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The Competitive Co-Existence Strategy For Managing US-China Relations – Analysis


The latest US National Defense Authorization Act mandates that President Donald J. Trump submit to Congress by 1 March 2019, a whole-of-Government strategy for dealing with China.  (SEC 1261).  A strategy of “competitive co-existence” has emerged as a contender for ‘managing’ US-China relations.

At first blush this term sounds safe and even sensible. But on closer examination it is unrealistic, misguided, internally inconsistent and even dangerous. 

The author and main promoter of this concept is Andrew Erickson a professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute. He is an influential expert on China’s military and has testified before various US Congressional committees regarding the China “threat” including the origin, parameters and purpose of the “little blue men” theory (China’s maritime militia) and their use in furthering China’s policies and interests. 

The National Interest recently carried an article by Erickson elaborating the concept’s rationale and prescriptions for its implementation.   It starts with the assumption that China can be — and should be — “managed.”  This may well be a fool’s errand.  According to the article, the paradigm’s key pillars include “oppose [China’s] harmful behaviors”; “accept risk and friction to recalibrate Chinese actions,” and “hold ground in contested areas”.  The final pillar is to “reduce tensions and pursue shared interests as much as Beijing is willing to do so”.  This will be rather difficult if not impossible if the first three pillars are implemented.   Indeed doing so is likely to confirm to China that the U.S. is trying to constrain and contain it—and confront it if necessary to do so.  It will probably respond accordingly and tensions are bound to rise—not diminish.

Further, the concept’s prescription for policy essentially rules out negotiation and flexibility by urging the U.S. to be “clear, firm and consistent from the start.”   More problematic, it advocates that the U.S. uphold “its vital interests and those of its allies and partners” – a term that encompasses a wide range of contentious issues across a wide swath of Asia.  But uber alles it means the maintenance of the existing “rules based international order.”  The problem of course is that China views the existing international “order” as having been built by, and preferentially benefiting, the U.S. and its allies. 

The article observes that “competition is inevitable” and that “because of conflicting political systems, values and interests, U.S. – China distrust and competition is unavoidable.”  This is so.  But why must the U.S. impose on China its political system, values and the primacy of its interests?  China and others must wonder, if they are so attractive and appropriate for other nation states why not simply set the example and assume China and others will follow? 

The article provides a specific example of where the U.S. should “hold its ground”.  It points to the overlap of US-China interests in the Yellow, East and South China Seas.  It says that “much of these seas, together with their associated international waters and airspace, is a vital part of the global commons, on which the international system depends to operate effectively and fairly.”  This is true.   But in this context it is misleading and even disingenuous.  It alludes to the purported Chinese threat to sea lanes in the South China Sea.  There is no such threat to commercial traffic and there is unlikely to be in peace time.  The real issue is that China considers some US military activities in and over its exclusive economic zone to be violations of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.   Purposely conflating the two concerns is disingenuous.  More dangerous, the article urges the U.S. to “proactively help allies and partners pursue their legitimate rights and interests” thus putting “Beijing on the defensive.”  This is a recipe for confrontation and conflict, primarily at the political, economic, and possibly even military expense of smaller Asian countries caught geopolitically in between the two.

There is also a tinge of hypocrisy in the article’s analysis.  It alleges that China uses “economic state craft against American allies and partners, and directly interferes in the politics of countries across the world.” This may be so. But this is what the U.S. did in its rise to international power and continues to do so.  The article also alleges that China “tests the U.S. continuously to determine its tolerance for risk, friction and tension.”  But this is precisely what China thinks the U.S. is doing with its intelligence probes and intensified freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.  The prescription calls for America to apply “counter-pressure” to deter negative Chinese action”.  The rationale is that when the U.S. ‘resists’, China “often chooses not to escalate” thus demonstrating “the limits of Beijing’s appetite for risk.”  Such thinking and actions could lead to dangerous miscalculation.  As China’s power and confidence grows, so may its “appetite for risk.”

The prescription suggest that the U.S.  “walk away from engagement that China values more than it does” such as the US-China Military Maritime Consultative Agreement and Joint Staff Dialogue Mechanism meetings.  However these are some of the very few institutionalized US-China military dialogues and it may not be wise for their militaries to simply stop talking.  Moreover, it urges the U.S. not to “accommodate [China] selectively as a superpower in some contexts and a developing country in others.”  But the reality is that China is a major power in some areas like military and international economic prowess but still a developing country in many domestic social and economic areas.

The article concludes that “describing the United States and China as strategic stakeholders that should pursue competitive co-existence realistically is a good place to start.”  I agree.  But the key word is “realistically.”  The details of the proposed “competitive co-existence” strategy make it unrealistic and even dangerous as a policy prescription.

Indeed, the thinking behind the proposal for a strategy of “competitive co-existence” is a good indication of why US policy towards China has ‘failed’ and probably will continue to do so unless it recognizes and reckons with the realistic future.  It is overly US centric in both tenor and tone.  US policy must address today’s and tomorrow’s reality of China’s power, influence and appeal.  It will continue to increase and slowly supplant the U.S. role as the sole leader and arbiter of “the international order.”  The only thing the U.S. can do is to accept this and try to influence the inevitable transition by negotiating the manner, pace and substance of power sharing. 

This piece first appeared in the South China Morning Post.

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Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia, is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles. He is currently an Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

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