Photo illustration by John Lyman

World News


Is Cooperation with China Dead?

The United States is at risk of becoming too focused on cooperation with China, and in doing so, excusing, and by default, encouraging, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) aggressive tactics in their quest for regional and global dominance.

The CCP’s ambitions are clear. The Biden administration needs to provide the same level of clarity on what the U.S., our partners, and our allies are willing to do to promote U.S. interests, advance our prosperity, and maintain American influence in the world. A world order where U.S. values, and CCP’s values, coexist may be perceived as good for global stability, but it puts the U.S. at a tremendous disadvantage and is detrimental to our nation and our allies’ security.

There are those who believe that the U.S. should pursue a coexistence-focused engagement strategy which acknowledges that competition is a condition of the relationship that needs to be managed to avoid conflict and not a problem to be solved. In summary, this strategy argues it is essential for the U.S. and China to cooperate on “global problems” such as climate change.

A downfall of engagement hinged on co-existence solely is that the U.S. should not be focused on military primacy in the Indo-Pacific region, as it increases the risk of unintentional conflicts. There are two misguided factors to this premise. First, this is based on a false assumption that China will accept the U.S. remaining a “resident power” in the region. It is clear from the rhetoric and actions of Beijing that this is not the case.

Second, while cooperative deterrence may be the most risk-averse policy the U.S. could pursue, for our own security and that of our vulnerable partners in the region, we cannot settle for anything less than dominance in the Indo-Pacific theatre. Thus, it is both unrealistic from the U.S. perspective, and unacceptable from Beijing’s perspective, for the U.S. to pursue a strategy primarily focused on peaceful coexistence.

I acknowledge that cooperation on issues of global significance despite the fundamental rivalry is important. However, this argument would have more validity if the U.S. was dealing with a country that was less aggressive, and less zero-sum focused than China. Every aspect of possible cooperation between the U.S. and China is linked to intense competition. The centralized way that the CCP prioritizes policy initiatives makes separating “global issues” from cooperation nearly impossible.

Joe Biden
Joe Biden talks with Xi Jinping in 2012.

For example, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party recently produced its first-ever comprehensive “national security concept,” which specified the key areas that the CCP interprets as security threats that could result in retaliation by the CCP if provoked. These areas included, “political, military, homeland security, economic, cultural, social, technological, cyberspace, ecological, resources, nuclear, overseas interests, outer space, deep sea, polar and biological.”

This exhaustive list clearly shows that in the eyes of the CCP, there is no place for peaceful coexistence or cooperation. The CCP interprets cooperation in any of the areas above as a weakness that directly impacts the security of their country and, most importantly, the legitimacy and strength of their party domestically.

Additionally, coexistence is a two-way street. While the U.S. may be able to distinguish areas of cooperation, it cannot be fooled that the CCP will act in the same way. Given this, the U.S. cannot afford to place coexistence at the center of our engagement with China, rather, we must do what we can to push back against an expansionist CCP and secure the support of our partners and allies in working toward a solution for “global issues.”

Peaceful coexistence requires a set of rules that both sides must subscribe to. In other words, if the CCP’s grand strategy does not prioritize true coexistence, then neither can the U.S. engagement strategy. The overarching goals and ambitions of the CCP are completely counter to those of the U.S. Therefore, in reality, competition is the key element of the relationship, and the U.S. needs to win this competition to ensure our national security and maintain our ability to promote our interests and values abroad.

The Biden administration must bring clarity and consistency to our engagement strategy with China. The overarching goal should be to maintain the ability to shape values and norms around the globe. If coexistence comes with this, that is an added benefit. However, coexistence cannot simply be the primary goal.

A simple policy shift that can be made is having President Biden make more public statements clearly articulating the dangers of cooperation with the CCP. China’s Xi Jinping made a speech in April which advocated for “the common security of the world,” led by the CCP. Biden should make similar statements directly pushing back on the notion that the U.S. will allow the CCP to revise the international system to its benefit.

It is vital to call out actions that directly contradict U.S. interests. Doing this in a public way will normalize the process with the added benefit of uniting and giving clarity to U.S. partners and allies.

The goal of coexistence with the CCP is as admirable as it is unrealistic. It is naive to think the CCP’s values, interests, and objectives can coexist in a world that allows for U.S. interests and values. The U.S. needs a strategy as robust as our primary adversary’s abilities. The Biden administration must act to implement a pragmatic engagement strategy that is not based primarily on coexistence, but rather, one based on protecting our current position, and responsibilities, in the international system.