16.11.22 China Review

Systemic Chinese Threat: experts discuss how the United States can maintain its leadership

According to a new report by the American RAND Corporation, the United States' strategic competition with China and Russia has dramatically escalated since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Each rival aims to build an international system that suits its interests, goals, and values: nations whose values, norms, and preferences dominate the paradigm of the current era gain a huge competitive advantage over the others. Beijing is a more serious adversary for Washington than Moscow, because its goals and strategies are more systemic and complex, while the Kremlin's actions are more reactive and revisionist, RAND experts say.
The RAND Corporation, one of America's oldest and best-known expert centers, has released a report titled "Competing for the System. The Essence of Emerging Strategic Rivalries," which was a follow-up to a previous report released in August, "The Return of Great Power War. Scenarios of Systemic Conflict Between the United States and China," which described two marginal scenarios for the United States-China rivalry. The first scenario is a low-intensity conflict that affects most of the world and unfolds in many areas and over many years ( similar to the Cold War scenario between the USSR and the United States in the last century). The second one is a low-intensity war that at some point turns into a full-scale war — mutual military aggression aimed at destroying the enemy's combat capabilities. Both scenarios imply a deeply fragmented international system where American and Chinese armies are under enormous pressure maintaining hostilities, fighting a range of unconventional threats, and responding to help requests from partners embroiled in localized confrontations. Although this analysis concerns a hypothetical conflict, the likelihood and conditions should be understood now, the authors of the report insisted.

The new report focuses on the systemic nature of the unfolding confrontation and pays much more attention to Russia. All three rivals have different ideas about what the international system should look like, RAND experts say. America diverges from Russia and China on five key points. First, the United States seeks an international system centered on alliances where Washington is a security guarantor. Russia, by contrast, seeks to fragment the international system that the United States creates by weakening NATO and following a revisionist strategy.

China is pursuing a much more complex goal, hoping to establish a Chinese-centric order at least in the Asia-Pacific region and potentially around the world. Second, the United States seeks the systemic protection and promotion of democracy and human rights. Third, Washington prefers a free economy and minimal government intervention in economic processes. Fourth, freedom of information is very important to America as it prevents manipulation. On all these points, Beijing and Moscow have fundamentally different approaches and values.

RAND experts argue that the biggest risk for the United States in this situation is that Washington will oppose the Chinese and Russian goals and initiatives in a reactive and scattered way, without having a coherent and global strategy. For example, RAND believes that in the case of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the United States acted mostly reactively, without a systematic approach to solving the new problem.

The United States should consider China a more serious rival than Russia, RAND experts believe. Russian revisionism aims to undermine the current international system foundation and restore its "traditional" spheres of influence. However, Moscow uses military, informational and diplomatic tools, as well as energy resources, only reactively: its approach to the future international order is not complex or systemic. 

China's strategy, by contrast, is complex and systemic both in terms of its goals and in terms of the ways to achieve them. Beijing has been consistently investing vast resources in implementing projects and creating organizations that move world politics in the direction of a China-centered order. The most famous example here is the "One Belt, One Road" project, which aimed to create economic corridors connecting more than 60 countries in Central Asia, Europe, and Africa. China is investing in infrastructure in many countries around the world and is seeking to reorient global currency markets toward the yuan. In addition, China is encouraging many countries to build their digital infrastructure based on Chinese technology ("Digital Silk Road"), which will give it access to global data and increase these countries' dependence on it. Finally, Beijing has established the Confucius Institute, instituted academic scholarships for foreign students, and begun actively organizing Chinese language courses in other countries trying to increase its global cultural influence.

The United States will be able to counter this expansion and maintain leadership only with a systemic approach, which should be based on a vision of the world system forming today as a system with a pronounced multilateral character, the RAND experts write. The systemic approach is crucial because only it can lead to systemic effects. For example, alliances with Europe, Japan, and South Korea after World War II were necessary for the United States from a security point of view but led to systemic effects — increased confidence in the United States, trade growth with these regions, and institutional rapprochement. A systemic approach, based on shared values, norms, and rules, grows institutions, organizations, and mechanisms that can cope with new challenges, RAND experts say.