Why a ‘Collaborate, Compete, Confront’ China policy won’t work

State Department photo by Ron Przysucha/ Public Domain
State Department photo by Ron Przysucha/ Public Domain

Even as American public opinion on China reaches generational lows and political rhetoric allows for ever fewer shades of grey, most policy makers recognize the need for greater nuance in bilateral policy. This nuance increasingly takes the form of positioning the relationship as operating on three parallel paths: one in which collaboration is possible, one in which competition is necessary, and one in which confrontation is unavoidable. More than a catchphrase, framings such as these often take on lives of their own as active organizing constructs for policy. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security advisor Jake Sullivan engage their Chinese counterparts in Alaska, they may find the framework wanting. 

This ‘3C framing,’ which Secretary Blinken endorsed in his first speech as Secretary of State last month, should be understood more as a reaction to calls for containment or decoupling than an affirmative vision for American policy. Matters such as public health, artificial intelligence, and human rights issues are generally considered to respectively fall in the collaboration, competition, and confrontation domains. In some cases, a single issue area might involve some combination of all three; for instance: cooperation on more aggressive climate targets, competition to lead the new energy economy, and confrontation over China’s export of dirty power to developing countries. (In a similar spirit, some Chinese commentators use the term, chandou, which translates as “fighting while embracing.”)

In practice, this ‘3C framework’ falls short as an organizing construct for U.S. policy. The lack of clear outcomes and basis for prioritization, disconnect from practical considerations of implementation, and narrowness with respect to the role for allies, domestic policy and civil society are all arguments against them. First, is the lack of clear outcomes, which runs the risk of inviting activity along each track for their own sake. A worthwhile framework must establish a set of guiding principles that transcend and animate issues, not merely organizes them. Similarly, the lack of a basis for prioritization creates the potential for false equivalence. The United States, for all its resources, must still pick its priorities, particularly on issues requiring confrontation, which require the most institutional bandwidth and resources. 

The 3Cs are also disconnected from practical considerations of America’s ability to act upon them. Confrontation as a frame is hindered by the United States’ limited points of leverage. China is simply too interconnected for penalties to not impose collateral costs on U.S. stakeholders, which, of their own accord and via Chinese pressure, they invariably seek to dilute. (See, for instance, recent efforts by American corporations to lobby against proposed legislation penalizing supply chains exposed to forced labor in Xinjiang.) Among the most powerful tools that the United States has at its disposal, the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency, emboldens the world to reduce its exposure with each use.

The 3C framework also runs this risk of being misinterpreted as too bilateral, lacking scope for the Biden administration’s perspective that pursuing closer cooperation with allies can lead to better outcomes with respect to China. Would progress on climate, for instance, be better served by negotiating with Beijing or agreeing a strong carbon border adjustment with other advanced economies which China would have no recourse but to honor?

The 3Cs also lack consideration of the important domestic factors influencing China’s assessment of the United States. China’s growing assertiveness is influenced in part by the perception that the United States is in terminal decline. Revitalizing the United States’ own polity can do as much or more to assure allies and prompt China to reassess its behavior as direct engagement. The Biden administration’s stated ambition to craft a “foreign policy for the middle class” recognizes this.  

Finally, even as the U.S. government integrates China into “virtually every NSC directorate,” according to its spokesperson, the government-centric mindset that the 3Cs potentially foster must not eclipse the vital role that other stakeholders, including the media, universities, think tanks, corporations and state and local governments can and do play in navigating the bilateral relationship.

From three means to five strategic objectives

Instead of the 3Cs, the U.S. should reframe its approach as undertaking five strategic objectives that simultaneously address the shortcomings of the 3Cs and more fully reflect the Biden administration’s emerging agenda. The first objective calls upon the United States to defend the autonomy of liberal societies and institutions. This requires the U.S. to counter China’s influence operations at home and abroad; step up in international fora that China is determined to co-opt; offer credible alternatives to non-aligned nations wooed by Beijing’s largesse; and pursue the Biden administration’s concept of a multilateral mechanism capable of countering China’s economic coercion.

Second, the United States must renew its competitiveness as well as that of the liberal order more broadly. Domestically, this involves a commitment to improving American governance, including through the defense of voting rights, investing in infrastructure and education, and enhancing the social safety net, all clear priorities of the new administration. Beyond its borders, the U.S. should set bold aspirations for the reform of key multilateral institutions to maintain their relevance.

Third, the United States must work to minimize distrust and promote a sustainable balance of power. This will require the United States to act uni-, bi- and multi-laterally. Unilaterally, a Pentagon review launched last month ought to affirm that America’s military commitments are sustainably made with deterrence, not hegemony, in mind. Bilaterally, the renormalization of strategic and economic dialogues with China would be a useful vehicle, both for advancing understanding at a senior level and building working relations vital to the future at a junior level. Pursuing a reopening to American journalists after last year’s expulsions would be an important reset towards promoting understanding and reducing distrust. Multilaterally, the U.S. must encourage its partners to pursue relationships that are as productive with each other as they are with the U.S.

Fourth, the United States should reduce China’s points of leverage while maximizing its own. Minimizing points of leverage, from industrial supply chains to 5G, should be undertaken via diversification and open standards as a first recourse and targeted decoupling only where most necessary. Maximizing points of leverage will require the United States to work more closely with issue-contingent coalitions, including nations and other stakeholders, such as corporations, whom China is well practiced at playing off one another.

Finally, America should remain unhesitant in challenging Chinese policies that deny the Chinese people their full potential. Human rights policy should place as much emphasis on supporting the persecuted – for example, by granting asylum to Uyghurs – as it does on sanctioning the persecutors. The United States should also broaden the ambit of its concern to other harmful policies, such as hukou and women’s representation, that deny millions of Chinese full participation in China’s prosperity. Such criticisms may prove more difficult for Beijing to rebut and perhaps even create modest cleavages between the Party and its people. America should also cheer the development of China’s civil society, evidenced by the rise in voluntarism and philanthropy, even as it remains state-constrained. 

The above hierarchy is intentionally framed as such so that competing objectives can be weighed and acted upon accordingly. Should its autonomy be lost, the United States cannot be a credible competitor; if it is not a credible competitor, the United States will be unable to achieve a balance of power and basis for trust; without a balance of power, the question of leverage is inconsequential; and without leverage, there is no basis to compel changes in China’s behavior. Managing relations with China in the challenging months to come will require unmistakable clarity of purpose. The 3Cs are a welcome rhetorical rebuttal to calls for containment, but they must not become shorthand for policy itself. To do so would emphasize activity over action and fall short of the administration’s own worthy ambitions.