also protect the credibility of its security commitments to allies and partners. If we allow our credibility as a security partner to erode, it will have a multiplier effect in undermining American influence around the world. It’s also important for us to work hard to prevent any country from undermining the open rules-based trading system. These are some of the parameters that the United States needs to firmly protect. However, outside of these areas of concern, I believe it’s to our advantage to encourage China to take on more responsibility and shoulder more burden for providing public goods for meeting the challenges that the international community faces.
How did being a diplomat inform your view on US China relations?
First, I think being a diplomat caused me to see things more pragmatically and less ideologically. Diplomacy is an art of incrementalism. You are trying to nudge the other party in the direction of your interests or objectives. You're working daily to try to influence how your counterparty identifies and pursues their interests. In diplomacy, we're taught that the only instances of absolute victory or loss are at the end of terrible wars. The last time we experienced absolute victory was at the end of World War Two, and we paid an enormous price to achieve that. We're not going to get China to act the way that we want them to act on all matters, nor are we going to turn China into the country we wish they were. The questions are, how do we prioritize our top objectives and what tools do we have to push China in the direction of those objectives. Another lesson from my diplomatic experience is that there really isn't any predestiny to US-China relations. Historically, the relationship has not traveled on a linear path, and I have no reason to believe that we've reached a terminal state of history where it will travel on a linear path from this point forward. Being a diplomat gave me modesty about our ability to anticipate the future, and also presented me with a degree of intellectual openness to alternative pathways.
In your book, you discuss how the antagonism between China and the US could potentially be a detriment to their joint ability to address threats. Has this issue manifested itself in recent global crises?
Sadly, the answer is yes. One example is the United States and China's response to Covid. There was a long time when many analysts thought that if there were a mortal threat to humanity, the United States and China would find ways to set down their swords and work in common cause for the protection of humanity. With Covid, we've had a trial of this theory, and we've learned that habits of confrontation are deeply entrenched in US-China relations, even when it was detrimental to both countries. It’s also possible that climate change could come to occupy a similar space if the United States and China fail to find a way to coordinate their respective efforts in a common direction. Ultimately, the role of government is to protect its people, to ensure their health, and to create conditions that allow for prosperity. And I don't see how a prioritization of confrontation with China strengthens governance capacity to accomplish its core functions. It may actually represent a failure of leadership in both countries. Both the US and China bear responsibility for the consequences of our inability to confront a common challenge such as COVID. I think that history will be very unkind to the participants in those decisions. I hope that it's a lesson that future leaders draw from to avoid repeating the same mistakes in the future.
PAS China, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons