The United States and China are becoming strategic rivals. The mounting trade war is but the most visible manifestation of this new reality. But the competition goes well beyond trade. It extends to political influence, military strength and even the information realm. At its core, it’s an intensifying competition over who will shape the future.
For 75 years, American power and leadership has been the dominant feature of global politics. Emerging triumphant from World War II, Washington used its unquestioned power to forge a rules-based order that offered countries the prospect of security through alliances, prosperity through free trade, and freedom through democracy and the rule of law.
China is now challenging American leadership and the very rules-based order itself. That much became clear on a recent visit to Hawaii, home of the U.S. military’s Indo-Pacific Command. In briefings and conversations with top military leaders, including the commander of U.S. forces, the challenge posed by China to the region was their singular preoccupation.
China’s growing economic power is well known and understood. Through 40 years of extraordinary effort, China has become the second largest economy and will surpass the U.S. in a few years. Much of its growth was the product of internal effort. But all too much of it was the result of nefarious and predatory practices — stealing of blueprints and technology, large government subsidies to key industries and the closure of large parts of the Chinese market to foreign competition, even as Beijing enjoyed full access to U.S. and other markets.
As China grew richer, it bought power and influence in other realms. Over the past quarter century, China has expanded and modernized its military tenfold. It’s deploying aircraft carriers as part of a growing blue water navy, fourth- and fifth-generation combat aircraft, and an extensive arsenal of missiles to attack on land, sea and air. It’s rapidly increasing its presence in space and continually perfecting its cyber offensive capabilities.
China now has a military base in Djibouti, in Africa just across from the Arabian Peninsula. Its navy has sailed to the Baltic and Barents seas. And a string of artificial islands in the South China Sea, with airstrips and deep-water ports, provides it with an intimidating presence in a contested region through which more than $5 trillion worth of goods are shipped annually.
Beijing is also using its economic might to exert influence beyond its territory. It’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative stretches through Southeast and South Asia on to Africa and Europe. China finances loans, provides plans and employs its own workers to build sea and air ports, rail and road links and other critical infrastructure throughout the world. Failure to repay loans in time can result in seizure of assets, as Beijing did with a port it built in Sri Lanka.
China has a large and growing diplomatic corps, and it’s extending its presence in countries and international institutions throughout the world. Every time the United States steps back, be it at the United Nations or another place, China is ready to fill the void — with people, money and influence. The message is clear: China is a power to be reckoned with. And people are taking notice. As Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin said recently, “China’s offer of a strategic partnership is a bit more attractive than the current offer of the U.S. of strategic confusion.”
There is nothing unusual with what China is doing. It’s acting like any great power would — using its economic and military prowess to extend its political influence to all corners of the globe. And quite naturally, it seeks that influence to serve its own interests and purposes.
How should the United States respond to this growing challenge? The military commanders I met at the Indo-Pacific Command had a clear, definitive answer: Bolster relations with our “allies, friends and partners.” They emphasized that the United States could not, nor should, match China at every step. Instead, just as Beijing was exploiting its strengths, so should Washington. And America’s strength lies in having the one thing China does not: allies, friends and partners.
Together with its key Asian allies (Japan, Australia, Korea, the Philippines and Thailand) and important friends and partners, including New Zealand, Indonesia and India, the United States retains formidable economic, political and military capability to counter China’s encroachment and influence. American allies in Europe and North America also have an interest in limiting China’s reach, and they can work with the United States to ensure western influence remains strong and unchallenged in the Asia Pacific and other critical areas around the globe.
America’s rivalry with China is inevitable. But competition need not lead to confrontation. If America works together with its allies, friends and partners, it can continue to shape the international order to the benefit of all.
Ivo Daalder is the president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO.