In his address to Congress last week, U.S. President Joe Biden pulled a page from former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower’s playbook and tied an ambitious set of domestic programs to the need to compete more effectively with China. Just as Eisenhower convinced the country to fund the interstate highway system by invoking national security, Biden portrayed a broadly defined infrastructure program as critical to preserving the United States’ global position. Though this approach is not without risks, it recognizes the United States is in a new era of great-power competition and needs to raise its game.
But what is this competition really about? Despite growing (and to my mind, somewhat exaggerated) concerns about a military clash over Taiwan, neither the United States nor China poses a genuine threat to the other’s sovereignty or independence. The two states are simply too large, too populous, and too far away for each other to contemplate an invasion or even to impose its will on the other decisively. Both China and the United States also have nuclear weapons, which places even stricter limits on either state’s ability to compel the other to do its bidding.
Furthermore, neither country is likely to convert the other to its preferred political ideology. China isn’t about to become a multiparty democracy, and the United States is not going to be a one-party state capitalist regime (though the Republican Party’s current drift toward authoritarianism does make one wonder). Like it or not, these two powerful nations are going to have to coexist with each other for a long, long time.
If that’s the case, then what are they going to compete about? Some aspects of Sino-American competition will be material in nature as each country seeks to develop superior artificial intelligence capabilities, green energy technology, and biomedical products along with more advanced military capabilities. But as I argued at some length a few weeks ago, a major part of the competition will be normative as each country seeks to defend and promote the rules or norms it believes the global order should be based on. The question, therefore, is this: Whose rules will eventually win greater support around the world?
Read the full article in Foreign Policy.