A group of former officials, both Republicans and Democrats, and experts have put forth a large set of specific proposals on how the U.S government, industry and society writ large can meet the challenge of a rising China. The aim is to give the United States the best chance of preserving its national security, prosperity and freedom in the face of China’s growing power and influence.
What’s important about this group and its report, released by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), is their taking for granted that competing with China is the most important foreign policy task our country faces. The work also assumes that Beijing’s comprehensive international expansion must be countered with a commensurate effort on the part of the United States, which will require reforms and new initiatives on a scale unseen in the modern age.
“If we are going to get this right, the China challenge has to be the single or one of the top organizing principles of U.S. foreign policy,” said CNAS senior fellow Ely Ratner, one of the report’s principal authors. “What we need now is an honest conversation that dealing with the China challenge is going to require more cost and more risk than we anticipated.”
The report was mandated by Congress in the fiscal 2019 National Defense Authorization Act and contracted to CNAS by the Defense Department. It’s the third of its kind in the past decade. The initial mandate was to focus on developing a comprehensive defense strategy for the Indo-Pacific region.
But the final product ended up covering much more than just defense and addresses the China competition far beyond Asia. The authors include veterans of the Trump, Obama and George W. Bush administrations, as well as experts currently advising the presidential campaigns of former vice president Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Of course, there’s no political consensus yet in the United States on the severity of the threat coming from the China as it expands economically, technologically, diplomatically, militarily and culturally, and as the Chinese Communist Party seeks to exert political pressure far beyond its borders. Some believe the China threat is overblown. Some believe confrontation is inevitable.
This group set out to avoid either extreme and simply to agree that the strategic competition with China is on, that it can’t be waged by the national security community alone and that the United States is far from prepared.
“It was long overdue, but I am an optimist that we have turned a corner on building a new consensus toward competition with China that is strategic, enduring, and aims to utilize more than just the power of the Pentagon,” said CNAS adjunct senior fellow Eric Sayers, a former Republican staffer on the Senate Armed Services Committee and one of the report’s authors.
Modernizing U.S. defenses and reorienting them toward the China competition makes up only one aspect of the recommendations. The authors lay out ideas for changes and new programs to secure U.S. technological primacy, shore up U.S. economic integrity, reinvigorate U.S. diplomacy, fight the worldwide ideological battle for Western values, preserve a free and open information environment and build a talent pool to do all of the above.
There’s a heavy focus on bolstering the United States and its partners rather than trying to contain China’s ambitions. There are also proposals for new rules, norms and institutions to address issues brought forth by the advance of new technologies.
Engagement with China must be part of the overall strategy, the authors emphasize, but the recommendations take a clear-eyed approach to Beijing’s economic aggression, military expansion and efforts to interfere in free societies to serve China’s interests. Crucially, the authors argue, the greater public must be educated and engaged on the China challenge.
“Public education and engagement will be essential components of this effort: A more competitive U.S. strategy toward China will be neither effective nor sustainable without the informed support of the American people,” the report states.
The political debate over the China threat remains unresolved. But meanwhile, the Chinese government’s strategy to replace the United States as the primary power in Asia — and eventually in the world — continues apace. These 100 tasks can, at least, get our response going in the right direction. There’s no time to waste.