Unlike previous major competitions for power, the competition between the US and China is conducted by and over the content of international rules.
The winners of World War I attempted to reorder the world in the form of the League of Nations. After World War II, they did that again, albeit more inclusively, with the creation of the United Nations. Something similar happened after the Cold War, when the ‘Washington Consensus’ expanded around the world.
Neither China nor the US want to reorder the world by winning a decisive war. Recognizing that such a conflict can be catastrophic, they both try to win without fighting and use international rules and rule-writing as tools to restrain their opponents and shape the world to their advantage.
Long before the US was willing to recognize its strategic competition with China, US President Barack Obama pushed for the approval of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement because it would “allow America – not countries like China – to change the rules of the way into the 21st century.” President Joe Biden’s interim national security guidelines, published in March, ended with a similar statement that the US, not China, would form “new global standards and agreements.”
Under Xi Jinping, China has become more open about its intention to make rules, rather than just take them. Unlike some foreign policy realists, the Chinese Communist Party understands that tough military or even economic power is not the only source of international influence.
Competition for new technology is central to this new domain of competitive rule writing. The battle to set global standards and dominate the market for 5G broadband cellular networks is playing out above other emerging technologies, such as the rules on facial recognition technology development that raise fundamental questions of value.
But competition over rules could paradoxically make military conflict more likely. The fundamental rules of international relations – many of which are enshrined in international law – are intended to control competition and enable cooperation. These rules exist only to the extent that they are accepted by states. Trying to determine them competitively is futile. Great powers may simply decide to opt out.
Washington is now more clearly recognizing the need for rules that will prevent conflict, with President Biden recently emphasizing the need for “responsible competition” bordered by “guardrails” to “ensure competition does not turn into conflict.”
The recent increase in Chinese jets entering Taiwan’s air defense identification zone has underlined the need for a working hotline. When US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley recently revealed that in Donald Trump’s final months he found it necessary to reassure his Chinese counterpart that they were not about to be attacked, he added that such calls can take days or weeks to get set up.
Washington’s need for greater cooperation with Beijing goes beyond crisis management. More broadly, there is a need to tackle climate change — still at the top of Biden’s agenda — and begin talks on arms control, a need highlighted by China’s reportedly successful test of a fractional orbital bombing system.
China seems much less enthusiastic about ‘guardrails’, with Beijing likely suspecting that such a concept is in fact another form of competitive rules and a thinly veiled attempt to maintain the status quo. China itself is no stranger to using conflict management for geopolitical purposes. It is pushing for an apparently neutral “Code of Conduct” for the South China Sea that would bolster its dominance of that water.
Guardrail-less competition is a chicken that Beijing seems to play easier. It may view Washington’s recent move to “responsible competition” as a sign of weakness. Experience has shown that, with the exception of Trump, most US presidents come into office and talk loudly about China, but over time come to realize the importance of getting the country involved and acquiescing.
The challenge for Washington is to sell the concept of responsible competition as mutually beneficial without feeding the perception that this offering is a sign of weakness that must be exploited. The order of recent exchanges suggests that this is a delicate balance.
In the September 9 conversation with Xi, Biden supposedly sealed the conciliatory “hostage exchange” agreement with the release from house arrest in Vancouver of Huawei Technologies chief executive Meng Wanzhou in exchange for the release of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. It is also likely that Biden issued a general warning about the trilateral security partnership involving the US, UK and Australia.
AUKUS was announced on September 15, while the release of Huawei chief executive Meng Wanzhou was announced on September 24. The latter covered one of the items on China’s “List of American Abuses That Must Stop” and allowed the Xi-Biden virtual meeting to take place at the end of the year. But Beijing has since shown that it remains willing to risk a conflict over Taiwan to change the status quo.
All is not lost if no guardrails can be built. Washington’s public aid to Beijing supports the message it is sending the rest of the world. This is, as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Vice President Kamala Harris have emphasized, that the US is determined to compete with China but not “seek conflict”.