The aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN 65), left, the Military Sealift Command fast combat support ship USNS Supply (T-AOE 6), the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Nitze (DDG 94), and USS James E. Williams (DDG 95) conduct a replenishment at sea. The ships are deployed as part of the Enterprise Carrier Strike Group to support maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 6th Fleet area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Alex R. Forster)
Neo-primacy and the pitfalls of US strategy toward China

Over the last half decade, a bipartisan consensus has emerged in US foreign policy circles calling for sustained competition with China. The ostensible goals of this competition are to protect the extant international order, block Chinese regional hegemony, and defend American allies—all of which notionally require major changes in US grand strategy. Gone is the assumption that the US victory in the Cold War gives it an opportunity to use economic and institutional interdependence to structure international politics in its favor while combating such ills as ethnic violence and terrorism; in vogue is the argument that the United States faces a near-peer great power competitor seeking to challenge the “liberal international order” nominally fostered by the United States since 1945. In keeping with this drive to “compete” with Beijing, the United States is now accelerating efforts to militarily counterbalance Beijing, block Chinese economic and political influence in Asia and beyond, and pressure states to pick a side in the emerging US-China contest.

Still, the new call for competition obscures more than it reveals. At its root, competition is not a strategy. It says little about the links between particular tools of statecraft and underlying US political objectives. This is understandable, for the simple reason that “competition” itself is not really the United States’ strategic response to China’s emergence as a great power. Instead, underlying and embedded in the new competition consensus is a nascent grand strategy I term “neo-primacy.”

The United States’ original primacy strategy, of course, emerged after the Cold War as a way to extend the United States’ run as the sole and uncontested superpower in the international system, sustaining its unipolar era by blocking the emergence of new peer competitors. Proponents of neo-primacy, in contrast, argue that China’s rise to date already imperils unipolarity—at minimum putting the US lead under duress and at maximum having already ended the period of US predominance—while promising additional US relative losses in the future. As such, the strategy calls for the United States to compete with China in order to reclaim US dominance in world politics by reversing current trends in the distribution of power, bolstering existing US strengths where possible, and undercutting China’s gains where necessary. Gone is classic primacy’s optimistic take that US preeminence would last indefinitely; in vogue is a call for a direct contest to regain US leads.

Uniting members of the Trump administration and many analysts in think tanks and academia, the result—so the argument goes—would buttress America’s contested leadership in international affairs while affording Washington options to check Chinese geopolitical ambitions. Or as Jake Sullivan, former national security advisor to then-Vice President Joseph Biden, and strategist Hal Brands argue in an apt crystallization of the logic, “signs that China is gearing up to contest America’s global leadership are unmistakable,” requiring sustained investments in military power, diplomacy, and economics to ensure that the United States “more than hold[s] its own” in competition with Beijing. Baldly stated, lurking beneath calls for competition is an approach looking to arrest China’s challenge to US preeminence and reconstitute the sorts of geopolitical advantages enjoyed immediately after the Cold War.

Read the full article in Washington Quarterly.

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