MANAGED STRATEGIC COMPETITION
Managed Strategic Competition is, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd opines, in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, the only way to avoid turning Cold War 2.0 into a hot war.
“The deeply conflicting nature of U.S. and Chinese strategic objectives and the profoundly competitive nature of the relationship may make conflict, and even war, seem inevitable,” he says, “even if neither country wants that outcome. China will seek to achieve global economic dominance and regional military superiority over the United States without provoking direct conflict with Washington and its allies. Once it achieves superiority, China will then incrementally change its behavior toward other states, especially when their policies conflict with China’s ever-changing definition of its core national interests. On top of this, China has already sought to gradually make the multilateral system more obliging of its national interests and values … [but] … a gradual, peaceful transition to an international order that accommodates Chinese leadership now seems far less likely to occur than it did just a few years ago. For all the eccentricities and flaws of the Trump administration, its decision to declare China a strategic competitor, formally end the doctrine of strategic engagement, and launch a trade war with Beijing succeeded in making clear that Washington was willing to put up a significant fight. And the Biden administration’s plan to rebuild the fundamentals of national U.S. power at home, rebuild U.S. alliances abroad, and reject a simplistic return to earlier forms of strategic engagement with China signals that the contest will continue, albeit tempered by cooperation in a number of defined areas.“
Kevin Rudd adds that: “The question for both Washington and Beijing, then, is whether they can conduct this high level of strategic competition within agreed-on parameters that would reduce the risk of a crisis, conflict, and war. In theory, this is possible; in practice, however, the near-complete erosion of trust between the two has radically increased the degree of difficulty.” He explains that “many in the U.S. national security community believe that the CCP has never had any compunction about lying or hiding its true intentions in order to deceive its adversaries. In this view, Chinese diplomacy aims to tie opponents’ hands and buy time for Beijing’s military, security, and intelligence machinery to achieve superiority and establish new facts on the ground … [and that is, indeed, one very fair way to read Deng Xiaoping’s dictum “hide you ambitions and disguise your claws.” Some think his aim was to put military might firmly behind economic development; but others say that his aim was to develop, economically, in public and, simultaneously, rearm in relative secrecy, lulling the US-led West into a false sense of security] … To win broad support from U.S. foreign policy elites, therefore, any concept of managed strategic competition will need to include a stipulation by both parties to base any new rules of the road on a reciprocal practice of “trust but verify.”
“The idea of managed strategic competition,” he explains “is anchored in a deeply realist view of the global order. It accepts that states will continue to seek security by building a balance of power in their favor, while recognizing that in doing so they are likely to create security dilemmas for other states whose fundamental interests may be disadvantaged by their actions. The trick in this case is to reduce the risk to both sides as the competition between them unfolds by jointly crafting a limited number of rules of the road that will help prevent war. The rules will enable each side to compete vigorously across all policy and regional domains. But if either side breaches the rules, then all bets are off, and it’s back to all the hazardous uncertainties of the law of the jungle.” This means that President Biden can, and in my view should, start, immediately, to establish “an effective coalition of countries across the democratic capitalist world with the express aim of counterbalancing China collectively,” even as America accepts that China will be the East Asian regional superpower.
It is one thing to accept China as a regional superpower and a global great power; it is quite another thing to agree that China should be THE global hyper-power. Europe, for example, was unwilling to accept the notion of American hyperpuissance in the early 2000s; neither it nor Asia should be willing to accept the same notion for China in the 2020s and beyond. A loose coalition of the willing, including Australia, Britain and Canada, ought to be fairly easy to establish IF the aim is, clearly, to contain China, rather than to further empower America.
To start a mutually acceptable managed strategic competition, Mr Rudd suggests that the two countries, America and China, would need “to identify a few immediate steps that each side must take in order for a substantive dialogue to proceed and a limited number of hard limits that both sides (and U.S. allies) must respect. Both sides must abstain, for example, from cyberattacks targeting critical infrastructure. Washington must return to strictly adhering to the “one China” policy, especially by ending the Trump administration’s provocative and unnecessary high-level visits to Taipei. For its part, Beijing must dial back its recent pattern of provocative military exercises, deployments, and maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait … [in fact, I would go father and say that it must be made abundantly clear to Beijing that any attempt to take Taiwan by force will cause immediate, massive retaliation by the USA, and] … In the South China Sea, Beijing must not reclaim or militarize any more islands and must commit to respecting freedom of navigation and aircraft movement without challenge; for its part, the United States and its allies could then (and only then) reduce the number of operations they carry out in the sea. Similarly, China and Japan could cut back their military deployments in the East China Sea by mutual agreement over time.“
Kevin Rudd goes on to explain that even “If both sides could agree on those stipulations, each would have to accept that the other will still try to maximize its advantages while stopping short of breaching the limits. Washington and Beijing would continue to compete for strategic and economic influence across the various regions of the world. They would keep seeking reciprocal access to each other’s markets and would still take retaliatory measures when such access was denied. They would still compete in foreign investment markets, technology markets, capital markets, and currency markets. And they would likely carry out a global contest for hearts and minds, with Washington stressing the importance of democracy, open economies, and human rights and Beijing highlighting its approach to authoritarian capitalism and what it calls “the China development model.”” The managed strategic competition model, which is reminiscent of Cold War 1.0, should be acceptable to both countries and to their friends.
Former Prime Minister Rudd concludes that: “it is better for both countries to operate within a joint framework of managed competition than to have no rules at all. The framework would need to be negotiated between a designated and trusted high-level representative of Biden and a Chinese counterpart close to Xi; only a direct, high-level channel of that sort could lead to confidential understandings on the hard limits to be respected by both sides ..[and] … Over time, a minimum level of strategic trust might emerge. And maybe both sides would also discover that the benefits of continued collaboration on common planetary challenges, such as climate change, might begin to affect the other, more competitive and even conflictual areas of the relationship … [and, further, he asks] … What would be the measures of success should the United States and China agree on such a joint strategic framework? One sign of success would be if by 2030 they have avoided a military crisis or conflict across the Taiwan Strait or a debilitating cyberattack … [but] … Perhaps the most important sign of success, however, would be a situation in which both countries competed in an open and vigorous campaign for global support for the ideas, values, and problem-solving approaches that their respective systems offer—with the outcome still to be determined.“
He says that “Success, of course, has a thousand fathers, but failure is an orphan. But the most demonstrable example of a failed approach to managed strategic competition would be over Taiwan. If Xi were to calculate that he could call Washington’s bluff by unilaterally breaking out of whatever agreement had been privately reached with Washington, the world would find itself in a world of pain. In one fell swoop, such a crisis would rewrite the future of the global order.“
From the Chinese perspective: “A few days before Biden’s inauguration, Chen Yixin, the secretary-general of the CCP’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, stated that “the rise of the East and the decline of the West has become [a global] trend and changes of the international landscape are in our favor.” … [Mr Rudd explains that ] … Chen is a close confidant of Xi and a central figure in China’s normally cautious national security apparatus, and so the hubris in his statement is notable. In reality,” Kevin Rudd says, and I agree fully, “there is a long way to go in this race. China has multiple domestic vulnerabilities that are rarely noted in the media. The United States, on the other hand, always has its weaknesses on full public display – but has repeatedly demonstrated its capacity for reinvention and restoration. Managed strategic competition would highlight the strengths and test the weaknesses of both great powers – and may the best system win.” I have no doubt that Western liberal-democracy is the better system and I am quite confident that it can and will win Cold War 2.0 as it won the earlier one.