Atlantic Council Strategy Paper Series December 16, 2020

Guidelines for implementation

By Jeffrey Cimmino and Matthew Kroenig

This strategy proposes a clear and comprehensive plan for competition with China. While it is possible to implement this strategy piecemeal, the various elements of the strategy are mutually reinforcing. The strengthen, defend, and engage pillars should be pursued simultaneously and with equal vigor.

The support of democratic publics is critical to ensuring a strategy is sustainable over the long term and democratic leaders must continue to make the case to their publics about why competition with China is in the national interest and how it directly affects their daily concerns. Recent surveys indicate that there is a reservoir of support. A Pew survey from April, for example, found that 66 percent of Americans held unfavorable views of China, and 62 percent viewed China’s power and influence as a major threat.

Furthermore, this strategy will not require significant increases in defense spending, which otherwise might dampen support for it. On the contrary, it calls for a reordering of defense priorities. The United States should shiftits defense spending away from legacy systems, and toward the critical technologies that are beginning to define the future of warfare and are necessary for meeting the China challenge. It should also prioritize a focus on the Indo-Pacific region, which means deemphasizing other regions. Vulnerable regional states should shift spending to capabilities that will make them less vulnerable to Chinese attack.

Much of the US portion of this strategy will not be executed by the White House, but by executive-branch departments. The Defense Department will be responsible for deterring and, if necessary, defeating Chinese aggression. The State Department should take the lead in coordinating a common allied approach to China and engaging with Beijing. Treasury will be responsible for implementing sanctions on the CCP and its officials. The intelligence community should make better understanding Chinese intentions a top priority. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and domestic law enforcement must counter China’s malign influence in the US homeland. Congress has an important role to play in passing supportive legislation, adequately funding this priority mission, and holding executive-branch officials accountable for its execution. It is also incumbent on the private sector, including universities and Silicon Valley, to recognize the severity of the China challenge, and develop groundbreaking innovations to foster economic growth, improved living standards, and a stronger national defense.

No country should be forced to choose between the United States and China. Indeed, the two-track approach outlined above eschews this binary choice. Countries can, and should, engage with China on areas of mutual interest, but they must also work with the rest of the world to defend against, and impose costs on, China’s behavior that violates international standards.

Image: A detail view of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., on September 18, 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA) via Reuters