Power and Plenty in US-China Strategic Competition


NB: This is a short summary of Trading with the Enemy: the Making of US Export Control Policy toward the People’s Republic of China, Oxford University Press (February 2016, available here).

In the twenty-first century, the US-China relationship is characterized by a mixture of economic interdependence and rivalry in the military realm. On the one hand, since the establishment of their diplomatic relations in 1979, the economies of the United States and of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have grown increasingly intertwined. On the other hand, coupled with the thickening of their economic relations, there have been growing concerns within the US government over China’s military modernization in the post–Cold War era. The combination of China’s defense budget increase, foreign technology imports, domestic research and development (R&D), and military-industrial espionage have fueled a major military modernization effort. As a consequence, successive US administrations have carefully scrutinized and responded to the evolution of the strategy and military capabilities of their “most likely future politico-military near peer competitor.” The United States and China have therefore become, as David Shambaugh put it in 2013, “tangled titans” in a “cooperative-competitive dynamic.”

The complexity of managing the conflicting security and economic dynamics in the US-China relationship was eloquently expressed by former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Winston Lord in 1994 when he asked “how do we reconcile our competing goals in a post–Cold War agenda when security concerns no longer lend us a clear hierarchy?” Arguably, this mixture of multiple and contradictory interests is one of the fundamental features of the post–Cold War international environment. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were economically independent of each other. As a consequence, economic statecraft was integrated with and subordinated to US security objectives. In the post–Cold War era, the absence of an overarching strategic threat, coupled with growing economic interdependencies, has created an international system in which the two objectives of economic welfare and the protection of national security can increasingly represent trade-offs. As Richard Rosecrance argues in 1997, “the essential problem for countries seeking to enhance both security and the economy is that success in one may involve a trade-off that entails failure in the other.”

In light of the intertwining logics of military competition and economic interdependence at play in US-China relations, in Trading with the Enemy I examine how the United States has balanced its national security and economic interests in its relationship with the People’s Republic of China. To do so, the book investigates a strategically sensitive yet under-explored facet of US-China relations, namely the making of American export control policy on military-related technology to China since 1979. Export controls stand at the frontier between military considerations (the maintenance of military preeminence by avoiding the transfer of sensitive technologies to potential competitors) and economic interests (job creation, exports, and economic growth). At any time, a balance must be found between the economic interests involved in exporting high technologies and the military implications of potential transfers of sensitive technologies. Trade-offs are therefore intrinsic to export control policy. This field of inquiry therefore allows to investigate how the US government has balanced potentially competing national security and economic interests in its relationship with the People’s Republic of China and whether this balance has evolved over time. As Adam Segal put it in 2004, “the problem of designing effective export control policies for China exemplifies paradigmatic changes in the relationship among technology, trade, and national security since the fall of the Soviet Union.”

The book examines the making of US export controls toward China during the three decades that followed the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1979. To do so, it relies upon a broad and unique collection of primary oral and written sources including 199 interviews conducted in the US, the PRC and France , declassified archival documents, and diplomatic cables leaked by Wikileaks. One of the key findings that emerges from this study is the “hopelessness of containment” in the Post–Cold War Era. The United States is today unable to implement a strategy of military/technological containment vis-à-vis China in the same way it did with the Soviet Union during the Cold War because of the erosion of Washington’s capacity to restrict the transfer of military-related technology to the PRC. Although since the end of World War II the United States has been the major proponent of stringent controls on strategic trade with potential competitors, in the post–Cold War era the capacity of the United States to control the diffusion of military-related technology considerably decreased under the impact of several factors: the weakening of the multilateral institution governing export controls, the commercialization and global diffusion of technology, China’s growing indigenous capabilities, and the domestic pressures to liberalize export controls that resulted from the thickening of Sino-American economic relations.

These dynamics testify to the hopelessness of applying a strategy of military/technological containment of the People’s Republic of China in a globalized economy. The overlapping and intertwining of the logics of military competition and economic interdependence at play in the post–Cold War international system attest to the growing complexity of interstate rivalry in the 21st century. Furthermore, these findings have major consequences for Sino-American relations and, potentially, for the prospects of US dominance in the twenty-first century. In the longer term, a consequence of these trends could be, as stressed by a 1999 report of the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board, the leveling of the international military/technological playing field, which would pose a “direct challenge to the fundamental assumption underlying the modern concept of US global military leadership: that the United States enjoys disproportionately greater access to advanced technology than its potential adversaries.” Nonetheless, it remains to be seen whether the security, technological, and economic dynamics examined in this book will erode American primacy in world politics and eventually lead to its decline in the face of a rising China.

Image: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry addresses Chinese President Xi Jinping in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, at the outset of a bilateral meeting on May 17, 2015. Courtesy of State Department Photo/Public Domain.

One thought on “Power and Plenty in US-China Strategic Competition

  1. As a former government Sinologist, I found this an excellent summary of the intractable problem. The PLA have always, in any event, shown an ability to adapt technology and make do with “good enough” through reverse engineering or alternative purchasing paths. The Western technological edge has been constantly eroded since the turn of the millenium.


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