How the Biden team thinks about a US-China 'competition' without end
Digesting Jake Sullivan's essay on a new era of competition amidst interdependence
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Competition, it is safe to say, is the dominant framework adopted by the Biden administration when discussing relations with China. Nowhere is this more clear than in National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s recent lead essay in Foreign Affairs, “The Sources of American Power.” In reviewing the two governments’ most authoritative statements on bilateral ties before a number of upcoming US-China dialogues and scholarly discussions, I find myself asking what it is Washington thinkers and officials mean by competition. The answer is perhaps less obvious than one might expect.
Sullivan is probably the single most consequential thinker and actor in the Biden administration’s foreign policy.1 A key aide to Biden as vice president, Obama as president, and Clinton as secretary of state and presidential candidate, Sullivan is a figure who ties it all together in foreign, and increasingly domestic, policy. His essay is by no means the only word on Biden’s China policy, with important speeches by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other cabinet members, significant statements by NSC Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell, and of course the president’s own words; but this is a carefully crafted recent text that specifically asserts a new era of competition. So what can we understand from it?
1. ‘A new period of competition,’ following a less competitive time
On several occasions, Sullivan’s essay frames the present and future as a “new era” in which competition is a key characteristic. He identifies “competition in an age of interdependence” as the United States’ “main challenge,” leaving behind a period that had begun circa 1990 that supposedly had lacked “great-power competition” and during which “the US military had no peer.” In short, the era identified with competition is the one after the post–Cold War era. And before that, the story goes, there was competition without interdependence, i.e. between the largely mutually isolated United States and Soviet Union.
This framing is consistent and easily understood, but it’s not without its puzzles. In order to understand, say, 1991–2011 as a period lacking competition, one needs to maintain a fairly narrow vision of a contest. I find it hard to list things that were thoroughly uncompetitive in this period. There was of course no longer a Soviet competitor against which to compare US military capabilities, nor any other single “peer” in material coercive power, so that’s one. Economic activity of various kinds certainly could still be seen as competitive, though maybe the idea is that U.S. interests didn’t meet much resistance in trying to set the terms and capture the profits of that competition. Washington thinkers might have felt as if neoliberal democracy was an unchallenged master ideology, but that didn’t turn out to be the case, did it? At no time was the United States able to dictate or coerce all of the outcomes its leaders wanted to see around the world; the “pax Americana,” such as it was, could never be complete. To say the least, there were competing views on how the United States should employ its destructive military power around the world.
While Sullivan and other US officials often talk about competition over values or ideals in the international sphere, ideological competition simply is not new: Though the Chinese and US governments have not in the last 50 years been as thoroughly at odds as the Cold War protagonists, nor have they ever been in broad ideological alignment.
At root, ‘competition’ here means the perception or reality of decreased unilateral dominance by the United States in whatever context is of interest.
Fundamentally, to make sense of identifying a competitive new era, Sullivan’s essay points to one key change: An increased ability on the part of Chinese interests to get their way, contrary to US preferences. This can be both literally concrete, as in the military installations on islands and other maritime features in the South China Sea, or it can be speculative, as in assessments about China’s ability or not to effect a takeover of Taiwan by force. It is also economic, as in trade and intellectual property disputes, but this cannot be seen as unique to the last 10 or 15 years; what does seem new is China’s ability to leverage supply chains in key sectors, a tool the US government long had to coerce China but not vice versa. At root, “competition” here means the perception or reality of decreased unilateral dominance by the United States in whatever context is of interest.
It is a choice to frame this change in the comparative national power possessed by the United States and China as competition. Rather than merely observing a new distribution of power, the competition frame ascribes to the putative competitors the intention to beat or dominate one another. Sullivan and other US officials chalk up that choice to ascribe intentionality to the way in which Chinese actions threaten or change the status quo in regional security, markets, or political systems. They say they perceive China as acting competitively, which I think is both reasonable and also up to them to assess. Still, competition is a frame the Chinese government officially rejects. Before Biden and Xi met in November, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Mao Ning said: “Major-country competition runs counter to the trend of our times and provides no answer to the problems in the US or the challenges in our world. China does not fear competition, but we do not agree that China-US relations should be defined by competition.”2
This all gets a little tangled. US thinkers identify Chinese actions as challenges and declare that there is a competitive dynamic; Chinese narratives negating competition compete with US competitive narratives. I’m dizzy.
2. Slippage between ‘great-power competition’ and other competitions
It may not seem like much of a discovery to note that Sullivan and the Biden administration are basically talking about powerful countries vying for coercive power or dominance, but the way “competition” is used across the essay indicates a less tidy idea of what is at stake. A quick survey of how Sullivan invokes competition reveals a range of meanings:
“Washington … did not focus on improving its strategic position and preparing for a new era in which competitors would seek to replicate its military advantages.” — Plural competitors. Are they all “great-power” competitors?
“…producing more critical munitions so that the United States can make what is necessary to sustain deterrence in competitive regions.” — Again, plural “regions,” and who is competing for what, where? Maybe the “order,” maybe dominance, maybe both.
In Japan’s region, “deterrence of nuclear-armed competitors.” — To be plural, we get China, North Korea, and Russia as “competitors”—not just the “new era” figure of China, and not just “great powers.”
On development assistance to the global South and other countries, “Where the United States was absent, it is now competitive.” — To accomplish what, precisely? Seemingly to play a role of “leadership on global development.”
“We will continue to build America’s affirmative offering to the world. It is absolutely necessary if the United States is to win the competition to shape the future of the international order so that it is free, open, prosperous, and secure.” — Well that’s more specific! A competition to set the rules for the world. Setting aside the question of whether the US government actually puts its power behind these ideals, China would be an obvious competitor for global visions, but so might many other states or groups of states.
“The crisis in the Middle East3 does not change the fact that the United States needs to prepare for a new era of strategic competition—in particular by deterring and responding to great-power aggression.” — Here Russia is the competitor of reference.
“Today’s competition is fundamentally different [from late-19th- and early-20th-century Europe or the Cold War]. The United States and China are economically interdependent. The contest is truly global, but not zero-sum. The shared challenges the two sides face are unprecedented.” — This is the clearest pithy enunciation of what the “new era” competition is: with China, in an interdependent world, and coinciding with global challenges. But this isn’t the same frame as all of the above references nor as great-power competition traditionally understood.
“At times, the competition will be intense. We are prepared for that. We are pushing back hard on aggression, coercion, and intimidation and standing up for the basic rules of the road, such as freedom of navigation in the sea.” — Arguably the United States is pushing back hard against Russian aggression, but frankly little has been done to stop Chinese violations of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea under any US administration. If this is what competition looks like, it might be pretty relaxed.
“[T]he United States and China are engaged in a rapid and high-stakes technological competition, but the two sides need to be able to work together on the risks that arise from artificial intelligence.” — How does “technological” competition fit into all of this? While the administration and others cite military capabilities and economic advantage, I think what’s animating a lot of their approach here is that no one knows precisely what will come out of data-driven AI systems in the coming years. The “high stakes” are speculative so far.
I’m not trying to pick on Sullivan here. Competition is a capacious concept, and people see US-China competition as many-faceted. It is significant, though, that the official US narrative revolves so tightly around an idea that isn’t all that well specified.
3. Competition without end, or at least without a vision for one
There is one paragraph that for the US-China relations context is especially crucial. It merits being quoted in full (with emphasis added).
We are often asked about the end state of U.S. competition with China. We expect China to remain a major player on the world stage for the foreseeable future. We seek a free, open, prosperous, and secure international order, one that protects the interests of the United States and its friends and delivers global public goods. But we do not expect a transformative end state like the one that resulted from the collapse of the Soviet Union. There will be an ebb and flow to the competition—the United States will make gains, but China will, too. Washington must balance a sense of urgency with patience, understanding that what matters is the sum of its actions, not winning a single news cycle. And we need a sustained sense of confidence in our capacity to outcompete any country. The past two and a half years have upended assumptions on the relative trajectories of the United States and China.
The United States continues to enjoy a substantial trade and investment relationship with China. But the economic relationship with China is complicated because the country is a competitor. We will make no apology in pushing back on unfair trade practices that harm American workers. And we are concerned that China can take advantage of America’s openness to use U.S. technologies against the United States and its allies. Against this backdrop, we seek to “de-risk” and diversify, not decouple. We want to protect a targeted number of sensitive technologies with focused restrictions, creating what some have called “a small yard and a high fence.” We have faced criticism from various quarters that these steps are mercantilist or protectionist. This is untrue. These are steps taken in partnership with others and focused on a narrow set of technologies, steps that the United States needs to take in a more contested world to protect its national security while supporting an interconnected global economy.
To me, this framing really conflicts with normal understandings of great-power competition. In contrast to historical memory in which heated competition among states resulted in world wars or lasted until one side was vanquished, Sullivan sets up a vision of competition without an anticipated end state. One is left to speculate that it could, maybe, end if one or the other country ceases to be much of an irritant to the other—whether due to its own problems or because the two evolve to have less conflicts of perceived interest.
In this competition without end, the Sullivan framing claims that there is no goal to comprehensively decouple, but US intentions include leveraging economic and technological advantage to undermine China in the competition. The US frame does not have as an explicit goal a defeated or collapsed China, but on measure it’s not angry if China can render itself inert without upsetting things too much. There’s a preference for a “free, open, prosperous, and secure international order,” but it feels significant that a “peaceful” world isn’t explicitly a goal. (I don’t think Sullivan wants violence, but this vision of permanent competition doesn’t really preclude proxy conflicts and assumes the United States and China will be trying to screw each other in meaningful ways.)
There are more texts to read and reread, and I’m lucky to have multiple upcoming opportunities to sit down and discuss US-China issues with good groups from both countries, so I’ll leave it there for now.
About Here It Comes
Here it Comes is written by me, Graham Webster, a research scholar and editor-in-chief of the DigiChina Project at the Stanford Program on Geopolitics, Technology, and Governance. It is the successor to my earlier newsletter efforts U.S.–China Week and Transpacifica. Here It Comes is an exploration of the onslaught of interactions between US-China relations, technology in China, and climate change. The opinions expressed here are my own, and I reserve the right to change my mind.
Disclosure: Sullivan and I crossed paths and attended the same meetings on a number of occasions when I worked at Yale Law School’s China center. The only reason I’d think he might remember this is that he has a reputation for having a great memory; no inside info here, as should be clear from the analysis.
This particular passage was edited between the print version and the online one after Hamas’ attack on Israel and Israel’s brutal response upset the print version narrative that saw relative calm in the Middle East.