Guardrails on U.S.-China Strategic Competition

Bonny Lin is a senior fellow for Asian security and director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Previously, she was the acting associate director of the Strategy and Doctrine Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE and a political scientist at the RAND Corporation, where she analyzed different aspects of U.S. competition with China, including U.S.-China competition for influence in the Indo-Pacific and China’s use of gray zone tactics against U.S. allies and partners. Her research advised senior leaders in the Department of Defense, including military leaders at U.S. Pacific Air Forces and U.S. Army Pacific. Dr. Lin also served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2015 to 2018, where she was director for Taiwan, country director for China, and senior adviser for China. Dr. Lin holds a PhD in political science from Yale University, a master’s degree in Asian studies with a focus on China from the University of Michigan, and a bachelor’s degree in government from Harvard College. While pursuing her master’s, she interned at CSIS.
Bryan Jed Soh '25 interviewed Dr. Bonny Lin on on October 6, 2022.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Bonny Lin.

The U.S. and China have seen a significant uptick in tensions, especially after Nancy Pelosi's recent visit to Taiwan. When President Biden and his advisers talk about putting guardrails on the U.S.-China strategic competition. What exactly do they mean? And what specifically are they worried about?

When President Biden and his team talk about guardrails, they are broadly referring to mechanisms to prevent the U.S.-China relationship from spiraling into clear confrontation between the two countries, particularly a crisis or a kinetic conflict. Sometimes folks also refer to guardrails in the context of crisis management and communication mechanisms. For example, they mean hotlines or dialogues between political and military leaders between both of our countries. So “guardrails” could be a broad term, but also in some contexts, a very specific term.

From the administration's perspective, we already have a number of ongoing opportunities to maintain channels of communication with the Chinese side. Most recently, we saw Secretary Blinken meet with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on the sidelines of the United Nations meeting in New York. We are also probably going to see another meeting between President Biden and President Xi Jinping. There were also meetings between Secretary Blinken and his Chinese counterpart, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Yang Jiechi, as well as virtual meetings between President Biden and Xi Jinping. On the defense side, there were meetings and calls between Secretary Austin and his Chinese counterpart Defense Minister Wei Fenghe, not to mention communications below the Secretary of Defense level, including between the joint staffs, and between Office of the Secretary of Defense policy and the Chinese counterparts. That said, we do not exactly have the same hotline with China as we do with Russia.  

We also have our embassy in Beijing that functions as a communication channel with leaders in Beijing and U.S. leaders also engage directly with Ambassador Qin Gang and the PRC embassy in Washington D.C. We don't necessarily have a phone that is in Secretary Austin's office that can be picked up to directly call Wei Fenghe. However, there is a process to set up those calls.

Does Beijing share the same view that such guardrails are needed to avoid needless escalations? Where do China and the U.S. differ in terms of the definition of guardrails?

There has not been much discussion of guardrails since late 2021. More broadly speaking, there is a large agreement on both sides that the two countries should avoid conflict and, where possible, manage potential crises. But once you start talking about managing crises and preventing conflict, the emphasis on the two sides is slightly different. On the Chinese side, they are very much interested in the root cause of issues, like dissecting and talking about what led to a conflict. On the U.S. side, there is a lot more interest in discussing scenarios whereby if we actually get into a crisis or conflict, how can we manage it?

Because of this difference, we have not made too much progress with the Chinese on establishing any clear understanding of how the two countries might manage a crisis. For example, if we see another EP-3 incident, where our two airplanes clash in midair, we do not have a set playbook for how to manage that. There is a chance that in times of crisis, the Chinese side refuses to answer or respond to U.S. outreach. 

When the U.S. side approaches the Chinese side to discuss how to manage crises, usually a major hurdle is that the Chinese side wants to discuss the root causes before we even get to crisis management. There is also some reluctance on the Chinese side to have frank discussions because they fear that once they make it clear to the U.S. what they might do, or what they are really concerned about, it might encourage the U.S. side to push towards China’s boundaries. For example, if China says “we would not be concerned until you do X,” they fear that the United States would do everything right up to X. Part of why crisis communications and discussions are so difficult is because there is distrust and suspicion of each other.

In your view, what kinds of guardrails are actually realistic? And what kinds of guardrails are actually politically impossible? In what areas are guardrails most urgently needed?

The most realistic ones are the ones we have now, which is top level communications, and making sure that when we want to talk to Chinese leaders, they are available and vice versa. The most important channel is directly between President Biden and President Xi Jinping, mainly because of China's relatively closed political system and the concentration of decision-making power within Xi's hand. If we do not have that direct communication between the two presidents, change is difficult. If we do want to change things, at least in the Chinese system, Xi Jinping's blessing is essential.

In terms of what is politically impossible, one area that is politically impossible is establishing any guardrails to talk about what might happen in an actual Taiwan crisis, particularly a potential military contingency in the Taiwan Strait. Discussions between the U.S. military and the Chinese People's Liberation Army are not possible. It is regarded as a political issue and an internal issue, so the PLA is not able to speak on China’s behalf. 

The guardrails most urgently needed are in crisis management. In some ways, China's approach to this is wishing away the crisis by saying, “let's just focus on the factors that would lead to crises and make sure those do not happen, so we don't have to deal with a crisis.” But that is wishful thinking. In recent months, we are starting to see the fourth Taiwan Strait crisis, so we cannot just wish it away. As we move forward, if we see similar dynamics, or even worse dynamics, what would each side expect? How can we manage that in a way that a crisis in the Taiwan Strait doesn't spiral into an open conflict, or a much larger regional war?

Anti-China policy is one of the rare issues with bipartisan support in the U.S. However, many conditions made by Congress are likely to make Biden's task of establishing guardrails more challenging. How can the Biden administration work more effectively with Congress to strike the right balance on countering China without triggering a catastrophic conflict?

First, anti-China policy doesn’t have bipartisan support; competition with China does. Even if you ask folks who are hawkish on China, they would not necessarily say they are anti-China. They would say they are anti-Chinese Communist Party and anti-Chinese foreign policy aggression, but they do not want to target the Chinese people. There is a difference between where the CCP is trying to take China versus where the Chinese people are.

It is difficult for the Biden administration to work with Congress to strike the right balance on competing with China. Part of competition with China is being able to show China the costs of using force. There are many elements of the competition, but on the military side, it is about deterring Beijing from using force by increasing the costs for Beijing to do so. We have to be willing to escalate in order to deter China. The real question is, what is the balance between how much you escalate to encourage Beijing to back down versus escalating too much such that Beijing then feels the need to escalate in response. We have not fully figured that out and I am not sure that Beijing has either. It will be a continuous problem that U.S. policymakers, both in the Biden administration and Congress, will have to work through in the coming months and years. 

Nevertheless, what we are seeing now, particularly with the Taiwan Policy Act and some of the issues surrounding Taiwan, is that some in Congress seem more willing to take on risk with China than the Biden administration. Some in Congress believe in more symbolic acts to support Taiwan, including changing the name of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO). Congress views these as useful, whereas the Biden administration is more cautious of symbolic activities that are likely to trigger Chinese reactions, without concretely increasing the defense of Taiwan.

How do you see the upcoming Party Congress in China shaping the CCP's grand strategy in superpower competition? And are there any signs that Xi Jinping might opt for a different course to de-escalate tensions with the U.S.?

No, there aren’t signs that Xi Jinping is thinking that China has taken an incorrect path, and should reverse course and improve relations with the United States. Xi Jinping is willing to continue to invest in opportunities to stabilize the U.S.-China relationship, given how consequential the relationship is. If the relationship continues to deteriorate, it could have a tremendous effect on not only China's foreign policy, but China's own development goals too.

This is why Xi is willing to meet with Biden to manage the relationship more broadly. 

But overall, the assessment in China is that the United States has embraced a much more fundamentally anti-China position. There is a lot of worry that the United States seeks to potentially contain China, and Chinese diplomats have been publicly saying that the United States’ assessment of China is incorrect. Chinese officials are noting that the U.S. assessments of China's intentions and of how China acts internationally are also incorrect. I am not sure that Xi believes that China can change U.S. views. However, I do think there is some belief in Beijing that, on the margins, it can help the United States understand that the U.S. perception of China is not correct. 

If you read some of the rhetoric from Chinese officials, including China’s Ambassador to the United States, Qin Gang, one of his recent speeches mentioned that local ties between the U.S. and China are quite good, and so are the people-to-people ties. He was trying to find spots in the relationship beyond national-level ties, but I would not wholly agree with him on that. In a number of local elections in the U.S., China is a topic that politicians are discussing as part of their campaign. In terms of people-to-people, it is hard to say because with COVID-19, we have seen a lot fewer people-to-people contacts. There are some in the business community believing that with more economic linkages, China might change. But there are also a number of big companies, like Bank of America that have publicly stated that in the event of a crisis or conflict would exit the Chinese market if the United States imposes sanctions on China.  

The private sector did have quite a bit of say in influencing some of the actions taken by the Trump administration. But the actions taken by the Trump administration may have gone beyond what some of the businesses expected or wanted. The business community received part of what they asked for, but then recognized that taking a harsh approach toward China to try to get what they wanted, also had its costs. 

Typically, the business community, the people-to-people ties, and the economic aspect of the relationship have always been the stabilizing factors in the U.S.-China relationship. Now, we do not have that. On the economic side, there is a lot of talk about decoupling or selective decoupling, especially technological decoupling on the military side. There are very few sources of cooperation or aspects of the relationship in which both sides can point to and say, “Hey, this relationship is really good for both of our countries, so we should make sure that this relationship does not worsen.” 

Bryan Jed Soh CMC '25Student Journalist

Sgt. Mikki Sprenkle, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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