America’s relationship with China was deteriorating long before the eruption of Covid-19, but the pandemic has greatly sharpened tensions between the world's two most powerful countries. A rising chorus of American voices now argues that confronting China should become the organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy, akin to the Cold War against the Soviet Union. But this would be a major strategic error. It reflects an out-of-date mind-set that sees dealing with other major powers as America’s principal challenge. Today and for the century ahead, the most significant threats that we face are less other states than a range of transnational problems.
After all, even if the U.S. successfully countered China, our security and prosperity could still plummet due to future pandemics, climate change, cyberattacks, terrorism and the spread or even the use of nuclear weapons. The conclusion to draw from today’s crisis is clear: America needs to focus not just on directly addressing such global challenges but on enhancing our competitiveness and resilience in facing them.
The Covid-19 pandemic, which broke out in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, spread in significant part because Chinese authorities suppressed information on the disease, played down its significance, limited cooperation with outside experts and were slow to stop those who might have been infected from leaving the city. Some are demanding that China be held legally and financially responsible for the costs of the pandemic, while others are calling to expand the U.S. military presence in the Pacific.
China certainly bears enormous responsibility for the pandemic, but we can’t blame Beijing for our own lack of protective equipment, inability to produce adequate testing, uneven insistence on social distancing and limited capacity for contact tracing. Other societies—including Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore and Germany—have all fared far better, which speaks volumes about the U.S. response. We would be wiser to adhere to the dictum “Physician, heal thyself” than to scapegoat China.
We also should not misread the aims of Chinese foreign policy. In 2017, the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy described China as a revisionist power wanting “to erode American security and prosperity” and “shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests.” The Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy took that view even further, describing China in 2018 as a “strategic competitor” that seeks “Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future.”
These assessments overstate China’s ambitions and capabilities alike. China’s strategic preoccupation, as its 2019 defense white paper makes clear, is maintaining its territorial integrity and internal stability. Beijing fears that the success of any internal separatist movement would lead to others—and to the country’s unraveling, the Chinese Communist Party’s loss of power or both.
China can best be understood as a regional power that seeks to reduce U.S. influence in its backyard and to increase its influence with its neighbors. Beijing isn’t seeking to overturn the current world order but to increase its influence within it. Unlike the Soviet Union, China isn’t looking to impose its model on others around the globe or to control international politics in every corner of the world. And when China does reach farther afield, its instruments tend to be primarily economic.
China faces serious limitations in trying to extend its reach and influence. The era of double-digit Chinese economic growth is over. Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power leaves him vulnerable to challenge, not just from a slowing economy but also from policy blunders, such as his handling of Covid-19. China must deal as well with serious environmental problems and the looming demographic crisis of an aging and soon-to-shrink population. Arguments sounding the alarm about China’s world-dominating future should be taken with a healthy dose of salt.
Of course, China poses both an actual and a potential threat—but it’s one that can be addressed without making China the focal point of American foreign policy. Some U.S.-Chinese strategic rivalry is inevitable, and the U.S. should push back against China where necessary to defend American interests. As much as possible, however, this competition should be bounded so that it doesn’t preclude cooperation with China in areas of mutual interest.
What would this mean in practice? The U.S. should criticize China over its handling of the Covid-19 outbreak and back calls for international investigations. But Washington should also be at the forefront of working for changes in the World Health Organization so that China (along with every other country) understands both its obligations and the costs it will incur if it fails to meet them.
We must also rethink our approach to trade with China. Bilateral trade still serves U.S. economic and strategic interests, with two exceptions: We should become less dependent on China (or any other single foreign supplier) for materials and products that we deem essential, and we obviously must safeguard our technology and secrets, both governmental and commercial.
Some critics are frustrated that integrating China into the world economy and the World Trade Organization didn’t lead to hoped-for political and economic reforms. But such progress was never really in the cards. China’s closed political system is unlikely to change fundamentally in the foreseeable future. Still, economic integration was and remains worthwhile: It gives China a stake in Asian stability and another reason not to use military force against its neighbors.
None of this should stop the U.S. from criticizing China for its violation of its legal commitments to respect Hong Kong’s autonomy or its harsh repression of its Muslim Uighur minority. While we cannot and should not try to prevent China’s rise—that will be China’s to determine—we should react when its ascent turns coercive and threatens our interests in Asia. Given China’s growing military strength and its proximity to U.S. allies and partners in Asia, we should define success in terms of deterring China from using force or intimidating its neighbors.
The U.S. should continue to demonstrate its right to sail through waters that China, contrary to international law, claims as its own. And we must shore up our ties with Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, India, Australia, Taiwan and others, even as we avoid forcing them to choose between us and China. Our overall goal should be to foster a framework that makes clear to China that aggressive unilateral action on its part will fail—and that its interests, more often than not, would be better served by cooperating with us on regional and global challenges.
With the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, U.S. foreign policy lost its lodestar. Three decades later, American strategy still lacks a consistent direction, but it shouldn’t try to find one by reviving the Cold War policy of containment. China is not the Soviet Union, and a world defined by globalization demands new strategic thinking.