Is America’s foreign policy too reactive around China?

Foreign Affairs

Ali Wyne, senior analyst at the Eurasia Group's global macro geopolitics practice, calls on American policymakers to craft a better strategy that is not determined by the behavior of our notional competitors, especially China.

Illustration by Derek Zheng

Below is a complete transcript of the Sinica Podcast with Ali Wyne.

Kaiser: Welcome to the Sinica Podcast, a weekly discussion of current affairs in China, produced in partnership with SupChina. Subscribe to SupChina’s daily newly designed China Access newsletter to keep on top of all the latest news from China from hundreds of different news sources, or check out all the original writing on our website at supchina.com. We’ve got reported stories, essays, and editorials, great explainers and trackers, regular columns, and of course, a growing library of podcasts. We cover everything from China’s fraught foreign relations to its ingenious entrepreneurs, from the ongoing repression of Uighurs and other Muslim peoples in China’s Xinjiang region, to Beijing’s ambitious plans to shift the Chinese economy onto a post-carbon footing. It’s a feast of business, political, and cultural news about a nation that is reshaping the world.

I’m Kaiser Kuo, coming to you today from Midtown Manhattan today. This week, I’m delighted to welcome back Ali Wyne, who listeners to the show may remember him from his previous turns a couple of years ago. Ali was with the RAND Corporation back then, but is now a senior analyst with the Eurasia Group’s Global Macro Geopolitics Practice, focusing on U.S.-China relations and great power competition.

Ali is the author of a new book called America’s Great-Power Opportunity: Revitalizing U.S. Foreign Policy to Meet the Challenges of Strategic Competition. It’s a book full of ideas that had me nodding in emphatic agreement as I read it. And it really cracks open the truly big questions over the direction of American foreign policy. At its heart, it is a critique of the great power competition framing that has arguably come to dominate thinking, at least within the beltway, but Ali also offers his own blueprint for what U.S. foreign policy could still be. Ali Wyne, welcome back to Sinica, man.

Ali: Kaiser, thank you so much for having me. It’s really a privilege to be with you again.

Kaiser: Well, it’s really my pleasure, and congratulations on the book, which I really enjoyed.

Ali: Thank you.

Kaiser: Ali, let’s start with this, what is wrong with the basic framing that is now so ubiquitous, as I’ve said, amongst so many policy elites in the United States of great power competition?

Ali: So, I think the basic or one of the basic problems is descriptively, I think, it’s reasonably sound. It captures an important set of dynamics in contemporary geopolitics. Prescriptively, and I make that distinction in the book, I think, prescriptively, it’s more problematic. And I would set forth three main critiques of great power competition as a policy-making framework. I think the first critique is it risks advancing a defensive reactive approach to America’s principal nation state competitors, namely China and Russia, rather than a proactive, confident approach to those two competitors. I think that it’s a reactive defensive approach that if left unchecked, it could feed this impulse to compete with those two countries ubiquitously rather than selectively. And at a time when the United States’ relative influence is already declining, I think the ubiquitous contestation, as opposed to selective contestation, would accelerate America’s relative decline.

That’s critique number one. I think the second critique, and I think that this critique is actually a source of optimism, acquired optimism or acquired confidence for the United States, is that I think that it needlessly grandizes China and Russia’s much vaunted strategic acumen. I mean, China and Russia, they are formidable competitors, they’re multifaceted competitors, but they’re not necessarily 10-feet tall when it comes to their strategic vision. You look at China and you look at its growing estrangement from many advanced industrial democracies. Russia, obviously with its invasion of Ukraine has committed a really extraordinary act of strategic self-sabotage. So, the second critique is that it inflates, I think, their strategic acumen.

And then the third and final critique that I try to set forth in the book, and I imagine we’ll discuss this morning, is I think that if we focus too much on great power competition as a policy-making framework, I think that we risk characterizing cooperative undertakings with those two competitors as fool’s errands at best, and perhaps even worse, as exhibitions of strategic weakness.

Kaiser: Excellent. Very good. Yeah. And really, the central argument in your book is, as you say, all about not being reactive, not forming our foreign policy vis-à-vis China, especially just sort of in response to what it wants and what it does. I think that’s excellent. What would you consider to be the peer literature on this topic? Are there other books that have come out in the last couple of years that undertake to do the same thing, to sort of put forth an American grand strategy and then to critique this framing in terms of great power competition?

Ali: I would say a book that came out last year called Stronger by Ryan Hass. Ryan Hass is not only inside the beltway, but I would say in the world, he is one of the most authoritative voices on Chinese foreign policy, U.S.-China relations. Now, in my books, and my book is much shorter than his, and his focus is primarily on U.S.-China relations. I try to talk a little bit about Russia as well, but I think I certainly wouldn’t want to put words in Ryan’s mouth, but my understanding of his core argument in Stronger is that yes, the United States does need to compete with China selectively. It needs to be vigilant, but at the same time that we don’t want to be complacent in appraising China’s resurgence, we also don’t wanna succumb to consternation.

Ryan in his book, he focuses one, on how we can right size the competitive challenge from China, so that we find that midway point between complacenc[y] and consternation. But also, he really emphasizes the imperative of domestic renewal. If the United States is not able to address more effectively its own socio-economic challenges, if it’s not able to renew its own internal sources of competitive advantage, it’s not going to be able to compete effectively with China, and I try to advance a comparable argument in my book.

Kaiser: Yeah. I mean, I think, well, Ryan’s book, which I’ve read and which I’ve talked to him about on this program, is excellent. And I could not help, but notice that there was not a ton of daylight between your position and his.

Ali: Not at all. Ryan is someone… He’s a mentor. He’s not only been a tremendous champion personally and he very graciously lent his imprimatur to the book, but in terms of forming my own views on America’s role in the world, on U.S.-China relations, Ryan’s council has been indispensable. So, not surprising that there isn’t too much daylight between our arguments.

Kaiser: Yeah, yeah. I should add that Ryan is like my favorite person in the world. I mean, he’s just such a boy scout.

Ali: A wonderful human being.

Kaiser: Like an exemplary American, I feel like.

Ali: Yes.

Kaiser: Yeah. Anyway, you use the phrase ‘competitive coexistence’ a couple of times in the book. That is a phrase that I also use. And maybe if I had to pick my favorite sort of two-word framing, that’s the one I’d go with. Also a good one, I think it really originates for me, at least in my world with Damien Ma, my very good friend. I wonder whether you offer it up as an alternative framework because you didn’t really drill down on that competitive coexistence idea so much, but it does crop up. Ryan put forward competitive interdependence which I also very much like, which I think is also a good way to capture what’s going on here. Now, what’s your preferred phrase, if you had to categorize the U.S.-China relationship?

Ali: I think it would be competitive coexistence. And there are various, or I should say there are variants of that phrase. So, one could talk about strained cohabitation. One could talk about ambiguous co-evolution, but they basically all capture the same idea. I think that one of the challenges in thinking about conceptualizing the U.S.-China relationship is I don’t think that the United States or China is going to be able to achieve a decisive victory over the other. And the United States, in its history, when it thinks about its principal experiences with major external challengers. It’s accustomed to thinking about, and not just to thinking about, but to achieving decisive victory. So, you look at Imperial Japan, you look at Nazi Germany, you look at the Soviet Union. The United States can look at those confrontations and say, there was a clear Victor, there was a clear loser.

In the case of China, there are competitive dynamics in here and in that relationship, when you have the world’s preeminent power facing its principal challenger, there are competitive dynamics in here, but there are also cooperative necessities. And as much as Washington and Beijing might presently be loath to admit the necessity of cooperative undertakings, and as much as this point might seem hackneyed, I’m gonna bring it up anyway, because I think it’s an important point. I don’t see a scenario in which the United States can advance its own vital, leaving aside China, I don’t see a scenario in which the United States can advance its own vital national interests on the full panoply of transnational challenges, climate change, pandemic disease, arms control, and the like without maintaining some cooperative space with China.

There are competitive elements that are here in the relationship. There are cooperative undertakings that will be required increasingly of the relationship. And there really isn’t an end state per se. These are two linchpins of global order. I don’t think that for all of their internal and external challenges that either one of them is prime to disintegrate. I think that they will endure and cohabitate in perpetuity. And so, then the question for the two countries becomes, not how to achieve a decisive victory over one another, or how to effect a power transition between the two, but how to forge competitive coexistence and forge a strained and uncomfortable cohabitation, but I don’t see any other viable alternative.

Kaiser: Yeah. No, that’s very well put. Very well put. And I think that hackneyed as it is, it just needs to be shouted from the rafters again and again, I mean, this is very, very important.

Ali: Absolutely.

Kaiser: Like I said, there’s a central argument in your book, and that is that the United States should focus on its own renewal and pursue a grand strategy that isn’t focused on what other major state actors are doing. And by that, you chiefly mean China and, maybe to a lesser extent, Russia. A strategy that isn’t dictated by what they do. And yet, the bulk of your book has really taken up talking about China and about Russia. And as we’ll get to later, you submitted your manuscript before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there’s an afterword in the book that addresses that. Anyway, this, to me, seems to be like the central tension of the book that the really difficult thing to navigate is that, is it possible to articulate in American foreign policy approach, perhaps even an American grand strategy, that isn’t dependent in any way on what the other so-called great powers want, what the other great powers do?

Ali: Kaiser, I mean, you’ve identified, not only one of the core attentions, but really, it gets to a question that I hastened to note I struggled with when I wrote the book. I continue to struggle with it now. I intend the book to be a conversation starter. And I hope that it’ll stimulate conversation, discussion, debate around questions such as this one. One of the thought experiments that I contemplated when I was writing the book, I didn’t get too far, but if we were to do a fill in the blank exercise, if we were to say, America’s purpose in the world should be, or America’s purposes in the world should be… Fill in the blank. And the thought experiment is, how fully could you fill in that blank without once mentioning China or Russia? It’s difficult.

And as you see with my book, I spend a lot of time talking about China or Russia, so it is difficult. The point that I would make in terms of, it’s not a good answer, but it’s perhaps it might lead to an answer, is to whether the United States can formulate a foreign policy that isn’t so beholden to the decisions that China and Russia make. I think I make this point in the book that the United States can influence China’s external conduct. The United States can influence Russia’s external conduct. It can’t unilaterally dictate the decisions that those two countries make. There are only two phenomena over which the United States has full control. The United States has full control over the decisions it elects to make and full of control over the decisions that it elects not to make.

And it’s for that reason that when you focus on, here’s the universe of what I, meaning the United States, here’s what the universe looks like and what I can fully control, you then begin to focus more on renewing your own sources of competitive strength. And focusing on renewing your sources of competitive strength, of course, doesn’t mean that you’re oblivious to what your competitors are doing, but one, you appreciate the limits to your unilateral influence. And two, rather than contemplating ubiquitous competition, you think more about selective competition. I would say again, not a good answer, but just sort of a partial way of thinking about getting to an answer is, what can we fully control? We can fully control the decisions we make and don’t make. That recognition in turn leads to more of a focus on renewing our sources of competitive advantage while placing China and Russia in their proper competitive perspective.

Kaiser: But I wonder in this very, very complex world that we inhabit, whether that is necessary, whether it’s desirable, or even possible. I mean, there are so few values that anyone can articulate that both of the American political parties can really get squarely behind. Even as I agree that the U.S. shouldn’t have its foreign policy dictated by what our competitors are doing, it feels like, in this world of overwhelming hyper information, it feels not possible to just avoid reacting just to events in the world. It feels like the agenda, the priorities of governments, this ends up getting set entirely by the stochastic rhythms of news.

Ali: I mean, so Kaiser, you’re absolutely right. I recognize that a lot of the arguments that I put forth in the book, they sound good in the abstract. The question is how do you operationalize them? And particularly how do you operationalize them, not only given sort of growing complexity abroad and growing chaos abroad, but also, just the realities, the very sort of messy realities of America’s domestic politics?

Kaiser: Yeah.

Ali: So, part of U.S. foreign policy invariably and properly is going to be reactive because we can contemplate alternative futures, but we don’t know which of those alternative futures is actually going to come to pass. Just as an example, take the coronavirus pandemic. It’s not as though epidemiologists hadn’t been warning that there could be, and that there likely would be a pandemic, another pandemic, but in terms of where the pandemic would originate, when it would originate, what the transmission mechanisms would be, so on and so forth. The particular manifestations are sort of impossible to predict. So, you have the coronavirus pandemic and then take Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s not as though observers hadn’t envisioned the possibility that Russia could invade. But because there was a sense that Russia would incur so many costs were to invade, I think that a lot of observers said that if Putin is engaging in the kind of cost-benefit calculus that many observers, perhaps in the West engage in that, that cost benefit calculus would dissuade him. Obviously, it didn’t.

So, you’re absolutely right that when you think about … And now, you look at the coronavirus pandemic, you look at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, two profoundly different, but comparably destabilizing shocks of the international system that have occurred in a very compressed timeframe. Of course, we have to respond. I think the point that I try to make in the book is that, sort of building into your foreign policy, the inevitability that some of your conduct is going to be reactive, because there are going to be shocks to the system. There are going to be shocks at home. So, building in reality the inevitability that some of your foreign policy will be reactive, the question is not how to formulate a foreign policy that is wholly proactive because a wholly proactive foreign policy, it exists in the abstract. It can’t exist in reality.

But are there steps that the United States can take to make the balance a little bit less lopsided? And that is to say, are there steps that we can take so that, even if a substantial part of U.S. foreign policy is necessarily reactive, that we build in a certain place for proactive foreign policy? And that’s where I try to focus on again, sort of renewing our sources of competitive advantage. I think the more that we can focus on renewal as kind of being our lodestar, the more that we focus on renewal as being our foundation, not only will we be able to put our foreign policy on a more stable footing, but I would argue the more we will be able to manage those systemic shocks as they arise. Again, not a good answer, but I hope that we can strike a better balance so that our foreign policy is at least a little bit more proactive rather than being entirely reactive.

Kaiser: Not a bad answer, Ali. Really, give yourself a little credit here. Listen, I want to get to those sources of strength and what we should be focusing on in American renewal, but I want to talk a little bit about Russia and China. Throughout your book, you append a little epithet to the two countries respectively. You say, resurgent China, revanchist Russia. This phrase, the four words appear together many, many, many times throughout the book. I think it’s an important distinction. If I had to boil down to a single modifier for each country, I would say you chose well. I mean, I would probably go with the same thing, but when it comes to these two countries, there’s a tension between, you are pairing them so often, as you’ve even done on this show so far already.

Ali: Sure.

Kaiser: On the one hand, you’re just not pairing. And on the other hand, you have this effort to draw attention to the very important distinctions between Russia and China, their different intentions, their different capabilities, their disparate respective postures toward the international order. Right? And it goes on. Was this something that you found yourself wrestling with?

Ali: Absolutely. I wrestled with it when I wrote the book because … I actually, interestingly, just in terms of, I think it, and it gets to your question, it’s sort of an interesting sequencing point. I have a chapter on China and then I have a chapter on sort of the Russian competitive challenge, and then looking at the Sino-Russian entente. I actually, in terms of sequencing, because one of my … Before I wrote the book, I had been saying to myself, when I looked at the 2017 National Security Strategy, and when I looked at the 2018 National Defense Strategy, one of the concerns that I had was precisely this juxtaposition. If you group China and Russia together, analytically, despite their different approaches to world order, their different approaches to foreign policy, that continued, almost incessant analytical juxtaposition, it does begin to shape policy in terms of how you approach. Rather than approaching China and Russia in a variegated manner, you end up sort of priming yourself to formulate foreign policy towards them as a collective analytical unit when clearly you need to disaggregate.

I had said to myself, when I set out to write the book, I said, I need to make sure that I don’t fall into that trap. And so, I began writing about some of the differences between China and Russia, but then, as you point out, invariably I do end up talking a lot about China and Russia in juxtaposition. It is attention that I grappled with and I would … But getting to your point, I think it’s incredibly important. I think one of the reasons for the juxtaposition, it’s not so much, and I didn’t do as good a job of this as I should have in the book. I think one of the reasons for the frequent juxtaposition of the book, it’s not so much that I was juxtaposing them to say, look at how similar they are.

I was juxtaposing them just because these are sort of the two-nation state competitors that are so much on America’s mind right now. And so, the juxtaposition had less to do with saying, conveying a judgment that they’re analytically similar, or that in policy-making terms they are similar. It was more that here are the two countries, the competitors that the United States is worried about. But this one point, you’re absolutely right, I don’t think that the United States is going to be able to pry apart China and Russia, or orchestrate some reverse Nixon, or prevail upon China, at least for the time being, to loosen its embrace of Russia. But having said that, I think that the United States shouldn’t be taking steps to actively drive them together even more.

To that end, it’s very important that the United States recognizes that, so I’m gonna use those descriptors now, that a resurgent China and a revanchist Russia, they obviously do pose very different competitive challenges. I’ll enumerate a few of those.

Kaiser: Yeah, please.

Ali: I think that China is, because it’s resurgent, it accounts for a growing share of the world economy. It’s increasingly embedded into the postwar order, however you conceptualize it. And I think that for that reason, China tends to be less risk taking in its foreign policy than Russia. Russia, obviously we’re seeing with its invasion of Ukraine, Russia feels… Russia is, I shouldn’t say feels. Russia is substantially less integrated into the postwar order. It feels substantially more aggrieved by the consolidation of that system. I think it’s more risk taking. And I think we see with its invasion of Ukraine that Russia believes that, or I would submit that Russia believes that it can demonstrate or reaffirm its status as an enduring power more effectively by destabilizing the current system than by integrating itself further into it.

China is less risk taking; it’s resurgent. I think Russia is more risk taking, it’s less integrated. When we talk about China and Russia, it’s certainly true that they collectively share a number of grievances against the United States. They share a number of grievances against the postwar order, but I think that the manners in which they channel those grievances are very different. And so, I think that U.S. foreign policy should recognize those distinctions. And even if it seems right now that it might be difficult to pry the countries apart, we shouldn’t be actively pushing them together.

Kaiser: Let’s go back to the idea of renewal. I mean, it’s probably not surprising to any listeners to this podcast or readers of your book that you would list America’s ability to attract talent from all over the world. It’s very optimistic demographic outlook, right? Still a growing population related to that in large part because of immigration. Its great research universities, still 10 of the top 20 universities in the world. Its network of allies, and then on and on. I mean, all these go in the plus column pretty unequivocally. I think most people listening would certainly agree also with the list of things that you identify as problems, and I think our well-meaning allies would also identify them as fundamental problems: massive political polarization, our embarrassingly inept handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the increasing wealth and income inequality we’re seeing in this country, racism, crumbling infrastructure. And speaking for myself, I’m all for prioritizing domestic renewal, for sure.

But at the same time, look, we live in linear time, and the rest of the world isn’t gonna stand still as we focus on national renewal. So, where do we start? I mean, I feel like this week has been a really great illustration of this tension because the house passed the CHIPS Act on Thursday. And arguably, that is all about national renewal, and in a very good way, to re-shore semiconductor manufacturing, and I think that’s important. But also, this whole week we’ve been talking about the Speaker of the House’s planned trip to Taiwan. And that’s clearly something that came up in Xi’s phone call with Biden yesterday. Given the way that you frame the American debate over China, I imagine you must have perspectives on these things. Where do things like the CHIPS Act fit or the Innovation and Competition Act? Are these simply reactions to China and to China’s rise of the sort that you don’t want us to undertake? Or are these earnest efforts at national renewal that you do want us to undertake?

Ali: Sure. I think that the CHIPS Act is a good example. It’s a good example of where competitive anxiety can be a spur for, I think, good internal renewal. I do wanna make the point that even though I try to caution in the book against aggrandizing the competitive challenges from China and Russia, even though I say that the U.S. foreign policy should not be beholden to the decisions that China and Russia make, competitive anxiety in and of itself I would say is kind of value neutral. The question is how you channel that competitive anxiety. I think if you look at the sort of American history, we’ve seen very ugly downsides to how competitive anxiety has been channeled in terms of othering racial minorities or othering ethnic minorities in demonizing certain populations.

There are very, very clear downsides to how the United States has historically channeled competitive anxiety, but it also has been a source of scientific and technological innovation. And critically, and importantly, it’s also been a spur for many cases for social progress. If you look at Brown vs. Board of Education, sort of a landmark Supreme Court decision, if you look at critical pieces of civil rights legislation, they were spurred in considerable part by anxiety over the Soviet Union’s propaganda about America’s treatment of racial minorities. I think that the CHIPS Act is a good example where competitive anxiety can be a spur for internal renewal. What I worry about, and here’s where I would try to introduce a wrinkle, competitive anxiety, I think it can be one lever or can be one tool for internal renewal, but it should be one tool in a very large toolkit.

We shouldn’t be using it as a crutch. And in other words, the United States should not require the invocation of China or the invocation of Russia in order to take care of its citizens, in order to repair crumbling infrastructure, in order to modernize its educational system. If that competitive anxiety can help spur reforms that the United States should have been undertaking anyway, all for the better. But I worry about the extent to which the United States, absent those external competitors, seems paralyzed at home. The CHIPS Act, it’s good, and I think that it’s an important example of how competitive anxiety can spur internal renewal, but competitive anxiety should not be a substitute for steps that we should have been taking anyway.

Kaiser: One thing that you bring up, and I think really constructively, is this whole issue of America’s sort of psychological discomfiture at China’s rise. I mean, which to me is at once like it’s blindingly obvious that is a major factor among American political elites and in the American national psyche, if we can speak of such a thing. And yet, it’s practically impossible to do anything with that observation, at least in my experience. I mean, what do you do with this? I mean, does it delegiti[mize] American anxiety in some way? I mean, do you use it to… See, I can’t help, but sort of put this in the same bucket as things like white America’s really ugly response to the growing proportion of non-whites in America, to the fact that we’re heading, that white people are headed toward the reality of a majority-minority country.

And that’s why we’ve seen the popularity of this nonsense, like this replacement theory and stuff like that. I mean, for me, I would just sort of try to make people aware of what this discomfort does. It makes us inflate the things that China actually does do, and it contributes to this kind of 10-foot-tall syndrome, or to sort of hypersensitivity to Chinese misbehavior: IP theft, or militarization of the South China Sea, or what-have-you. It’s sort of in the same way, again, is like the way that white American anxiety makes whites in this country susceptible to the suggestion of, the prevalence of black-on-white crime or to the suggestion that Latin American immigrants are rapists and murderers. Somebody once said that, I hear. Suddenly, we’re really attuned to things that Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 says.

He’ll say something that is, if you think about it, not so horribly offensive. China will move closer to center stage in world affairs. Why shouldn’t it? After all, I mean, it is a growing part and it’s responsible for the plurality of growth in the world. It has a fifth of the world’s population. Why shouldn’t it, right? Why should that bother us? Other national leaders make similar pronouncements and nobody bats an eye, but for China, we’re hypersensitive to it. What do you do with this idea of psychological discomfiture? How does it fit into your argument?

Ali: In many ways, I make the argument that I think the most critical, I think that actually sort of the fundamental challenge that a resurgent China poses to the United States. I mean, yes, it is a multidimensional challenge, and we talk about the military components, the economic, diplomatic, technological — and those components are all very real. But I think that the ultimate, the ultimate competitive challenge for the United States is psychological. Let me actually, just to answer your question in a little bit more of a fulsome manner, just going a little bit of personal digression. So, I came of age in the 1990s, let’s say heady 1990s. So, it’s peak triumphalism in the United States. The U.S. economy is booming; the Soviet Union has collapsed. And when I was growing up, I very much believed in the end of… Or I shouldn’t say I believed it, but I should say I perhaps subconsciously internalized it.

When I was growing up, I regarded American preeminence, not as a potentially transient condition. I regarded it as an inbuilt condition. It was just inbuilt into my own worldview. I thought that it was an inbuilt fact of life. It was an inbuilt fact of world affairs. I think that one of the challenges for the United States is that if you go back just 30 years — so now we’re in 2022, if you go back to 1992 — China in 1992 was relative to now still quite impoverished, quite isolated. And we really did think that it was on the wrong side of history. We thought that its conception of modernity had been dealt a decisive blow with the implosion of the Soviet Union. It’s not just the fact of China’s resurgence. It’s also the speed with which it has occurred.

It’s the multidimensionality of that resurgence. I think that in many ways, the biggest challenge for the United States is going to be how do you, first of all, recognizing that you’re not going to be able to achieve a decisive victory: number one. Number two: appreciating that your principal competitor is a country that only 30 years ago you thought had been relegated perhaps to the dustbin of history. And three: recognizing that cohabitation is inherently ambiguous because there isn’t an end state. There isn’t some decisive resolution. It’s about coexistence. I don’t have a good answer. I don’t have a good answer, but I think that we will have to adjust. We’ll have to adjust, we’ll have to adapt, we’ll have to coexist, but I think that, that psychological challenge, and I think that in many ways… I’ll just make one last point.

America’s response to China’s resurgence, the hyper vigilance, the tendency to ascribe strategic vision to any and all pronouncements, even though in some … China’s not immune to strategic hubris, China makes mistakes.

Kaiser: Sure.

Ali: The Belt and Road Initiative, it was this much touted project; it’s a run into mistakes. I think China’s pandemic era diplomacy has been quite inept in many ways. But this tendency to be hypervigilant about what China’s doing to ascribe strategic vision to everything that China’s doing, I think it’s a reflection in many ways of that defensiveness. It’s a reflection of that psychological anxiety. So, I do think that that psychological anxiety, to some extent, it’s inbuilt when you are the world’s preeminent power. But I think that inbuilt anxiety is compounded when your principal competitor is so antithetical to you in so many ways. The question is not, how do we eliminate that anxiety? Because we can’t. The question is how best do we manage it so that it doesn’t manifest in destabilizing ways?

Kaiser: Yeah. As I said before so many times, China, over the last 30 years, has knocked out so many of the sort of load-bearing walls of American exceptionalism.

Ali: Sure.

Kaiser: It just has gone right up against these ideas. You’re not supposed to be able to innovate if you’re an authoritarian country. You’re not supposed to have, Christ, a robust market economy if you’re a communist state. I mean, and so on and so on.

Ali: And I believed in those, and I should say just by way of that sort of going back a little bit to that personal digression. And just in full transparency, when I was growing up, I very much subscribed to those notions. They’ve obviously proven to be wrong, but I very much believed growing up. I said China cannot innovate. It can steal intellectual property, it can copy, it can imitate, but it can’t innovate. That presumption has proven to be wrong. I thought that as globalization grew more entrenched, I thought that globalization would spell, maybe not the demise of authoritarian systems, but that it would significantly curtail their ability to exist. That presumption is proven wrong. I hope that I convey a little bit of this in the book, but certainly not only just as I wrote the book, but as I’ve just been watching world affairs unfold, I’ve been realizing how many of my own assumptions were wrong.

What I’ve been trying to do is you can’t always be right, but what you can do is you can, one, you need to acknowledge, when you have mistaken views, you first need to acknowledge that you’ve made mistakes. We all make mistakes, and then you need to learn. And so, I certainly, I’ve been updating my views of China in terms of its ability to innovate, and the ability of its political system to adapt. So, I’ve been updating my views of China. I’ve also been updating my views of Russia, frankly. I didn’t think that Russia would invade Ukraine because I said to myself, Russia is going to incur so many consequences if it invades Ukraine. Shouldn’t that kind of cost-benefit calculus dissuade Putin from doing what he did? Russia obviously invaded. So, I very much right now, I’m in the process of learning. I’m in the process of interrogating my own assumptions, correcting my mistaken beliefs, updating my priors, and learning as much as I can in real time, and hopefully rendering more considered judgments as a result.

Kaiser: As we should all be. I mean, very much as we should all be. One of the things that has come of China’s ability to continue to deliver surprises, and as you say, this kind of ascription to them of this strategic foresight and all this is that we have a real difficult time assessing China’s actual intentions. For me, that’s one of the two basic questions, right? That we have a lot of difficulty achieving consensus, and you offer a really great overview of what everyone in the field thinks. From those people who believe that China is basically just trying to make the world safe for autocracy, to people who really think that China’s pursuing total hegemonic dominance. But we don’t, we don’t have a consensus, anything close to that, nor do we have a consensus on China’s capabilities. What’s the balance of its capabilities minus its problems and challenges, right? We obviously need that, I mean, if we want to formulate a policy, so where do you sit when it comes to rightsizing China’s intentions and capabilities?

Ali: I was really, I shouldn’t say it was, I remained very deeply influenced by an article by Joel Wuthnow. I think he published in 2019 in The Asan Forum, which I don’t know if that outlet still exists, but at least in 2019 it did. And Joel Wuthnow, he’s based at National Defense University. He very, very comprehensively surveys, sort of the high-level documents, official documents from the Chinese Communist Party, important speeches given by President Xi, and others. And in a very rigorous manner he says, “Here’s the evidence, here’s what we can glean. Obviously, we’re not privy to Xi’s… We can’t sort of get inside Xi Jinping’s mind, and we’re not privy to some of the most innermost deliberations occurring between President Xi and his advisors, but there’s a lot that we can glean.” Joel Wuthnow, he documents that evidence and he says that various esteemed observers can render very different judgments, and they can render those very different judgments using very sound analytical processes.

I remained very influenced by that piece. And so, I think that we shouldn’t dismiss, out of hand, any hypothesis about China’s intentions. Whether someone believes that China simply wants to address its socioeconomic challenges, make the world a little bit safer for autocracy, or whether one believes that China wants to overtake the United States for global preeminence, it wants to revise and dissolve the present order and establish a more sinocentric order, so a more maximalist conception. I don’t think that we should dismiss, out of hand, any of those hypotheses. I think that we should continue to debate. We should continue to engage competing hypotheses.

What I do in my own book, in part because I don’t think that there is sort of a settled answer, I try to bring in the pairing of intentions and capabilities. Because when you formulate foreign policy, or when you formulate policy towards any country and particularly a competitor or an adversary, you have to assess not only its intentions, but also its capabilities. And so, I kind of sidestep the question of intentionality in my book by posing this thought experiment. It’s a little bit of a cheeky sort of evasion, but I think it’s a cheeky evasion in the service of promoting a more sort of tempered view of what China can actually accomplish. So, what I say in the book is, or the thought experiment I posit in the book is, let’s assume for argument’s sake — even though there is a debate as we’ve discussed — let’s assume the maximalist case of China’s intentions that China wants to overtake the United States with global preeminence.

It wants to dissolve the current system and establish a sinocentric order. Let’s assume the maximalist case of its intentions. Now then, if we leave the intentionality variable constant, or hold it constant, now we can focus a little bit more clearly on what capabilities China would be able to bring to bear in service of those objectives. I think that if we focus on China’s capabilities, we see that China, obviously its power has grown enormously across, in every dimension, military power, economic power, diplomatic power. So, there was an article in which I believe I quote, an article by Gerald Segel in 1999 in Foreign Affairs entitled “Does China Matter?”

Well, obviously it very much does matter as we’ve seen by China’s growth over the past two decades, but China does face very significant obstacles. There’s a familiar litany of domestic challenges. We talked about demographics. We could talk about environmental degradation. We could talk about, I would argue, the growing insularity of the circle of advisors closest to Xi Jinping. We can talk about zero COVID. And then externally, of course, I think that one of the major Achilles’ heel, maybe the principal Achilles’ heel for China is that even as its economic centrality continues to grow, I think that its estrangement from advanced industrial democracies is also growing.

And it’s not clear to me that until, and I would argue, that until and unless China is able to establish or restore some kind of baseline of trust, some kind of baseline of stability in its interactions with those advanced industrial democracies, it’s not clear to me that China can come to dominate its own region, let alone dominate world affairs. Again, let’s not understate what China’s capable of. Let’s not understate how much progress China has made, and let’s not understate how many prognostications of collapse China has defied, but let’s not let the pendulum swing too far in the other direction in which we believe that China is just inexorably going from strength to strength. It has significant obstacles at home. It has significant obstacles abroad.

I think that yes, China is going to endure as a linchpin of geopolitics, but I think that rather than thinking about a power transition between the United States and China, we should be thinking again about coexistence between the two countries.

Kaiser: Let’s for the rest of our time here, I want to focus on the way that you conclude this book, which I think is fantastic with these eight principles that you go through. One by one, let’s do these. They’re very worth discussing.

Ali: Sure.

Kaiser: Because more than just a critique, you actually do lay out a proactive set of ideas for how we should find a new foreign policy. I think there’s some fantastic ideas here. First, you talk about, and this really echoes the theme that threads throughout the entire book, is to prioritize the renewal of America’s competitive advantages. You start that one out with a really apt metaphor that’s drawn from your experience as a boy, when you were a competitive swimmer. I’d love for you to share that with our audience.

Ali: Oh, absolutely. So, it’s hard for me to believe because I’m so out of shape now, but I did actually swim competitively when I was younger. I remember, very early on when I started swimming, my swim coach gave me a piece of advice. Now, she was obviously giving it in a swimming context, but I think that it’s very applicable to life, to geopolitics. And she said, “a lot of swimmers who are just beginning,” she said, “they make sort of one of two core mistakes.” The first mistake is they dive in the pool and they just keep going. They never come up for air. They’re just thrashing, thrashing, swimming as much as they can. And when they do that, they might make some progress, but then they collapse because you have to breathe.

Or the other risk is that if you just blindly are swimming, thrashing and you’re not aware of where you are vis-à-vis your competitors, you can’t make adjustments that you need to make. But she said that the other risk, and this is the risk that I sort of spend more time on in the context of this first principle is she said, “Another mistake that new swimmers will make is that, whenever they come up for breath,” because you have to come up for air, “whenever you come up for air, you look left to see where your competitors are. You look right to see where your competitors are.” And she said that if you spend too much time looking left and looking right, you’re going to lose forward momentum that you need to swim your own race.

The advice that she gave to us is look, every individual has a different physique. Every individual has a different swimming style. And she said, “You can’t be another swimmer. You can only be yourself.” So, her advice, her exhortation was, as you begin swimming, as you continue swimming, develop a sense of, what is your swimming style? How often do you need to come up for air? How do you swim your best race? What is your physique? And really focus on swimming your own best race and doing a better job at swimming that race. So, her advice was, when you swim a race, every few breaths, when you come up for air, gently look left and gently look right, to get a sense of where you are, but focus primarily on mastering your own strokes, mastering your swimming technique, and really just doing the best job that you can to swim your own race.

Kaiser: Yeah. The other metaphor that always comes up is a running race. And which has the advantage of allowing one strategy, which is to trip the other guy, which seems to be a large part of the current American strategy vis-à-vis China. I love yours, but the running race also works. Yeah.

Ali: Yeah. But it’s interesting with running. With running or cutting somebody else off, or tripping somebody else up, there’s a debate right now in the United States, and thinking about China, sort of what is the formulation? Do we trip up our competitor or do we run faster ourselves? And so, there’s sort of this debate about, what is sort of the balance between the two? My own instinct is that, even though there are going to be cases in which the… I think particularly when it comes to sort of technological competition, obviously, I think recent years have drawn attention to the reality that unalloyed interdependence, unfettered interdependence between two competitors, it does produce certain security vulnerabilities.

And so obviously there are going to be cases in which the United States needs to disentangle selectively so that it’s mitigating those security vulnerabilities. But I do think that the bulk of U.S. competitive effort needs to be on running faster itself and doing better itself. Because again, I was talking earlier about just sheer proportions, when you have a country of roughly 1.4 billion people, when you have a government that is heavily subsidizing the cultivation of frontier technologies, I think there’s only so much that you can do, particularly if you’re acting unilaterally, there’s only so much that you can do through export controls, sanctions and other measures. There’s only so much that you can do to stymie China’s technological development.

I think that what we’ve seen in recent years is, sure, I think that the United States has created challenges for China. You look at, you look at the competitive woes facing Huawei. You look at the difficulties facing SMIC. And China right now, it views the cultivation of its technological reliance, not only as an economic imperative, but as a national security imperative. And China recognizes right now that it’s nowhere near achieving self-sufficiency in the manufacture of semiconductors that will be essential to its development. So, yes, the United States can certainly, it can slow China down, it can create a lot of problems for China, but do I think that the United States unilaterally can indefinitely stymie China’s technological development? No, I don’t, which is why I think that the bulk of America’s effort needs to be, China is going to do what it can to strengthen its technological development and the United States should do the same.

I think that the CHIPS Act is a good step in that direction, but the United States really needs to be focusing principally, not exclusively, but principally on how it can bolster its own edifice of technological innovation though.

Kaiser: Though you warn against trying to out-China China in our efforts to compete, what are some of the areas in which you think the U.S. is actually contemplating policies that would qualify for you as trying to out-China China?

Ali: I think I worry about the potential for us to succumb to that risk, I think, principally, when it comes to economic competition and technological competition. The reality is that because America’s political system is organized very differently than China’s political system, the United States is not going to be able to mobilize the level of resources in the… First, the level of resources. And it’s also not going to be able to mobilize resources in the same way that China does. For example, it’s difficult to imagine that the United States would be able to execute a parallel version of The Belt and Road Initiative. But the argument that I try to, or that it would be able to subsidize, sort of the cultivation of frontier technologies in the same way that China does, but the argument that I would make is that the United States is not China. China’s not the United States.

If I were talking to Chinese officials, I would give them parallel advice. Look, you shouldn’t try to out-America America. The United States has certain unique, competitive advantages that you’re not going to be able to replicate. So, take The Belt and Road Initiative. The United States government is not set up to disburse funds and to conceive of infrastructure projects abroad in the same way that China does. And what we’re seeing with the Belt and Road Initiative is so one, it’s not only that the United States should not try to out-China China. I also would argue that it really doesn’t need to. Yes, China has made significant inroads with its geo-economic statecraft, but I think that the narrative that China’s geo-economic statecraft has been just, sort of a complete success…

Kaiser: Unmitigated success.

Ali: It’s not true. It’s not true.

Kaiser: Of course, not.

Ali: I would draw attention to two scholars, in particular, you look at Professor Ang at the University of Michigan, and then you look at… Now, you look at Professor Wong. Audrye Wong had an excellent piece in Foreign Affairs. I think it was last year, and she was looking at basically just a very meticulous assessment of China’s geo-economic statecraft. And her assessment is that the strategic returns that have accrued to that geo-economic statecraft, they’ve been kind of underwhelming. I think, if we look at the actual record, what has China’s geo-economic statecraft produced? I think that the actual results should give us a little bit of comfort. And two, again, going back to the swimming metaphor, rather than trying to execute, sort of a parallel Belt and Road Initiative, let’s figure out, what are America’s competitive advantages when it comes to development work? What are the comparative advantages of our allies and partners? And leveraging those comparative advantages.

I think I worry about the risk when it comes to competing economically and technologically, because we see the sums of money that China’s pouring into subsidizing technology. We see the sums of money that China’s pouring into developing infrastructure. So, there’s an impulse to say, we’re getting left behind. We need to match whatever they’re doing. But one, not everything that China’s doing will automatically succeed. And two, we’re organized differently, so we should play to our strengths.

Kaiser: That’s right. Though, the United States clearly has something it should be learning from China, just as China has plenty, what would you identify as some of the things that China maybe could teach us?

Ali: Sure. I think one of the clearest lessons is, and I think in part it’s because of the way that China’s political system is organized, but we have seen that when China identifies certain objectives as being of sort of national and/or perhaps even existential importance, it is able to mobilize resources in a pretty extraordinary way. It is able to mobilize companies in a pretty extraordinary way. It’s really able to galvanize a sense of national purpose when it identifies… So if you look at, for example, I think that if you look at the Trump administration’s initiation of tariffs against China, the journalist, Bob Davis and Lingling Wei, they talk in their book, Superpower Showdown, they liken the initiation of the Trump administration’s initiation of tariffs to a Sputnik moment for China, after which China recognized or came to believe that achieving greater technological self-reliance, it was a matter of national security.

And so, when China makes a decision, when the Chinese leadership makes a decision that certain imperatives have reached that level of constituting national security imperatives, or even existential imperatives, it not only mobilizes resources in a really remarkable way, but I think, again, it galvanizes the sense of national purpose. I think that one of the biggest challenges for the United States right now is we don’t seem to have that sense of national cohesion. You mentioned earlier the challenge of political polarization. I’ll make the point here, and I perhaps, kind of presaging some of the discussion that we’ll have later on, even though the bulk of my book… The bulk of my book is sort of externally focused. So, it looks at rightsizing the competitive challenge from China, rightsizing the competitive challenge from Russia, looking at the Sino-Russian relationship.

But candidly, if Americans are preoccupied with tearing themselves apart and fighting one another, then a lot of the discussion about how we compete more sustainably with China and Russia becomes moot. I think the one lesson is, what can we do to forge anew that sense of national cohesion, that sense of national purpose? I think, interestingly, and I like this point that, and I’ll stop here, I like this point that Jude Blanchette makes, Jude Blanchette CSIS. He gave a very interesting interview last year to The Economist in which he said, “If you look at the rhetoric coming out of China, China doesn’t have an America strategy. China has sort of a China strategy. China’s focused on, where is it that China wants to be in the world?” Whereas he said that if you look at the United States, there’s a lot of discussion about, what should our China strategy be? Rather than, what is it that America broadly seeks to accomplish in the world?

I think that another lesson is, rather than thinking about narrowly, what is our China strategy? We need to be thinking about leaving aside China, leaving aside Russia, what is it that we’re trying to accomplish in the world?

Kaiser: Now, that’s really the essence of your book right there. I should also add that we did have that sense of national purpose. I mean, the Sputnik moment idea was coined originally in reference to the United States. And it really sparked, something that culminated with the moon landing in 1969. Right? So, we can get back to that.

I want to move on to the second principle, which I think is related to the first, which is: regard the power of America’s domestic example, not as a supplement to external competitiveness, but as a precondition for it. There’s something that you raised, which I thought was really great, a quote from Samuel Huntington back, I think, in the 1960s, from the Trilateral Commission Report on The Crisis of Democracy during that decade. He said, “If American citizens don’t trust their government, why should friendly foreigners?” I think, in these first two principles, your principle one about prioritizing American renewal, and the second about making America’s domestic example paramount, not a supplement to external competitiveness, but a precondition to it. I can’t help but think, Ali Wyne, you can say, “Let’s get our house in order first,” and few people are going to object, right? But when Beijing says it, you get your house in order first, we tend to, let’s face it, we tend to allege whataboutism, we shut down a conversation with that. Or we take a certain comfort in knowing that, hey, we have a mechanism that can correct our moral failings, it’s called democracy. It’s an open society, or in the fact that, hey, at least we can talk about these problems openly. What do you make of that? I mean, should we be hiding behind that, or is it more important for us to actually take these criticisms on board and do something about them?

Ali: Well, the latter. The latter. My feeling is that whatever the origin of a critique, whether the critique originates from, let’s say activists from within the United States, whether it originates from allies or partners, or whether it originates from competitors, I think that you evaluate the criticism on its own merits. It’s kind of comparable to my preferred process for… If I were ever an editor, say, if a news… If I were ever, say like an op ed editor, or if I were an editor of a journal or a magazine, and if I were to receive a submission, I would want to evaluate it, not on the stature of the author, not on the credentials of the author, but just on the merit of the idea itself. And if an author submits an idea that deserves publication, let’s publish it, regardless of the stature of the author.

If a criticism is valid analytically, intellectually, then we should take it on. And I think that during the Cold War, now, you might say, “Who are you to be lecturing us? Look at all of your deficiencies.” But if the criticism is meritorious, you take it on. Just as an example, during the Cold War, the Soviet Union, so just for some historical context, between 1945 and 1960, you have roughly three dozen countries that become newly independent comprising, predominantly non-white populations. And the United States was very concerned that because these newly independent countries constituted principally non-white populations, they were concerned that Soviet propaganda or Soviet narratives about America’s treatment of racial and ethnic minorities would resonate with the populations in these newly independent countries. And so, the Soviet Union would say, the United States, you say one thing about how you treat minorities, but look at how you actually treat minorities.

And, even though of course, a lot of what the Soviet Union was saying, look at… The Soviet Union obviously had a horrific record of treating its own minorities. And yes, a lot of its critiques were interspersed with propaganda and whatnot, but there was a certain truth in the critique. And it was a critique. Importantly, there was also mirrored by critiques coming from within, many activists in the United States were saying, “Look, the United States, look at how poorly it treats African Americans, look at how poorly it treats other minorities.” And that confluence of criticism originating from within and criticism originating from without, it led to those landmarks that we were talking about earlier, those landmark Supreme Court decisions, it led to civil rights legislation.

My feeling is look, whether a critique comes from an activist inside the United States, whether it comes from an ally or partner in Europe or Asia, or whether it comes from a competitor, such as China or Russia, if the criticism is meritorious, take it on board and say, “We acknowledge it, we need to do better, and we’re gonna get to work.”

Kaiser: Absolutely. Let’s talk about the next two principles together because they’re really related. Number three is: do not use competitive anxiety as a crutch. We’ve talked about this already. I wonder whether it’s too late. And principle four, which is: frame internal renewal as an explicit objective of U.S. foreign policy, not as a desired byproduct. You put the CHIPS Act as maybe a good example, but that again, that was sold and very much couched in terms of competition with China, so too with the Innovation and Competition Act, even Built Back Better more broadly. Were these things essentially just an outgrowth of competitive anxiety or a desired byproduct of U.S. foreign policy, or are these renewal projects, as you would prefer, the explicit object of competition with China?

Ali: I think that they were probably more the former, probably more a response to competitive anxiety. I think probably more response to competitive anxiety, but I think that to the extent that our competitive anxiety compels us to take steps that we should, we, meaning in the United States, compels us to take steps that we should have been taking anywhere, I think it can be useful. The United States should be able to marshal sort of internally the political will, the political wherewithal, the political capacity to address these issues without having to invoke external competitors. We should not be in a position in which we can’t manage a pandemic or we can’t manage income and wealth inequality. We can’t repair infrastructure on and on and on without invoking our competitors. Just as an example, one example that resonates with me, I think, I want to say the President Biden said it on the sideline.

I don’t know if he said it on the sidelines of last year’s sort of major sort of climate conference or… I don’t remember the context, but I remember, I think it was last year, and President Biden was asked about climate change efforts in the context of U.S.-China competition. And he gave an answer that really resonated with me. He said that we should be pursuing decarbonization and we should be pursuing clean energy efforts, not to outcompete China, but because we want cleaner air for our grandchildren. I think that that’s perfect. I think that that rationale is not only perfectly legitimate, but it doesn’t need to be supplemented. If the desire to have to leave our grandchildren with cleaner air, if that rationale doesn’t suffice in getting us to pursue decarbonization, to pursue climate change efforts, we’re in a very, very problematic situation.

I think that we have to strike this balance, and I think that you’ve gotten at this tension, but I would say that, as much as possible, you think about competitive anxiety as sort of one tool in the toolkit. Don’t use it as a crutch. And I’ll make one other point in terms of why we shouldn’t use it as a crutch. I think it projects, I think it sends the wrong message to allies and partners. I think that a lot of allies and partners, they say to themselves, they’re looking to see how the United States comports itself. And when the United States reflexively invokes China to justify everything that it’s doing at home, everything that it’s doing abroad, I think our allies and partners say to themselves, well, is the United States losing confidence?

Kaiser: That looks desperate. Yeah.

Ali: I think there’s a sense, is the United States losing confidence in its own capacity for renewal? Is it tethering itself to China as a crutch? I think that if the United States sends a message to its allies and partners that says, look, we’re vigilant about what China and Russia are doing. We will respond as appropriate to safeguard our vital national interests, but we are going to take care of these pressing socioeconomic challenges at home because that’s what we should do as a democratic government. I think, if we do that and if we demonstrate that we can get our own house in order, we’ll send a much better message. One last point, I promise, just sort of a P.P.S., which is that, obviously, internal renewal, renewing your competitive advantages at home, renewing your competitive advantages abroad, those necessarily have to take place in parallel. It’s not as though you can leave aside the rest of the world and say, “We’re going to fix ourselves at home and then turn to the rest of the world.

You have to pursue those efforts in parallel, certainly. I think that the point that I was trying to emphasize with that principle is we should recognize that if we don’t do greater work to renew ourselves at home and don’t do greater work to demonstrate that we can… If you say to the rest of the world, we want to assemble coalitions to manage pandemic disease, to manage climate change, I think that even your greatest well-wishers will say, “Well, gosh, given how you’ve dealt with your own challenges at home, if you can’t even attend to those, how are you going to take on bigger projects?” Internal renewal, external renewal, they will necessarily take place in parallel, but I think that we need to do a better job of demonstrating that we can get our own house in order.

Kaiser: Competitive anxiety as a spur and competitive anxiety as a crutch. There’s a really fine, fine line.

Ali: Absolutely.

Kaiser: It’s hard to know when one ends and the other begins.

Ali: Absolutely.

Kaiser: Our principle five is about enlisting allies and partners in affirmative undertakings. And yeah, our allies are certainly one of our great competitive advantages globally, but do these security and intelligence-sharing arrangements, like the Quad, AUKUS, the five Is, what-have-you, do they reinforce China’s sense of being ringed in and ganged up on? Do they actually end up pushing us even deeper into just the kind of great power competition framing that you argue against? Isn’t there that danger?

Ali: Sure. And I think it depends on how they’re conceptualized. It’s sort of an interesting kind of parallel. I said a few minutes ago that China probably feels that no matter what it does, it’s going to be seen as revisionist. It’s going to be seen as upsetting the postwar order. It’s going to be criticized no matter what it does. And I think that there’s sort of a parallel argument, which is that even when the United States goes to great efforts not to mention China in its public statements when it goes to pains, not to mention China in justifying its initiatives, China is going to interpret them as being designed in opposition to China. I think that to some extent, if you look at the Quad, if you look AUKUS, if you look at sort of the Five Eyes, China is going to perceive them as working to sort of hem China in. On the other hand, I think that the United States and its allies and partners, they can be creative in how they conceptualize those undertaking, such that even if there is a component of those initiatives that is aimed at contesting China’s influence that, that element doesn’t become sort of the sole raison d’être for those initiatives.

Take the Quad. The Quad is a good example. I do think that we’re seeing that the Quad, I do think that it’s diversifying its remit in a good way. As an example, the Quad, to the extent that the Quad can pool the resources of its constituent members to expand access to COVID-19 vaccines, that’s good. To the extent that the four countries can pool their resources to help Southeast Asia accelerate decarbonization efforts. Good. Of course, these initiatives, an impetus for them is obviously pushing back against China, but I don’t think that it has to be the entirety of the rationale. I think it behooves the United States, its allies and partners to be creative. And Susan Thornton has talked about this in the context of the Quad and other efforts that we can think creatively about making their remits more affirmative so that they’re not just designed to contest China, so there’s a balance.

Kaiser: Yeah. That’s going to be a pretty tough sell to Beijing to convince them that it’s anything but an anti-China Alliance.

Ali: Sure.

Kaiser: All right. One of the great things that you talk about under this principle five about enlisting allies is you caution against conflating the U.S. agenda with a democracy agenda, and you warn that some of our allies would balk at an all-encompassing sort of maximalist approach. Do you think that the Biden administration, in its whole sort of democracy versus authoritarianism framing, is doing just that, though? I mean, what has the response been from allies to this?

Ali: My sense is that the administration is pursuing sort of a number of, I would say it’s kind of pursuing three efforts in parallel. One effort is, and I think, I would say it’s sort of the foundational effort is, going back to something we were discussing earlier is really investing in America’s sort of internal competitive advantages. And I think that that effort has to be foundational. If you look at the, whether it’s the CHIPS Act, whether you look at sort of the interim national security strategic guidance, I do think that this notion that we can’t really think meaningfully or prudently about external competition, unless we attend to our internal renewal, I think that that’s sort of line of effort one.

So, what can we do to replenish those internal sources of competitive advantage? Certainly, another effort is stitching together this kind of increasingly dense fabric of coalitions, issue specific coalitions to contest China and Russia. But a third line of effort is ensuring one that we strengthen communications and impose, or build guardrails to ensure that we avert great power war, and also to preserve cooperative undertakings where possible. I thought that Secretary Blinken’s much awaited China speech did a good job of this.

He recognizes that obviously competition between the United States and China, it’s inbuilt, it’s intensifying, but he stressed that we don’t have to succumb to a new Cold War. And he identified several concrete areas in which the United States and China could cooperate and must cooperate. My sense is that our approach to China and Russia, it’s evolving, but I think that, in responding to Russian aggression and responding to sort of China’s coercive conduct, I think that what we’re seeing is not so much the development of this overarching coalition to push back against China and Russia because there’s a recognition that our allies and partners are not necessarily going to…

You have some allies and partners that might align themselves in the United States to contest China, but not the other way around. I think that what we’re seeing is issue specific dynamic coalitions to contest China and Russia, but recognizing that you are going to have to meet allies and partners where they are. You’re going to have to recognize that they won’t necessarily participate in universal competition, but I think recognition as well that we have to keep lines of communication open. We have to preserve cooperative possibilities. We have to avoid great power war, especially in the nuclear era. So, it’s a complicated balancing act, but I will say that, even though I, in the book, I set forth a critique of great power competition, I think that what we’re seeing right now is that the United States, it does have a very impressive capacity to mobilize coalitions.

You look at the coalition that it mobilized in response to Russian aggression. IPEF, I think, is quite impressive in that it has a number of countries, a number of member countries that are members of ASEAN. And the Quad has a new lease on life. I think we do see that the United States, it has an ability to really tap into that unrivaled diplomatic network. The challenge is going to be sustaining those coalitions over time and recognizing that even as competition with China and Russia grows more intense, you don’t have any alternative but to cooperate with them on certain issues. And I would make the argument…and I think you saw this narrative shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, and it’s a narrative that even gets played now, which is that the United States, it needs to work solely with like-minded countries to advance its vital national interests.

I don’t think that kind of formulation is really realistic. China and Russia, they’re too large. They’re too central to global geopolitics. There’s really, as far as I can tell, no analytically plausible scenario in which the United States can put China and Russia in geopolitical quarantine, or put them in a geopolitical closet, take away the key and say, “We’re going to be able to advance our national interest.” It won’t work.

Kaiser: Right. Number six, your principle number six is appreciate the limits to American unilateral influence. In this, you quote Rana Mitter, who’s one of my favorite academics in the China sphere, asking a very important question, which is, what are legitimate aims for China? How would you answer that? I mean, let’s take the postwar international order as a good example of this. For example, we seem to bristle at China’s attempts to restructure, or even just reform, things like the Bretton Woods institutions. But this whole order, as we understand it, it was, as you point out correctly in the book, part and parcel of a bipolar Cold War system and its social norms, its institutions.

Its very purpose was tied to the prosecution of the Cold War and to the containment of communism. So, did that make it then inherently unsuitable to very different realities after 1991 and for whatever period that we’ve now entered? Is China wrong to want to see some of the rules in this rules-based order updated? Isn’t this a legitimate end game?

Ali: No, not at all. And I think that it’s only natural. I mean, leaving aside, even just ideological considerations, if you just look at just the sheer balance of power, if you just look at the balance of power, the so-called Rise of the Rest, emerging powers, any just and sustainable architecture world order needs to be more consonant with that evolving balance of power, again, leaving aside ideological consideration. It’s obvious that the current postwar order, even though I think it is becoming more multilateral, it is doing more doing for great emerging powers, there is still a disparity, or there still is a misalignment, between the constitution of the postwar order — and by constitution I mean kind of the principal powers who undergird the postwar order — there is still a misalignment between the system as it is presently constructed and the evolving balance of power.

So, I don’t think whether it’s China… Interestingly, when China criticizes the postwar order as being insufficiently reflective of the evolving balance of power, that critique isn’t unique to China, even many of America’s allies and partners express that same critique: that it needs to be more representative. So, no, I think that China’s desire to be more represented in the postwar order is wholly legitimate. There are inevitably going to be differences between Washington and Beijing over how Washington asserts itself in the system and how Beijing asserts itself in the system. But the desire to be more represented, the desire to exert greater sway is wholly legitimate. And I think that you mentioned Professor Mitter’s observation. I think that what we are likely to see is not just a bipolar sort of negotiation over the rules of the road as they were between the United States and China.

But I think it can’t just be a U.S.-China conversation. I think it has to be a much more inclusive conversation, whether it’s on digital issues, issues of connectivity, issues of trade, issues of infrastructure, issues of security. I think it needs to be a much more expansive conversation because European allies and partners, they might have different approaches. Even many countries in Asia that are members of the quad. They might not necessarily align with the United States instinctively. I think, also, even though many countries have grave apprehensions about China’s present conduct and its potential strategic intentions, they don’t want to decouple themselves from China’s economy, perhaps to the extent that the United States does. They’re going to want to retain economic linkages.

What I envision going forward is there’s an increasingly stark recognition of this mismatch between how the postwar order is presently constructed and how it needs to evolve. But I think that we’re likely to see sort of an evolving negotiation, and not just with the United States and China, but with the United States, China, Russia, France, Germany, Australia, India, Japan, South Korea. And we also need to ensure that the great power competition framework and the great… It only focuses on three countries. It focuses on the United States, China and Russia. It’s necessarily exclusionary. And even when you incorporate sort of that fuller array of countries that I just listed, it doesn’t include vast stretches of the developing world.

We need to ensure that whatever system we’re designing, it’s not only responding to preferences and the imperatives of the so-called great powers and sort of the tier of powers beneath them, but we need to ensure that we really are being responsive to voices that have too often been left out in these conversations on how to design order. And that’s going to be difficult, not only for the United States to do, it’s also gonna be difficult for China to do. Because the United States and China, they both regard themselves as exceptional, they both regard themselves as being sort of the drivers of geopolitics, and they’re both gonna need to be more responsive.

Kaiser: And they will require guardrails on their relationship, which brings us to principle seven, where you say we should pursue cooperative opportunities that can temper the destabilizing effects of great power competition. You talk about the factors that make both the U.S. and China prone to errors of miscalculation. There’s a lot in this section, but we’ll just focus on this one thing. These miscalculations could lead to disastrous consequences. What are some of the things, just a couple of points that you would like to make to see the U.S. at least address this shortcoming, the potential for miscommunication?

Ali: Well, certainly, at a minimum, and my sense is that the United States, in terms of establishing military to military communication, I think it has been making overtures. It’s not clear to me how receptive China has been, how much China is responding, but the United States and Russia, even though the relationship right now is far worse than the relationship between the United States and China, they, at least because of their Cold War history, have some infrastructure in place for military-to-military communication. My sense is that the apparatus of military-to-military communication between Washington and Beijing is substantially more impoverished. We need to make sure that that dialogue is existing, that it’s sustained, number one.

Number two, we need to take care that we don’t regard, and I made this point earlier, we need to take care that we don’t regard cooperative undertakings as fool’s errands, or that we regard them as exhibitions of strategic weakness. Even if there is a sense that the cooperative opportunities that presently exist, even if we think they’re slim pickings, they’re strategically inconsequential, we should avail ourselves to those opportunities nonetheless, as confidence-building measures. Because right now, I think that there’s a sense in most, there’s a sense in Washington and Beijing, that basically any kind of cooperation is impossible. And the more that belief becomes entrenched, the more it creates that self-fulfilling prophecy. So, if there are, I was reading an article the other day about I think it’s a collaboration between a U.S. university and maybe a Chinese university, but it was a collaboration on space research. I think I saw some kind of outer space research. That kind of cooperation is good and should be encouraged. If there’s an opportunity —

Kaiser: Although when it comes to space exploration, we’re forbidden from cooperating with China, which is really very tragic, especially at a time where we’re seeing Russia pulling out of the International Space Station.

Ali: Right. Which is a very, very concerning development. There might be an opportunity, potentially for some limited scaling back of tariffs on both sides. I think that kind of development should be encouraged. I would say that also one last, I think perhaps the ultimate guardrail, and I would like to see more of it, there are a lot of observers who, they look at the phone call, or the conversation that just took place between President Biden and President Xi, and a lot of the readouts from the call said the call just underscore the number of disagreements, the intensity of disagreements, what it had accomplished, and my feeling is that those readings are, in some ways, missing the point. When you have the President of the United States, when you have the leader of China agreeing to have a conversation, the mere fact of their conversation is an important stabilizing force.

It sends a signal that the two leaders are committed to talking. And given how strained the relationship is, I think that perhaps the most effective guardrail is a continuation of that leader level dialogue. So, just to summarize, one, we do need an intensification of military-to-military communication, particularly between the United States and China. We need to avail ourselves of really any opportunities for even sort of slim pickings when it comes to cooperation to demonstrate that cooperation is indeed possible. And three, we need to continue leader level dialogue, which may well be the ultimate guardrail in the relationship.

Kaiser: Fantastic. Finally, your principle number eight, which is rebalance, in earnest, toward the Asia Pacific within economic focus. Great, but there’s a strong sort of pivot allergy in Beijing. Now, I’d never met anyone in 2013 who didn’t regard the pivot as some species of containment. And we may have tried to sell it back then as economic first, and then only secondarily military, but because we sort of led with things like 2,500 troops in Northern Australia, Beijing always read it as military first. I understand this, your desire to see this happen, but I do worry a little bit about how it would be perceived in China.

Ali: Well, there’s a certain, and it gets to a discussion that we were having earlier, I think, in much the same way, so China might say that no matter what we do, we’re going to be perceived as being hostile to the United States or disrupting the postwar order. There’s a certain symmetry of perception. So, I think that, no matter what the United States does, it’s likely to be perceived as being hostile to China.

Kaiser: Yeah, fair enough.

Ali: I think that the reason for rebalancing to the Asia Pacific, I think that there’s, frankly, a compelling argument to be made that rebalance would be justified, even if the Asia Pacific didn’t contain China. I think that sometimes people use the words rebalance or pivot as a euphemism for focusing more on China, but even leaving aside China, I think that Evan Feigenbaum has made this point very effectively. I mean, you look at Japan, India, South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia. I mean, there are a number of significant players in the Asia Pacific outside of China. And I think that if you just look at most indicators, whether it’s which region is sort of the fulcrum of economic growth, which region is the sort of the linchpin of global supply chains, and which region is also kind of a litmus test, in many ways, for our ability to manage transnational challenges, it’s the Asia Pacific.

I think that even leaving aside U.S.-China competition, I think that there are a lot of rationales for rebalancing to the Asia Pacific. And one of them is candidly, the United States, it has gone on kind of a strategic detour in the Middle East after, for about two decades after 9/11. I think it needs to kind of unwind that strategic detour. I think it also needs to ensure that in Europe, that it establishes more symmetric defense partnerships, so that’s European allies and partners. I think, even leaving aside China, I think that there are compelling reasons to focus on what I think is now and will continue to be the most consequential region for geopolitics.

Kaiser: That’s fair. That’s absolutely fair. Finally, Ali, talk a little bit about how events, since you submitted your manuscript, including, of course, the Russian war against Ukraine, have affected your thinking. How do these events slot into the framework that you’ve written? Has it only reinforced your ideas? Has it caused you to rethink any of them?

Ali: I would say that, I mean, obviously Russia’s invasion of… I drafted the afterword shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine. So, when you write a book of this nature, you always cringe a little bit because you know that it’s going to be somewhat out of date necessarily by the time that it’s eventually published. But I would say that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for me, it underscores two core propositions of the book or two core arguments of the book. It does underscore the limits to unilateral U.S. influence, no doubt about it. The United States, it did a lot in the run up to the invasion by declassifying intelligence assessments of Russia’s intentions by warning allies and partners. It did a lot to try to sound the alarm, but Russia ultimately invaded.

Russia’s invasion, by underscoring the limits to U.S. unilateral influence, I think it also, as a consequence, it underscores the imperative of formulating a foreign policy that isn’t purely reactive, that isn’t tethered to what China and Russia are doing. Because if you predicate the success of your foreign policy, if your benchmark for whether your foreign policy is succeeding or not, is, do I preempt every potential Chinese or Russian provocation? You’re going to be disappointed pretty sorely. You need a foreign policy that acknowledges more candidly the limits to what you can do unilaterally and focuses more on what you can control. And that’s that principle in that concluding section about recognizing the limits to unilateral U.S. influence. But that acknowledgement, it doesn’t signify fatalism to me. Acknowledging the limits to influence simply means you embrace reality. And that reality allows you, I think, to be more creative in your foreign policy.

The second conclusion that it underscores is, I try in the body of the book to depict China and Russia as being, sort of self-constraining or self-limiting competitors. And I think that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reinforces that conclusion. Yes, Russia —

Kaiser: Yeah. I was gonna ask you about that, about the chapter on the Sino-Russian entente, whether your conclusions they were born out, and I think they very much were.

Ali: Yeah. And I’ll make a couple of points on that. One, I think that Russia, again, in a very visceral brutal way, it has reminded the rest of the world that you can’t just focus on China. We are here — “we” meaning Russia. We’re here; we matter. We can wreak a lot of havoc. We can exert a lot of influence. But I think that Russia, in reminding the rest of the world of its enduring relevance, I think it really has undercut its medium to long-term strategic outlook in many ways. And as far as the Sino-Russian entente, yes, China and Russia, they signed that… They vow that, in February, that their friendship has no limits. They’ve doubled down on their partnership, but there are more and more prominent Chinese international relations scholars who are expressing concern that this entente can become a reputational albatross around China’s neck.

For China, in the long-run, its relationships in the West are going to be significantly more consequential to its long-term strategic outlook than its relationship with Russia. The Sino-Russia Entente paradoxically, it’s stronger, but it’s also more strained. And I think that China is, even if it doesn’t betray that anxiety publicly, I would have to imagine that internally, as this war drags on, and as the externalities of this war grow more pronounced, I would have to imagine that there’s some concern among China’s top foreign policy advisors that we need to think about a way of winding down this war to limit the reputational damage that accrues to China.

Kaiser: Absolutely. Unfortunately, I need to catch a flight. There’s so much more I’d love to talk to you about, but let’s move on now to… First of all, Ali, thank you so much for taking the time.

Ali: Thank you. Thank you.

Kaiser: To talk about this very important book, a book I should add with more blurbs for more big names than just about any other I have ever seen. It’s really quite an impressive roster.

Ali: Thank you.

Kaiser: But well deserved. Again, the book is called America’s Great-Power Opportunity: Revitalizing U.S. Foreign Policy to Meet the Challenges of Strategic Competition. And it’s out now from Polity and available wherever you buy your books. Ali, let’s move on to recommendations, but first of all, a very quick reminder that the Sinica Podcast is powered by SupChina. And as some of you may know, SupChina is rebranding very soon as The China Project. You can read more about that rebranding on our website, and it will be happening very soon. Anyway, whether it’s SupChina or The China Project, the way to support the work that we do is to subscribe to China Access, our newsletter, which gets you all sorts of other perks, including the early ad-free version of the Sinica Podcast on Monday afternoons instead of having to wait till Thursday. The main thing is the newsletter. Of course, it’s just a great all-in-one resource for the most important China news. If you haven’t already done so, please sign up for the newsletter. You’ll find it a really worthwhile read and a great investment. All right, on to recommendations, Ali, what you got for us?

Ali: I want to recommend an essay by Andrew Nathan that he published in Foreign Affairs last month, in which he suggests that, despite I think growing anxiety in the United States, that China might be making imminent moves on, or might be preparing to make a move on Taiwan, imminently. He reaches a conclusion that China is still thinking it’s temporal lens for the thing about Taiwan is still much longer. He doesn’t see from China’s rhetoric and actions that China is betraying a sense of great or greater urgency than otherwise about pursuing reunification. And he also makes the point that if China were to attack Taiwan, try to invade Taiwan, even if “it were to win the war” and it’s conceptualizing, thinking about victory in such a horrific scenario is strange, but he said that even if China, theoretically, were to win, that victory would come at such great cost that it really could potentially spell the end of the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation or the achievement of the China dream.

He believes that any invasion or attack, it would be really devastating for China’s long-term prospects. He makes the argument that China is not betraying an immediate sense of urgency to make a move on Taiwan. And I think that his analysis, I find quite persuasive, and I think that it serves as a useful counterpoint to a lot of the analyses on cross-year tensions that we presently see.

Kaiser: That’s a fantastic essay. It’s really good. I think it’s especially now, with Nancy Pelosi about to make her trip, it’s important that we read this for another perspective. Mine is going to be frivolous. My recommendation is a show called Clark, a Swedish dark comedy on Netflix. And the reason I know about it is because a friend of mine in Seattle told me that Michael Åkerfeldt, the front man and the guitarist of Opeth, one of my favorite bands actually wrote this show’s soundtrack, which is really off kilter, and quirky, and funny. It’s a really, really dark… I mean, I don’t know, I guess I’ve been on this weird Scandinavian kick where I’ve been watching Borgen and Occupied, and all these other Norsemen, and all these other shows from Scandinavia, but fantastic. I love this stuff. Great sense of humor. Clark on Netflix. All right, Ali, thank you so much. What a pleasure

Ali: Kaiser, the pleasure was all mine. It’s always wonderful to be with you. And thank you for talking with me at such length, and really, really helping me to reflect on arguments in the book, stress test assumptions and conclusions. And I hope that we do this again soon.

Kaiser: We will. We will. The Sinica Podcast is powered by SupChina and is a proud part of the Sinica Network. Our show is produced and edited by me, Kaiser Kuo. We would be delighted if you would drop us an email at sinicasupchina.com, or give a rating and a review on Apple Podcasts as this really does help people discover the show. Meanwhile, follow us on Twitter or on Facebook @supchinanews, and be sure to check out all the shows in the Sinica. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next week. Take care.