Recently I met with mid-level military officers from around the world who were visiting the U.S. In that meeting, and in similar meetings with diplomats and foreign ministers, I have been impressed with the focus on a single topic: the competition between the United States and China.
Students often ask about the relationship. Policymakers intensely examine it. Experts analyze it. Daily, the news media highlights it. The rest of us are curious about it.
All of us understand the importance and challenge of the relationship. We are engaged in a trade war, and our points of geopolitical differences are many. We are also impressed by China’s record. The rise of China is one of the notable success stories in history. Its economy has grown at a 10-percent compound annual rate for decades. Eight hundred million people have been lifted out of poverty. Not long ago, China had trouble feeding itself. Now it has become one of the world’s leading economic powers. It is credited with having the most homeowners, college graduates and internet users in the world. According to some accounts, it even has the most billionaires.
As its clout grows, China is our primary rival for world leadership. While it can’t match our military and economic power today, it is a leader in the Asia and Pacific region. Its rise could continue for years, if not decades.
It is unquestionably a power to reckon with. Even so, it’s possible to overstate China’s success. It faces serious problems, including a slowing economy with widespread economic and social inequality, the extreme concentration of political power, deadly pollution, tensions with its neighbors, and a lack of allies.
We tend to see China as a competitor that increasingly tries to tilt the playing field in its favor by the use of state subsidies to prop up its businesses and the theft of technology and intellectual property.
So, we should have no illusions about China.
It will not soon give up its top-down control of the economy, its massive state planning and its use of state-owned enterprises and subsidies. Nor will it abandon its authoritarian approach to governing. President Xi Jinping has been aggressively consolidating control through the Communist Party. His progress in pushing China to the forefront of nations is undeniable.
China largely sets the agenda in Asia. Its ambition is to be a respected and influential global power, economically, militarily, politically and technologically.
China wants the world to see its system – not ours – as the best model for development. It is not provoking conflict, but it seeks to weaken U.S. influence, and gain partners.
Our competition with China has the world watching. How should we respond? Together with our allies, we need to stand up against China’s predatory trade practices, push back against its economic espionage, counter its aggressive behavior in the South China Sea and call out its human rights abuses.
While we would prefer and hope that China abandons its repressive policies and adopt a freer economy – that is unlikely.
Most important, competing with China means strengthening our own country’s political and economic performance. We need to accelerate our investment in technology and in research and development, including in areas like computing and artificial intelligence. And, we should reinvigorate our efforts to lead the world in its search for liberty, justice, and prosperity.
We’ve got to find areas where we can cooperate, perhaps on climate change, global health, peacekeeping and aid to the less developed world.
If we work effectively in these areas, we can insert a measure of trust in the relationship. Without trust, that relationship – the most important and challenging international relationship in the world – is likely to get worse.
By Lee H. Hamilton