|Limit, Leverage, and Compete: A New Strategy on China
By Melanie Hart and Kelly Magsamen
Construction workers install the final piece of steel for the roof structure of
Arthur Ashe Stadium, June 2015.
assumed the United States could coast on a combination of natural comparative advantages and status quo technology dominance, much of which stemmed
from investments made decades earlier. That approach has not worked. China is investing heavily in emerging technology sectors—such as artificial
intelligence and next-generation mobile communication—to successfully chip away at U.S. technology leadership and global market share. However, in the
United States, many U.S. workers are unable to find good jobs in the information economy. In sum, the United States has lagged on the very areas of strength it
needs to compete against an increasingly powerful China.
Over the past few decades, China funneled trillions of dollars into public education, public infrastructure upgrades, high-tech research and development (R &
D), and global diplomacy. At the same time, Washington dialed back investments in those fundamental pillars of national strength—including, most importantly,
the American people—and assumed the United States had enough of a head start to maintain its edge without the necessary investments at home.
The Trump administration has identified the growing China challenge and the risks it poses to U.S. security and prosperity. Unfortunately, the administration is
pursuing a strategy that weakens and isolates the United States and makes the problem worse. The Trump administration’s approach to China suffers from two
fundamental flaws: Economically, it is failing to enact the necessary policies at home to support U.S. workers and set the United States up to compete
effectively in new technologies and markets. And, politically, it is withdrawing from its role as a global leader at the same time it is alienating potential allies
and partners—who share similar concerns about China—instead of working with them.
If the United States maintains its current course, it will cede substantial ground to China. Economically, China will dominate key global markets and
technologies and the high-paying jobs that go with them, forcing the United States down the value chain. China will continue to use its growing economic
footprint to pursue political, military, and diplomatic goals that undermine U.S. national security, such as leveraging its role as a next-generation mobile
telecom equipment provider to control global communication networks and push an authoritarian governance model for the global internet. On security issues,
China’s growing assertiveness will continue to undermine the security balance in Asia, take advantage of new openings that Trump is creating to erode U.S.
alliances, and increasingly directly threaten U.S. national security as it shrinks the military capabilities gap. On global challenges such as climate change and
global public health, absent renewed U.S. leadership, China will have wide leeway to make minimal contributions while claiming that it is doing more than
enough to fulfill its responsibilities as a great power.
To turn this dynamic around, the United States must address U.S. economic challenges head-on and invest in the fundamental drivers of economic prosperity
and national security: public education, infrastructure, innovation, R & D, and diplomacy. Instead of acting unilaterally, the United States must reach out
multilaterally to lead and build a united front with allies and partners. With those core fundamentals in place, the United States can then execute a strategy that
limits China’s ability to exploit its openness; leverages China to contribute its growing capabilities in ways that benefit the global common good; and positions
the United States to compete more comprehensively over the long term.
The goal of this strategy is straightforward: advance the country’s national interests and put the United States in the best possible strategic position regardless
of how China acts. Ideally, China returns to a more peaceful and collaborative purpose, engaging in fair competition—instead of tilting the field—and using its
growing military clout to pursue common objectives that other nations share. But as the United States continues to encourage China to change course,
Washington must develop policies that respond to the realities of a more assertive China that is actively undermining U.S. interests around the world.
This report presents a new strategic framework—limit, leverage, and compete—as well as key measures the United States should take to begin implementing
it. The first section explains how major political shifts in the United States and China put both countries on a trajectory that led to China’s re-emergence as a
global power. It concludes by describing the strategic missteps—including a multidecade period of inertia and two wars in the Middle East—that have
hindered the United States’ ability to compete against an increasingly powerful China. The second section lays out an alternative approach to China that will
reverse the current trajectory. It recommends a new strategic framework that limits China’s ability to exploit U.S. openness; leverages China’s growing
capabilities to address global challenges; and positions the United States to compete more comprehensively over the long term. The section concludes by
explaining how this strategic framework—limit, leverage, and compete—will put the United States in a stronger position to respond to the realities of a more
assertive China while providing ample off ramps to adjust if China chooses a more collaborative path. The third and final section makes specific
recommendations about how each pillar of this strategy should be implemented, prioritizing investments in the United States’ network of democratic allies, its
democratic values, and the unlimited potential of the American people.
Two decades into the 21st century, China’s ambitions—economic, political, and territorial—have created a global storm. If the United States maintains its
current course, it will cede substantial ground to China.
To turn this dynamic around, the United States must reinvest in its own unique strengths and principles. At home, it must address its economic challenges
head-on and invest in the fundamental drivers of economic prosperity and national security. Globally, it must reach out multilaterally to lead and build a united
front with allies and partners.
With those core fundamentals in place, the United States can then execute a strategy that limits China’s ability to exploit its openness; leverages China to
contribute its growing capabilities in ways that benefit the global common good; and positions the United States to compete more comprehensively over the
Read complete report at https: //www.americanprogress.org/issues/security/reports/2019/04/03/468136/limit-leverage-compete-new-strategy-china/
About the authors
The authors thank Center for American Progress China and Asia Policy Analyst Blaine Johnson for providing research support throughout the drafting process.
The authors thank American Progress colleagues Abby Bard, Colleen Campbell, Simon Clark, Kevin DeGood, Rudy deLeon, Khyle Eastin (Intern), Matthew Feng
(Intern), Mike Fuchs, Miriam Goldstein, Andy Green, Marc Jarsulic, Frank Kendall, Carolyn Kenney, Livia Lam, James Lamond, Jacob Leibenluft, Kate Martin,
Ben Miller, Katrina Mulligan, Lisette Partelow, John Podesta, Daniel Rice (Intern), Vikram Singh, Trevor Sutton, Neera Tanden, Alex Tausanovitch, Lauren
Vicary, and Alan Yu for their contributions to this report.
The authors also thank the foreign policy experts who served as external reviewers and provided wisdom that strengthened the final draft.
Melanie Hart is a senior fellow and director for China Policy at the Center for American Progress. Dr. Hart’s research focuses primarily on China’s domestic
political trends, U.S.-China trade and investment, Chinese foreign policy engagement in Asia, and U.S. foreign policy toward China. She founded and leads
multiple U.S.-China Track II dialogue programs at CAP and frequently advises senior U.S. political leaders on China policy issues. She has a Ph.D. in political
science from the University of California, San Diego and a B.A. from Texas A&M University.
Kelly Magsamen is the vice president for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress. Previously, she was the principal
deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs and also performed the duties of assistant secretary of defense, where she was
responsible for defense and security policy for all of Asia and served as principal adviser to the secretary of defense. In these roles, Magsamen shaped
Department of Defense policy and strategy in the South China Sea and was responsible for strengthening and modernizing U.S. alliances and partnerships in
the region. Prior to her tenure at the Pentagon, Magsamen served on the National Security Council staff for two presidents and four national security advisers.
Introduction and summary
The greatest geopolitical challenge in the 21st century will be how the United
States—and the rest of the world—responds to the rise of China. China’s gross
domestic product (GDP), when measured in domestic purchasing power
(purchasing power parity), already surpasses that of the United States. It is now, by
some measures, the dominant global economic power and is mobilizing that
wealth to pursue its own vision for the international system. The central contest of
this century will be between the U.S. model of political and economic development
and the Chinese model of political and economic development. If China’s vision
prevails—if it becomes the dominant power of the 21st century—there is a risk the
United States and the world will be less free, less prosperous, and less safe. The
United States does not need to engage China in a zero-sum Cold War to avoid this
outcome. However, it does need to put its own ideas on the table internationally,
advocate for that vision, reassert global leadership, and rectify a pattern of serious
missteps at home.
The United States should be well-equipped to address the challenges China is
posing, but it has been hindered by decades of strategic inertia. Since the early
2000s—when China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the United
States launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—the United States has pursued a
strategy that is fundamentally flawed. Instead of channeling public resources to
support American innovation and invest in American workers, Washington