US versus China: Promoting ‘Constructive Competition’ to Avoid ‘Destructive Competition’ (Volume II)

September 2021 No Comments

Volume II in the SMA Perspectives Series “Emergent Issues for U.S. National Security”

Editors: Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Robert Elder (George Mason University), Nicole Peterson (NSI, Inc.),
Belinda Bragg, PhD (NSI, Inc.)

Contributing Authors: Dr. Allison Astorino-Courtois (NSI, Inc.), Mr. Alex Campbell (LLNL), Dr. Zachary S. Davis (LLNL), Mr. Abraham M. Denmark (The Wilson Center), Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Robert Elder (George Mason University), Dr. Scott W. Harold (RAND Corporation), Mr. Mark Hoffman (Lockheed Martin), Mr. David Kirkpatrick (LLNL), Dr. Oriana Skylar Mastro (Maj, USAFR) (USINDOPACOM; Stanford University; AEI), Mr. Marshall Monroe (Marshall Monroe Magic; National Center for Soft Power Strategies), Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Jack Shanahan (USAF, Retired), Dr. Michael D. Swaine (Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft), Dr. Yi E. Yang (James Madison University)

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It is not an exaggeration to state that China is and will remain a significant challenge to the US on all aspects of national power for the foreseeable future. This situation has been in the making for quite some time. This SMA Perspectives paper will not delve into the historical roots of why the US got to where it is, however. Nor will it dwell on the purely military aspects of the conflict. These are important considerations that are amply discussed elsewhere in numerous scholarly publications. This SMA Perspectives paper is focused on the following question: “How should the US manage the US-China relations so that they stay below the level of conflict and destructive competition?” In this context, the paper distinguishes “constructive competition” from “destructive competition.” It is also a follow-on to a previously published paper, entitled “Present and Future Challenges to Maintaining Balance Between Global Cooperation and Competition.” The focus of the previous paper was on the conditions that encourage actors to act in ways that promote cooperation and avoid escalation to conflict. It offered a range of alternative actions that the US and/or another actor can take that will protect the vital interests of both. In the current SMA Perspectives paper, we apply this paradigm and the general insights from the previous paper to the US-China relationship specifically.

In the context of this SMA perspectives paper, “constructive competition” is a “state in which actors see their interests on a particular issue to be in some degree of non-threatening, non-damaging opposition.” It is “tolerable and productive,” and it is “the ideal mode in a dynamic global system, as it stimulates innovation and movement” (Astorino-Courtois, 2019; Astorino-Courtois, 2021). It assumes that the main actors can cooperate on common interests. It requires agreed upon norms or boundaries of accepted behavior and assumes that there is some degree of agreement between them. In this context, mutualism implies that both sides see the potential for gains.

“Destructive competition,” on the other hand,is a “state in which actors see their interests on a particular issueto be in opposition and potentially damaging to their respective interests. Tactics consistent with destructive competition can range in severity from international rules violations (e.g., stealing intellectual property) to actions seen as sufficiently harmful to necessitate shows of armed force to signal or demonstrate willingness to escalate. Thus, it is possible for two actors to be in a state of constructive competition on some issues and in a state of destructive competition on others” (Astorino-Courtois, 2019; Astorino-Courtois, 2021). In this context, the animosity between the actors is such that they are willing to undermine themselves to take the other down. It is also possible for destructive competition to interfere with constructive competition. This occurs when two actors’ interests do not align. In this context, it is assumed that the US and China will use all forms of competition to include selective use of direct confrontation and/or conflict when a state’s vital interests are at risk or perceived to be at risk.

Maintaining balance among competing interests in international security affairs is both a leadership and a management issue. Major leadership and management objectives include satisfying specific security objectives, while simultaneously 1) avoiding escalation (to the right) on the cooperation-competition-conflict continuum, 2) looking for opportunities to cooperate and compete constructively with long-time partners and competitors alike, and 3) retaining escalation control in the case of destructive competition and conflict. The ideal states are cooperation and constructive competition, given that US security objectives are met. Thus, the US objective would not necessarily be to “gain advantage,” particularly where cooperation better serves overall US interests. “Gaining advantage” implies asymmetry, which in and of itself is the foundation of destabilizing escalatory security spirals. Rather, the US objective would be to defend against disadvantage and seek to “create dilemmas for the adversary,” if these dilemmas would lead to cooperation or de-escalation, but not if the dilemmas would lead to destabilizing choice options. Key to all this is a viable risk management strategy.

There are wide differences in perception between the US and China (and other authoritarian governments) in terms of what is “acceptable” behavior in competition below armed conflict. Examples from China include forced technology transfer, economic and military espionage to fuel China’s military advantage (i.e., military-civilian fusion), influence operations, offensive cyber operations, biological attacks, and the use of non-traditional intelligence collectors. Some of these aspects are examined in this SMA Perspectives paper.

The US perspective of this competition with China is discussed by Lt Gen (Ret) Jack Shanahan, who proposes exchanging a single-note (specifically, containment) strategy for a five “C-note” scale—cooperate, compete, contest, confront, and conflict—to enable the US to tune its policy response to specific issues, approaching each on its merits and allowing progress to be made (or not be made) independently.

China’s perspective of US-China competition is discussed by four respective contributors:

  • Dr. Michael D. Swaine argues that China is well aware that the US possesses huge advantages, both internal and through its allies and partners, that make conflict a risky strategy of dubious benefit.
  • Dr. Scott W. Harold notes that the Chinese Communist Party has consistently framed the US as a threat to China’s interests and security, and this has enabled them at various times to promote a narrative that places the responsibility for regional tension and instability with “anti-China forces” within the US.
  • Mr. Abraham M. Denmark notes that for China’s leadership, competition with the US is not an end in itself, but rather a necessary part of their effort to build an international system in which the CCP can achieve its own interests and objectives.
  • Dr. Yi Edward Yang argues that China’s policies are both issue- and domain-dependent and, drawing on a broad literature, presents three models to explain various aspects of China’s behavior: the Social Identity Model, the Opportunistic Multilateralism Model, and the Centrality-Heterogeneity Model.

Other aspects of the US-China rivalry are addressed by several authors throughout the course of the paper:

  • Dr. Zachary S. Davis and Mr. Marshall Monroe highlight the scope and purpose of the movie and media aspects of the CCP’s soft power crusade and propose several options for countering it.
  • Mr. Alex Campbell and Mr. David Kirkpatrick advocate a regional cyber pact in the Indo-Pacific that suits the nature of cyber competition and builds on a unique American asset.
  • Dr. Oriana Skylar Mastro states that the US must avoid relying on Cold War tools and strategies of competition. Instead, the US needs to demonstrate to its allies and partners that it can protect them not only from military attacks but against other costly behaviors that Beijing may enact against them, such as economic coercion or diplomatic isolation.
  • Mr. Mark Hoffman argues that the nature of peer competition is in essence that of a complex adaptive system, and as such, insights and approaches from complexity management might be leveraged to help compensate for some of the asymmetric disadvantages endemic to the current adversarial peer competition.

Finally, in the closing chapter, Dr. Allison Astorino-Courtois attempts to bring all of the contributors’ insights together to provide a deeper understanding of the complexities of competition between the US and China.

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The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

Watch the virtual discussion with the authors here.

About the SMA Perspectives Series “Emergent Issues for U.S. National Security”

The Joint Staff and the United States military adhere to the maxim that effective strategy formulation starts with a proper diagnosis of the environment. This is particularly true when the operational environment has high levels of interactive complexity across various domains. In these settings there are no easy choices, but we know from centuries of experience that the best plans are informed by thoughtful, disciplined exploration of ideas and diversity of thought. In pursuit of this axiom, the volumes in the SMA Perspectives Series are a concerted effort to harvest the informed opinions of leading experts but do not represent the policies or positions of the U.S. government. Our hope is that the ideas presented in this series expand the readers’ strategic horizons and inform better strategic choices.

Volume I: Present and Future Challenges to Maintaining Balance Between Global Cooperation and Competition

Volume III: Emerging Strategic & Geopolitical Challenges: Operational Implications for US Commands

Volume IV: U.S. Command Perspectives on Campaigning in Support of Integrated Deterrence


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