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  • Avoiding U.S.-China Competition Is Futile:Why the Best Option Is to Manage Strategic Rivalry
  • Timothy R. Heath (bio) and William R. Thompson (bio)

China, United States, rivalry, competition, Asia

[End Page 91]

executive summary

This article argues that the structural drivers of U.S.-China competition are too deep to resolve through cooperative engagement and that policymakers must instead accept the reality of strategic rivalry and aim to manage it at a lower level of intensity.

main argument

Rising tensions between China and the U.S. have spurred fears that the two countries could end up in conflict or recreate the Cold War. To avoid these outcomes, analysts have proposed ways to defuse competition and promote cooperation. However, because these arguments do not address the structural drivers underpinning U.S.-China competition, such proposals are unlikely to end the rivalry. Conflict is not inevitable, however, and aggressive strategies that unnecessarily aggravate the sources of rivalry are likely to prove dangerously counterproductive. The best option at this point is, paradoxically, for the U.S. to accept the reality of the growing strategic rivalry and manage it at a lower level of intensity.

policy implications

  • • Maintaining a technological edge is critical for the U.S. to successfully manage the rivalry with China. Policies should be pursued to ensure that the U.S. continues to attract and nurture the best science and technology talent and retains its status as the global leader in technology.

  • • To compete with China's narrative about leading regional integration, the U.S. should both put forth a compelling vision for the region that encompasses widely held economic, security, and political values and continue to bolster its diplomatic and military positions in Asia.

  • • To maintain the U.S.-China rivalry at a stable level, policymakers in both countries should prioritize measures that discourage the mobilization of popular sentiment against the other country and encourage cultural exchanges.

  • • U.S.-China competition will likely become increasingly entwined with rivalries between China and U.S. allies and partners such as Japan and India. U.S. policymakers will need to take into account the independent dynamics of those separate rivalries when managing relations with China. [End Page 92]

The United States and China find themselves increasingly enmeshed in a strategic rivalry, the basic nature of which remains poorly understood in the United States. To be sure, disagreements between the two countries have gained widespread attention. Disputes involving Chinese confrontations with U.S. allies and partners such as Japan, the Philippines, and Taiwan have frequently grabbed the headlines. At other times, disagreements over Chinese trade practices and U.S. military activities in the South China Sea have occasioned discord. All these sources of conflict are genuine, but they mask the main drivers of rivalry, which are twofold. First, the United States and China are locked in a contest for primacy—most clearly in Asia and probably globally as well. The United States has been the dominant power, and China seeks to eventually supplant it. By definition, two different states cannot simultaneously share primacy at either the regional or global level. Second, economic, demographic, and military trajectories suggest that China has the potential to contend in a significant way for leadership at the global systemic level. At this level, the most decisive competition will be for technological leadership. Should China supplant the United States as the world's premier country in terms of technology, its claim to regional and global supremacy will be difficult to deny. And once it has gained that supremacy, China will be well positioned to restructure institutional arrangements to privilege itself and disadvantage the United States.

Although this competition is occurring simultaneously at both levels, observers have focused primarily on the struggle for primacy at the regional level and overlooked or downplayed the competition at the global systemic level.1 To counter China's pursuit of regional primacy, the United States has bolstered its alliances in Asia (albeit inconsistently), expanded diplomatic outreach to China and rising powers in Southeast Asia, and revised its military posture—efforts captured by President Barack Obama's "rebalance to Asia." President Donald Trump may have abandoned the rebalance, but many of the related...


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pp. 91-119
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