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America’s New Great-Power Competition with China


Published: September 2, 2021

Elizabeth Economy discusses China’s aggressive foreign policy. America must act to rein in China’s foreign policy ambitions by engaging our allies and operating with increased humility. But despite the new great-power competition, America must be willing to work with China to effectively respond to climate change, pandemics, and other global disasters.

Discussion Questions

  1. How did China become powerful?
  2. How can the US maintain ties with China?

Additional Resources

  • Pre-order The World According to China, by Elizabeth Economy. Available here.
  • Read Elizabeth Economy’s testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “Advancing Effective US Policy for Strategic Competition with China in the Twenty-First Century.” Available here.
  • Read “The China Model: Unexceptional Exceptionalism,” by Elizabeth Economy via the Human Prosperity Project.Available here.
View Transcript

The United States is in a new era of great power competition with China. And how the U.S. chooses to respond will profoundly affect the trajectory of the 21st century.

China’s leaders want their country to become the dominant global power, and over the last decade, they have made substantial progress toward achieving their objective.

What is their strategy? It starts at home, where the Chinese Communist Party has been increasingly forceful in re-imposing control over territories within its own border, like Tibet, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang. But it also has designs on what it considers to be its sovereign territory, such as Taiwan and vast swaths of the South China Sea. 

The CCP also wants to become the preeminent power in Asia. It has become more militarily assertive in the region and is establishing a network of economic and security arrangements that exclude the United States. 

Beyond its own backyard, China seeks to embed its economic, political and military interests globally through the Belt and Road Initiative and by transforming the international norms and standards that govern everything from human rights to technology so that they support Chinese interests. 

China’s strategy is long-term, multi-actor, and multi-domain. It mobilizes and coordinates significant human and financial resources from all sectors of the Chinese government, military, business, and society to realize those objectives. And, as the United States and other countries have experienced, China is increasingly using the leverage of its market to try to coerce others to align their views with those of China.

China’s vision is of a reordered world order. 

At the same time, the CCP’s pursuit of narrow self-interest and its reliance on coercive tactics have engendered popular backlashes in many countries and rendered it incapable of exerting true global leadership. These vulnerabilities afford the United States a new opportunity to gain broad support for a vision of the 21st century world order rooted in liberty and the rule of law.

So how should America rein in China’s foreign policy ambitions?

It begins by making clear that the central challenge China poses is its threat to values and norms, not, as is often asserted, one defined by a rising power versus an established power. 

American values include the commitment to inclusion and equality, innovation and sustainability, openness, and respect for human dignity. Operating from such a framework enables the United States to assert a positive and proactive message of leadership that China cannot counter while it cracks down on freedom in Hong Kong or abuses the rights of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.

This framework also enables the United States to engage its allies and partners. For example, China’s actions in the South China Sea become issues of freedom of navigation and international law rather than simply a challenge by China to U.S. military leadership in the region. 

In addition, challenging China’s vision for the world will require the United States not only to lead with a strong vision, but also to operate with a new degree of humility and partnership.

We cannot go it alone. Within Southeast Asia, for example, China claims a distinct military advantage simply by virtue of geography. Responding to its aggressive expansion will require greater reliance on both our regional partners and allies in Europe and elsewhere; 

Finally, even as the bilateral U.S.-China relationship remains overwhelmingly competitive, the United States should keep the door open to cooperation with China. There is legitimate space to elevate the world’s capacity to respond to climate change, pandemics, and global disasters through U.S.-China cooperation.