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Jan 20, 2023

U.S. strategy vis-à-vis China

Tokuhiro Ikeda
(Director of National Security Institute, Fujitsu System Integration Laboratories / Senior Fellow, Asia Center, Harvard University / Vice Admiral (Ret.) JMSDF)

On October 12, 2022, the Biden administration announced a National Security Strategy (NSS) with China as the only competitor. Then, on October 27, the United States released its National Defense Strategy along with its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) and Missile Defense Review (MDR). This paper considers how these strategies of the Biden administration will address China the only competitor.

1 Features of the Biden Administration's NSS

The Biden administration's NSS has finally been published in a form that reflects Russia's invasion of Ukraine since guidance was announced as an interim version in March 2021.

At this time, the perception of threats from Russia was revised downward, and the United States became more conscious of competition with China.

 National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said in announcing the National Security Strategy: [1]
“Our strategy proceeds from the premise that the two strategic challenges – geopolitical competition and shared transnational threats – are intertwined. This is a decisive decade for shaping the terms of competition, especially with the PRC. And this is a decisive decade for getting ahead of the great global challenges. Then the strategic focus is to (1) invest ambitiously and rapidly in the sources of our national strength, (2) mobilize the broadest coalition of nations to enhance our collective influence, and (3) shape the rules of the road of the 21st-century economy, from technology, to cyber to trade and economics.”

On October 12, the New York Times headlined, "Biden's National Security Strategy Focuses on China, Russia, and Democracy at Home." They said: “Mr. Biden was more worried in the long run that China would layer up an authoritarian government with a revisionist foreign policy than a declining and battered Russia and the elimination of the distinction between domestic and foreign policy.”[2]

Certainly, the NSS this time refers to the domestic policy of “INVESTING IN OUR STRENGTH” as the first priority for achieving the strategic focus indicated by Sullivan and indicates that it is emphasizing this. And then in the next section "OUR GLOBAL PRIORITIES” is mentioned, where it specifically shows "Out-Competing China and Constraining Russia" and "Cooperating on Shared Challenges.” In other words, in order to win the competition with China and take the lead in rulemaking on global issues, it is clear that domestic policy and foreign policy have become inseparable from the awareness that it is necessary to further improve national power first. This is characteristic of Biden's NSS.

2 The Biden Administration's China Strategy

In a speech in May this year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken summarized the administration's approach to the People's Republic of China [3] in three words: “invest, align, and compete.” This is consistent with the strategic focus of the NSS introduced in the previous section. At the beginning of the Biden administration, the policy toward China was said to be three "C’s”: cooperate, compete, and confront, but this time there is no such expression. The administration's initial policy of cooperating with, competing with, and then confronting China has evolved into a strategy vis-a-vis China that first invests in itself, cooperates with allies and others, and then competes with China. The policy of cooperation and confrontation is retreating.

(1) Avoiding War

The policy of emphasizing allies and partners in competition with China stands out in comparison with the Trump administration. In a 2019 issue of Foreign Affairs, Kurt Campbell, National Security Council Indo-Pacific Coordinator/Deputy Assistant to the President, and Sullivan, wrote in “Competition Without Catastrophe” [4], they assert that: “It is wrong to force surrender or collapse just because the policy of engagement with China has failed. It is necessary to prepare for coexistence with China. Coexistence is not to resolve competition, but to accept it as a condition to be managed. Favorable conditions for coexistence with China in the areas of competition in military, economic, political and global governance should be established. The interests of the United States, however, should be secured without arousing threat perceptions similar to the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War (competitive coexistence).”

In addition, the U.S.-China Policy Task Force, which was established in 2015 when the uncertainty surrounding U.S.-China relations increased, stated on October 13, the day after the NSS was announced, "Avoiding War over Taiwan." [5] In this statement, the task force said: that effective deterrence against China requires not only the credible threat of a strong response to an attack on Taiwan, but also credible assurance that China's interests will not be compromised if China refrains from attacking Taiwan. Taiwan should maintain military power that would prevent it from easily invading Taiwan and should strengthen cooperation with allies to plan and prepare joint or coordinated military responses to disputes over Taiwan. On the other hand, the United States has not changed its longstanding policy of encouraging China on both sides of the Taiwan Strait to settle their differences peacefully, and the United States does not support Taiwan's independence. The paper says the United States must ensure that it opposes unilateral changes to the status quo in the Taiwan Strait.

In Biden’s NSS as well, while stating that China is the "only competitor," it maintains that the United States will always be concerned about maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and will not accept any unilateral change of the status quo and does not support Taiwan's independence." The Biden administration's strategy for China is trying to avoid the risk of war first, as the policy of confrontation is receding.

(2) Competition with China

China has a non-liberal vision of "rebuilding the international order and becoming a world-leading power." In contrast, the United States has a vision of "establishing a free, open, prosperous, and secure international order." Therefore, the United States will responsibly compete with China in areas such as politics, military, technology, economy, information, and global governance through investment in its own country, collaboration with allies, etc. That is a vision for the future. In politics, China has the will and ability to promote a vision that is at odds with liberalism and to reshape the international order. And it goes against the core deal of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In terms of the military, China intends to continue to build up its military power and increase its nuclear arsenal to the same level as the United States. In terms of technology and economy, China participates flexibly in the global economic system, while taking advantage of the openness of the economy to exploit technology and know-how through espionage, hacking, and other actions that ignore accepted rules. On the other hand, in terms of global governance, cooperation on climate change, pandemics, arms control and disarmament, crackdowns on illegal drugs, response to food crises, etc. are essential.

3 Response to competition with China

(1) military response

As shown in the previous section, the United States wants to avoid the risk of conflict with China. As the National Defense Strategy announced at the end of October maintained, “China is the only country with the intention to rebuild the international order and the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological capabilities to do so, and it is most important strategic competitor. United States will work closely with the entire U.S. government and with allies and partners to help China understand the folly of aggression,” The document also advocates an integrated deterrence strategy that leverages the tools that make this possible.

In addition to the Obama administration's policy of "reducing the role of nuclear weapons," the NPR uses the phrase "reducing dependence on nuclear weapons" in arms control with China and Russia. It also rejected the "sole purpose" policy (deterring the use of nuclear weapons against itself and its allies and partners) as it poses unacceptable risks. China aims to modernize, diversify, and expand its nuclear force, and is expected to possess at least 1,000 nuclear warheads by 2030 [6], necessitating nuclear deterrence against China. From the point of view of arms control and disarmament, it can be seen as a step back, but this is also an unstable but necessary policy to avoid conflict with China.

(2) Economic and technical response

In a speech in May this year [3], Secretary of State Blinken said that by investing in democracy as a core source of strength, he will demonstrate that democracy is superior to the centralized system led by the Chinese Communist Party and will work with allies and partners to share a vision for the future.

He stated that, in addition to allied countries including Japan, the United States would cooperate with partners in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), QUAD, ASEAN, AUKUS and Indo-Pacific countries to work cooperatively toward common goals. He also touched on the launch of the US-EU Trade Technology Council and referred to trans-Atlantic cooperation. These partnerships will uphold and, if necessary, reform a rules-based order that benefits all nations. And he said that the United States would work with more countries to lead the competition in technology, climate, infrastructure, global health and economic growth.

He also stated that such strong cooperation will address "China's behavior that disregards the international order," "human rights," and "technological competitiveness." In particular, regarding the protection of technological competitiveness, in order to prevent important technological innovation from being acquired by China, (1) new export controls will be strengthened, (2) protection of academic research will be strengthened, (3) cyber defense will be strengthened, and (4) investment screening measures will be implemented. etc.

On October 7, the U.S. Department of Commerce announced new export controls on advanced computer and semiconductor manufacturing items destined for China, marking the beginning of competition with China.

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, in his remarks at the Global Emerging Technologies Summit [7] when the Special Competitive Studies Project (SCSP) released its first report [8], said industry and innovation The “four pillars” of the strategy are shown below.

① Investing in innovation
He believes that three technological fields will be particularly important in the next 10 years and the United States will invest in "computing-related technologies such as microelectronics, quantum information systems, and artificial intelligence," "biotechnology including biomanufacturing," and "clean energy technology." This includes soft aspects such as the CHIPS Act, the Science Act, the Presidential Decree on Promoting Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Innovation, and the Inflation Reduction Act.

② Development of excellent human resources
Attracting and retaining the world's best STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) talent from around the world is vital. So is streamlining the immigration process.

③ Protection of technological superiority
China is illegally acquiring highly classified U.S. technology, information, and know-how. In response to this, along with reviewing and tightening export controls, The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) will modernize the investment screening system through additional measures to the Commission on Foreign Investment in the United States and the CHIPS Act. The United States will also promote strong cybersecurity protection and focus on intellectual property protection.

④ Deepening cooperation with allies and partners
Advancing an integrated strategy that brings together the capabilities of like-minded economies towards a common purpose is of utmost importance. for example, making a G7 steering committee for the free world on sanctions and energy security issues, and launching new initiatives on cyber and quantum, launching innovative and broader security partnerships for advanced capabilities such as AUKUS, and supporting rulemaking on emerging technologies through the US -EU Trade Technology Council and others.

(3) Cooperation in global governance

In the NSS, Sullivan explained that [1], the next decade will not only be a decade to build conditions for competition with China, but also a decade to stay ahead of global challenges. Therefore, cooperation with China in global governance is also important. While the United States does not support tying other issues together in exchange for cooperation on common issues, however, China has made clear that unrelated issues should be considered as a precondition. Even in this situation, the United States will strongly promote international efforts on two tracks: fully engaging in problem-solving with international organizations and all countries, and deepening cooperation with allies and partners. Considering that the policy of cooperation with China has receded in the NSS, rather than cooperation with China, the United States should focus on economy, technology, etc. in order to unconditionally involve China in global governance. It seems that the policy is to involve China in global governance issues by strongly promoting and gaining dominance in competition.


So far, I have analyzed U.S. strategies, such as the NSS, and related remarks and discussions by key government officials. The U.S. strategy toward China is to “avoid conflict with China, demonstrate the superiority of democracy, develop the economy, and make significant investments (funds, human resources, laws, and partnerships) in technological fields that support global transformation, and by strengthening cooperation with allies and partners, will dominate the competition with China and take the lead in international rules. It will also take the lead in global governance issues and involve China. Based on this understanding of the U.S. strategy toward China, Japan must focus on avoiding conflict with China and cooperate with the United States in each competition.

In addition, while “collaboration" is essential in the U.S. strategy against China, there is a possibility that some U.S. allies and partners will fall leave the alliance due to economic hardship caused by coordination with U.S, competition with China. Japan is the largest economic power among US allies, and it is necessary to cooperate with the United States in providing assistance to these countries.

1 The White House
Remarks by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan on the Biden-Harris Administration's National Security Strategy
October 12, 2022

2 New York Times
“Biden’s National Security Strategy Focuses on China, Russia and Democracy at Home”
By David E. Saner
October 12, 2022

3 U.S. Department of State
“The Administration's Approach to the People's Republic of China”
Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State
George Washington University
Washington, D.C.
May 26, 2022

4 Foreign Affairs
“Competition Without Catastrophe”
How America Can Both Challenge and Coexist With China
By Kurt M. Campbell and Jake Sullivan
September/October 2019

5 Asia Society Center on U.S.-China Relations (UC San Diego)
Avoiding War Over Taiwan
By The Task Force on U.S.-China Policy
October 12, 2022

6 Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China 2021
Annual Report to Congress Office of the Secretary of Defense

7 The White House
Remarks by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan at the Special Competitive Studies Project Global Emerging Technologies Summit
September 16, 2022

8 Special Competitive Studies Project (SCSP)
Mid-Decade Challenges to National Competitiveness
September 2022
The SPSC is a private agency established in October 2021 following the completion of the work of the National Security Council on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI) mandated by Congress.