Contend or Cooperate? Redefining the US-China Dynamic

Harun Vemulapalli, Jun 19, 2023

Foreign policy is often characterized as a protracted chess game; it is necessary to anticipate several moves ahead, assess risk and reward, strike a balance between offense and defense, and create synergy between various pieces [1]. While chess is zero-sum, there is one winner and one loser, foreign policy is not. Foreign policy can promote critical moments of cooperation with joint gains for allies and adversaries alike. Thus, successful foreign policy details not only when or how to compete, but also when or how to cooperate. A balance must be struck to realize the greatest possible gains. In contrast, the past two years of President Biden’s foreign policy approach have been characterized by failure after failure, a seemingly never-ending disaster, from the failed pullout of Afghanistan to the now broken negotiations surrounding a potentially nuclear Iran [2, 3]. But Biden’s greatest failure, his approach towards the People's Republic of China (PRC), has made it evident that the current administration is incapable of distinguishing when to implement collaborative projects versus when to compete. 

Revising Bedrock Assumptions

Biden has characterized China as a revisionist power rather than as a power that wants to maintain the status quo. Biden’s goal is to prevent China from limiting human rights and destroying liberal institutions [4]. Therefore, Biden has felt justified in putting the United States on a path characterized by aggression and provocative behavior in all aspects of foreign policy. The PRC has pounced on the fatal mistakes of the Biden administration, projecting its influence economically and diplomatically. 

It is important to return back to the ideological bedrock of American foreign policy, to revisit assumptions most take as gospel. Biden must tease out the contradictions within the current strategy and develop a coordinated approach to China in lieu of attacking all fronts. For starters, a heavy focus on competition assumes China is truly revisionist. While the Biden administration has depicted China as a threat to the liberal order and democracy, and thus requiring containment, it is more probable that China will continue to integrate itself within international rules and norms [5]. Competition at the rate Biden wants to pursue is also unsustainable because the United States, even with a highly prosperous economy, has limited resources. A fundamental assumption driving Biden’s foreign policy, competition, should be supplemented with strategic cooperation. Cooperation is required not only among key American allies and theaters but also with China. After all, aggression incites more aggression, and the world cannot afford tit-for-tat behavior with the ever-looming presence of nuclear weapons. Thus, the United States should reinvigorate its soft power capabilities within the international system, strengthen its alliance systems to allow for offshore balancing, and coordinate with China economically. 

A Balanced Approach

A balanced approach is required in chess; it is necessary to protect the position and maintain a solid piece structure while also setting up attacks to checkmate the opponent’s king. Similarly, foreign policy requires both offense and defense. The best moves are ones that simultaneously attack an opponent while also strengthening one’s own position. 

The PRC has made considerable gains using foreign investment to capture necessary allies. In response, the United States should forward cooperation with developing nations in order to compete with China — strengthening the United States' defense while also putting pressure on China. The PRC has used the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a Chinese-led international development project, to provide various developing nations with new infrastructure and investment. African states like Sudan, Nigeria, and Ghana have been lent billions of dollars to develop railroads, power plants, and ports [6]. The development of infrastructure has led to increased African-Chinese military cooperation. The PRC has signed deals with African states to allow for military access to vital African ports, meaning China no longer needs to strictly rely on disputed maritime routes in the South China Sea [6]. Similar infrastructure gains have been made in Latin America and Asia. As former President Trump wrecked international cooperation on climate change, Xi Jinping, China’s paramount leader, has publicly called for carbon neutrality and is making good on his promise to ‘green’ the BRI [7]. The PRC has strengthened its hold in multilateral institutions such as BRICS — a partnership of emerging economies comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa — and the Association of Southeast Nations and has created new institutions such as the New Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to provide funding for developing countries (Savoy and Staguhn). Xi Jinping has made considerable strides in integrating China within a largely-US-led international order, and Xi continues to shift the balance of power in China’s favor. 

How has Biden been competing with China’s growing influence? By competing directly with China. The Biden administration’s approach to China largely consists of economic wars, tech racing, and military buildup, all of which fail to counteract the powerful gains made by China in international diplomacy. Instead, the United States should substantially increase its foreign assistance with ‘no strings attached’ policies to compete with China by cooperating with developing nations [8]. The assistance should simultaneously alleviate threats to the United States and provide alternatives to the Chinese model. Increasing investments, for example, in the Northern Triangle—a region comprising Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras—can relieve violence and address migration, while establishing more robust ties with countries in South America [8]. China often coerces developing nations within debt traps, making it vital that the United States' investments are in good faith. One weakness of Chinese assistance that makes recipient states uncomfortable is the preference for Chinese labor and companies to develop infrastructure over local workers. The United States should exploit this weakness when developing the American investment model. By providing aid and technical assistance to local communities and governments across the world, the United States can avoid the weakness of the top-down Chinese model which primarily focuses on national governments, limiting the reach of aid [8]. The United States has diminished its support for hard infrastructure, health systems, and private sector deployment in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America [8]. To take advantage of China's lacking in private sector deployment, the United States should provide assistance to private companies to attract capital, jobs, and growth in developing nations. The United States can also provide much-needed post-pandemic medical assistance and hard infrastructure projects to developing nations; both can be achieved by increased investment.  Additionally, the United States must stop forcing other nations to conform to its own interests. From intervening in sovereign nations to pursuing unilateral sanctions, the United States must get off the moral high ground and provide assistance in good faith in order to win the hearts and minds of other states [9]. It is necessary for the United States to anticipate the long game, to coordinate its pieces effectively in order to push the balance of power against China. Otherwise, the United States risks getting smothered in the international sphere by growing Chinese coalitions. 


Rerouting in chess involves moving pieces to better parts of the board in order to improve the activity and impact of pieces on the game. Oftentimes, pieces are positioned in such a way that creates limited mobility or influence, and by moving pieces around, there could be increased pressure against one’s opponent. Similarly, offshore balancing is a strategy in which a nation can remove onshore commitments and instead leave the burden of maintaining security to regional powers [10]. China is the long game, and the United States must be willing to forgo some minor battles in order to reposition itself in a more advantageous setting. Overextending oneself is a surefire way to burn through resources and get pegged down by distractions. 

However, effective offshore balancing is currently at risk because of lacking interoperability between allies and weakened defense commitments [10]. With offshore balancing, the United States can save resources in non-Asian theaters while applying some light pressure on China. Instead of focusing on every inch of the board, developing pieces to put pressure in one area can facilitate a dangerous attack. 

The alliance system that the United States has worked so hard to maintain is failing horrifically. American allies, for good reason, are not subservient to the United States’ wishes and have different interests in different fields. For example, while the United States’ military power remains unprecedented, leadership in other fields such as technology or research and development (R&D) is lacking [11]. Additionally, allies are becoming increasingly nervous about the strength of the United States’ security commitment. Finland and Sweden abandoned neutrality and applied for membership in NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Denmark has voted to take part in European Union security, and Germany has remarkably increased its defense spending [12]. South Korean academics and government officials have publicly made it clear that it would feel safer with its own nuclear weapons [13]. There is anxiety and fear in the air, and American alliances are fractured and in need of repair in the face of an emboldened China. The United States will not be able to take on China alone and must be able to rely on its allies to counterbalance China. A prerequisite to relying on allies, however, is supplying them with the necessary tools to take care of regional affairs. 

A major issue for allies is that the United States imposes constraints on the sharing of American technology and weapons development while also encouraging countries to spend more on defense. This contradictory approach is persuading US allies to ensure their own security independent of the United States’ oversight. The United States needs to let states flourish without imposing strict conditions, controls, or demands. Allies want to proliferate new weapon systems, such as lethal autonomous weapons or drone technologies, without cooperating with the United States [11]. Such behavior is justified, as the United States, while publicly calling for stronger alliances, often treats allies as afterthoughts in military R&D projects. Rather than being suspicious of allies, the United States must increase its defense innovation cooperation with other states and ensure safe weapons development. The United States can strengthen its relationships with other states while also lightening its own load. For example, there are various security clearances and structural factors that make it tremendously difficult for Japanese scientists or private sector actors to participate in American national security projects [14]. There is too much pressure on the United States to deal with threats coming from China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran. In order to defeat multiple adversaries sequentially or simultaneously, the United States would need an impractical amount of resources [15]. In order to successfully deal with the rise of China, the greatest threat, the United States must lighten its burden by leaning on allies. By doing so, the United States can focus more effectively on China [15]. The United States should offshore balance in key regions by incentivizing mutual security agreements where states can maintain their sovereignty while also cooperating on issues of collective defense. While critics of offshore balancing claim that it is often isolationism in disguise, if implemented correctly, the strategy could sacrifice some pieces in one area in order to develop a stronger long-term attack somewhere else. 

Coordinating Pieces

Harmonizing one’s pieces is necessary to ensure a player can maximize the potential of a particular position. Connecting pieces together can complement strengths while minimizing weaknesses. There are two theaters where coordinated offshore balancing is critical to implement. The first region is the Euro-Atlantic. Europe’s liberal order is severely threatened by the rise of autocrats in Hungary, Turkey, and Poland [16]. The United States needs to become the middleman to glue together Europe to become a more cohesive coalition. Different values systems, goals, and interests have left allies loosely connected [16]. For example, after Germany called out Chinese human rights abuses in 2021, many European allies in the United Nations were absent from signing on. However, greater cooperation over intraregional threats such as climate change, terrorism, and migration could also bind states closer together in matters of national security. 

The second major theater is the Indo-Pacific. The United States should adopt similar behaviors as in the Euro-Atlantic, but should also develop more onshore presence in this region. By ending onshore commitments in the Middle East and in Europe, especially in Ukraine, the United States can refocus its energy on where the true great power competition lies: Asia [15]. Along with offshore balancing in Europe and the Middle East, the United States must reassure allies, like South Korea and Japan, that the United States is there for them. The United States should also restructure its defense budget to spend more on multinational training centers for military activities and joint defense research projects [15]. 

Most importantly, it is vital that the United States connects two largely disconnected theaters. The United States must create a joint approach between both Indo-Pacific and Euro-Atlantic theaters with increased political consultation [15]. The United States should encourage its allies to increase defense spending, but it must also support development efforts by providing intelligence and guidance to make states less resentful of the United States' demands.

Proceed With Caution

Hyper-aggressive styles are common within chess. These kinds of players often overlook positional weaknesses by focusing heavily on launching attacks. It is easy to hurt one’s own chances by becoming vulnerable to a counterattack or tactical traps. There is no other way to describe the United States’ economic policy towards China except as hyper-aggressive. By doing so, the United States has damaged the ability of American companies to compete while also isolating itself from global trade. The players at the top of the chess world balance aggressive strategy with caution. The United States must proceed with caution and should start coordinating with China in some areas to mitigate the negative effects of clashing economies. 

The United States and China are in an economic war over technological innovation and intellectual property rights. There is increased antagonism over Chinese intellectual property theft of US products, restrictions on market access, and Chinese subsidies for domestic industries [17]. Specific industries like semiconductors, 5G, and artificial intelligence are under heavy competition, with China gaining world market shares and the United States losing shares [18]. There is no coherent economic security strategy within the current administration, as the economy and national security are often treated as separate spheres rather than as an interconnected system. As a result, the current competitive strategy may hurt China, but it is also hurting the United States by putting American companies at a competitive disadvantage and limiting the commercialization of new products. United States allies and companies are increasing export controls and obstructing China from American markets [19]. Potential allies have strengthened their economic ties with China largely because following the American strategy of detachment would significantly deteriorate their own domestic economies. By pursuing a wholesale detachment from China’s economy to reduce reliance and potential vulnerabilities, the United States is repelling other nations and facing backlash from domestic companies. For example, many European nations, like Germany, have stronger economic times with China than with the United States [11]. Similarly, South Korea, France, Taiwan, and the EU have also publicly called out the United States for its protectionist economic behavior, as new legislation in regard to semiconductors is hurting their economies [11]. As a result, detachment from China could also influence the United States’ relationship with many of its allies in Europe and Asia. While detachment within the context of technological leadership could sometimes be beneficial, there is no reason to delink the American and Chinese economies in industries that have no national security implications [19]. 

The United States should substantially increase its dialogue with China regarding economic cooperation. While the effectiveness of the World Trade Organization (WTO) has become permanently damaged by many parties violating trade rules and the United States blocking the Appellate Court, there is room for bilateral cooperation [20]. For example, developing new rules surrounding capital flows, trade, and investment could slow down the intensity of economic competition [19]. Diplomats have wrongly determined that working with the Chinese is a lost cause, and even if the United States must temporarily bend its knee to establish new rules with China, it is sure to benefit from long-term gains from economic growth. The United States should take a greater role in establishing a more open dialogue with China. The US could host talks between the Federal Reserve Chair and Chinese economic advisors [19]. China has established a number of economic agreements, like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership [19]. Ultimately, the United States should take a page from Xi Jinping’s book and move past symbolic acts of economic cooperation into concrete agreement measures. The United States can take similar strides in the context of pandemic preparedness, cybersecurity, and climate change. In doing so, the United States can limit how much China is able to unilaterally posture itself as a global leader on major foreign policy issues.  

Contend By Cooperating

There is no doubt that the Sino-Amercian rivalry will continue to intensify in the coming years. But, the game that is foreign policy cannot be answered with a binary approach. There is no direct answer to the question, “contend or cooperate?” because circumstances are constantly mutating. A nuanced approach is necessary for the long-term game, and the current administration, while publicly calling for a cooperative and competitive approach, is bogged down by contradictions. Biden should not characterize China as a villain for cheating the global economic system while implementing equally protectionist policies. Such trends damage key alliances and invoke unnecessary tension with China. While chess is always zero-sum and foreign policy is not, the Biden administration should adopt some strategies from the 1500-year-old game: contend by increasing cooperation.


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