China has increasingly demonstrated a distinct lack of subtlety in managing the great power competition with the United States. In 2022, a series of Chinese cyber operations stole trillions worth of intellectual property in the form of blueprints for military equipment and pharmaceuticals. It is clear that, rather than directly challenging the United States, China prefers to heighten opportunity costs and play around outside the lines of American patience.
China’s approach to great power competition is self-destructive, and America’s best response is to avoid antagonizing Chinese nationalism and wait. America has inherent advantages over China that it can more confidently leverage, whether through appeals to living standards and freedoms unattainable in an autocracy or by subtly encouraging China’s increasingly self-destructive foreign policy.
The Cost of Bullying
The United States is the world’s dominant power, but the United States can not nor should not attempt to counter China alone. Nations with a history of conflict and distrust with China, with whom the United States should share the burden of containment, surround China.
For example, in the past century, China forcefully annexed almost half of Mongolia and, after several bloody encounters, is currently at a standoff with India over a shared bordering region known as Doklam. Over the years, the United States has wisely strengthened ties with these surrounding nations, notably becoming India’s lead trading partner. Mongolia peacefully transitioned to a stable democracy with a growing economy and military capabilities, and India has pledged to increase naval spending to help the United States deter Chinese aggression.
While the United States is already a leader in sending aid and engaging in trade with many of China’s neighbors, it should continue integrating China’s neighbors into its containment strategy. The United States can do this by advocating for regional economic integration, as seen by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and recognizing the region’s appeals to long-term development, like infrastructure. The United States can also work off cooperation-based security models like the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), avoiding overly bellicose foreign policies to present the United States as a rational and restrained regional power.
Leading by Example
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has a history of human rights violations, such as slaughtering peaceful protesters, forcefully harvesting organs, or persecuting ethnic groups. The citizens of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) cannot travel where they please, speak their minds, and their government often disregards their demands for greater freedom.
The United States stands to gain the upper hand against the CCP if its people are dissatisfied with their treatment. One means of safely accomplishing this without risking backlash is to continue allowing Chinese citizens to experience freedom and higher quality of living through foreign exchange programs and business opportunities, which are encouraged or even sponsored by the Chinese government. As pressure mounts, the CCP is put in a lose-lose position where limiting these trips or improving the quality of life for an elite class will only increase internal discontentment.
Already, the Chinese are demanding greater rights. A modern example of this is China’s widespread riots following COVID lockdowns. With cars ablaze and crowds surging, the Chinese citizens have been recorded chanting Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” and demanding Xi JinPing’s resignation. The protest and its widespread destruction and mayhem resulted in massive expenses.
The United States should work to maintain this trend by prioritizing cultural exchanges and avoiding stoking anti-American Chinese nationalism, such as by U.S. officials making provocative visits to Taiwan or taking significant steps towards decoupling our economies. By allowing the CCP to lionize American aggression, it can distract from its unpopular policies. By exercising patience and restraint, the United States can continue to erode the PRC’s base of domestic stability simply by existing. Without easy appeals to nationalism, China will meet the limits of its autocracy.
Letting China Make Mistakes
U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan caused China’s military to be increasingly involved. This engagement has made them a more salient target for militant extremists, as demonstrated by a recent bombing in Afghanistan aimed at China for their treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang, which killed fifty people.
Additionally, Chinese tying in with gulf states through the Belt Road Initiative—such as Iraq—opens them up to engaging extremist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which could hamper their ability to compete with the United States.
China broke the seal on this possibility long ago, as China has specifically deployed thousands of special forces troops—called Night Tigers—in Syria to fight Uighur rebels and aid the Assad regime in both 2015 and 2017. It might be wise for the United States to continue untangling itself from costly ventures in the Middle East in which China shares a vested interest, as the United States is currently bearing the cost for China’s benefit.
The United States has many actions it can leverage to outcompete China, be it through exploiting distrust between China and its neighbors, passively fueling domestic unrest by welcoming Chinese students and businesses to American freedom, or quietly allowing China to entangle itself in expensive, drawn-out conflicts. It is, therefore, far from inevitable that China will surpass the United States. To paraphrase Napoleon Bonaparte, “never interrupt your enemy when they are making a mistake.” Lucky for America, China is making several.
Garrett Ehinger is an undergraduate student at Brigham Young University in Idaho, majoring in Biomedical Science. He was the Director of the China Lab at his university, a recipient of the EA UGAP stipend award, and has studied Chinese culture and history for over a decade.