Responsible competition and the future of U.S.- China relations Seven critical questions for strategy

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Over the last two years, a near-consensus has crystallized among China-watchers that Washington and Beijing are locked in a great power competition over vital economic and security interests. As a result, this narrative holds, the United States must adopt a hard-nosed approach to address the growing challenge that China’s rise poses to its standing in the world.

While there is little doubt that China’s domestic turn toward authoritarianism and its foreign policy assertiveness pose growing challenges to American interests, the gathering momentum toward thinking about U.S.-China relations in the context of inescapable confrontation raises more questions than it answers.

As observers of and participants in these quickly-evolving debates on the future of U.S.-China relations and the role of the United States in Asia, we believe that an important set of questions remains to be answered. Below we identify seven questions that the China-facing policy community is now debating as it grapples with how the United States should respond to challenges being posed by China’s rise. In many cases, these major questions beget research agendas of their own. If the United States seeks to craft a durable and comprehensive strategy for its role in Asia and relationship with China, experts and policymakers must interrogate these debates.

1. What are China’s national ambitions?

China’s leaders have been transparent about the fact that they seek to restore the country to a position as a great global power economically, technologically, militarily, and politically by midcentury, in effect, returning to its self-perception of its historic position in the international community. Some experts see China’s objectives as defined by declared “core interests”: preserving the Communist Party’s (CCP) grip on power, protecting territorial integrity and sovereignty, and upholding China’s economic and social development.

China’s ambitions appear to include a quest to become a major power that is wealthy, strong, influential, and respected. In other words, a country that escapes the middle-income trap through technological innovation; has a military capable of defending China’s territory and protecting its access to resources and markets; can shape international rules and norms to serve its interests; and whose political and economic models are internationally accepted.

There is little debate that these objectives require Beijing to be a leader in Asia. A critical question, however, is whether China’s core interests and economic and major power objectives require it to substantially weaken the U.S. role in the region, or whether it can accept a strong American presence, so long as it is able to preserve its form of governance and protect its “core interests.” The answer is crucial to determining the compatibility of the two countries’ interests.

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