2021 mfa lanting forum on “managed strategic competition”
the hon. kevin rudd ac
26th prime minister of australia
president and ceo of asia society
president of asia society policy institute
22 february 2021
state councilor wang has said during a recent event at asia society, that the us-china relationship is facing “the most serious challenges since the establishment of diplomatic relations”. i believe that is a correct assessment.
everything points to the years ahead over the 2020s as being a make or break decade for the china and u.s. relations, and for their relationship with other countries around the world.
these are the years in which china aims to “move closer to center stage” in the world, as president xi put it in 2017, and take up greater global leadership as a major power. these are the years in which china is most likely to pass the united states as the world’s largest economy by market exchange rates, and will seek to achieve a leading role in technological innovation. these are also the years in which the united states, under the biden administration, will seek to retain its leading position across all crucial domains - economic, technological, military, etc. - by
engaging in what president biden recently described as “extreme competition”.
the contest between the two countries will therefore enter a decisive phase in the 2020s, driven by inexorable thucydidean logic. this will be the decade of living dangerously for us all.
no matter what stratagems the two sides pursue or what events unfold, the tension between the united states and china will grow, and competition will intensify; it is probably inevitable.
war, however, is not inevitable.
it remains possible for the two countries to put in place a system of guardrails that would prevent a catastrophe: a joint framework for what i call “managed strategic competition” that would allow washington and beijing to conduct a high level of strategic competition while reducing the risk of that competition escalating into open conflict.
for those colleagues who are interested in, this is what i published recently edition on foreign affairs magazine in united states.
the idea of managed strategic competition is anchored in a deeply realist view (现实主义) of the global order. it accepts that states will continue to seek security by building a balance of power in their favor, while recognizing that in doing so they are likely to create security dilemmas for other states whose fundamental interests may be disadvantaged by their actions.
the trick in this case is to reduce the risk to both sides as the competition between them unfolds by jointly crafting a limited number of rules of the road that will help prevent conflict. in this argue, the two countries need to draw lessons from the procedures and mechanisms that the united states and the soviet union put in place to govern their relations after the cuban missile crisis-but in the case of china and u.s. relations, without first going through the near-death experience of a barely avoided war.
managed strategic competition would involve three key pillars:
first, the us and china would need to jointly establish certain hard limits on each country’s security policies and conduct (and that of their allies) in order to manage the escalation of competition into conflict over existential issues.
for example, the “one china” policy as articulated in the joint communiques between us and china, is critical. ending the trump administration’s unnecessarily provocative actions will be important. for its part, beijing should dial back the recent pattern of its own military exercises, deployments, and maneuvers in the taiwan strait and around taiwan.
second, if both sides could agree on a series of such stipulations, each would then have to accept that the other will still try to maximize its advantages while stopping short of breaching the strategic limits of the relationship. washington and beijing would continue their competition for strategic and economic influence - bilaterally, multilaterally and across the various regions of the world. this is the new reality.
they would keep seeking reciprocal access to each other’s markets and would still take retaliatory measures when such access was denied. they would still compete in foreign investment markets, technology markets, capital markets, and currency markets. and they would likely carry out a global contest for hearts and minds, each aiming to demonstrate that their system of development and governance is the best available.
as state councilor wang yi said before, china has a different definition of human rights and democracy to those of the united states and to those of other liberal democracies in asia and europe. that’s the reality. so let there be a competition between these two worldviews on this critical question. but such a competition would be bounded.
finally, even amid escalating competition, the two countries will have to find room for continued strategic cooperation on critical global challenges in a number of defined areas. this occurred even between the united states and the soviet union at the height of the cold war. it should certainly be possible now between the united states and china, when the immediate military stakes may not be nearly as high, but where global challenges are increasingly pressing.
climate change, combatting the pandemic and improving public health, global economic recovery, green recovery and financial stability, and nuclear arms control including limitations on ai warfare are examples of where cooperation will be necessary, not just for the world’s interests, but to secure china’s and america’s national interests as well.
state councillor wang in the past has proposed something similar, “the three lists”. i believe that the time is right for a concept of managed strategic competition to be analysed by both sides as a matter of urgency. the alternative is unmanaged strategic competition with all the risks that now entails.
there will be many who will criticize this approach as naive. others will say it is too limited. their responsibility, however, is then to come up with something better.
i also welcome what state councilor wang yi has to say today about the three areas of potentially strategic cooperation between the u.s. and china. we’ve also carefully noticed in the u.s. and around the world about the positive decision by the chinese government to appoint xie zhenhua, a friend of many of us in the world, as china’s special envoy on climate. xie zhenhua and former secretary of the state kerry have a lot of work to do. and we wish them will.
both the united states and china are currently in search of a formula to manage their relationship for the dangerous decade ahead. the hard truth is that no relationship can ever be managed unless there is a basic agreement between the parties on the terms of that management.
although a framework of managed strategic competition would be difficult to construct, doing so is still possible - and the alternative, that is , no guardrails, no rules and no management, is potentially catastrophic.
as dr. henry kissinger once said during the cold war: “we know what we must do. we also know what we can do. it only remains to do it.”
thank you very much.