Chang Fan | January 1, 2019
Responding To: Managing U.S.-China Cooperation and Competition
Constructive Competition as a Precursor to Cooperation
In recent years, U.S. relations with other countries have increasingly been defined by competition. Almost all connections—with historic allies and enemies alike—have become more adversarial as the current administration has worked to implement an “America first” policy. Essentially, the aim of this policy is to provide Americans with the opportunity to live long, comfortable lives and raise the next generation to be better than our own. China’s “Made in China 2025” plan has identical aims, although it is often perceived as being in direct opposition to the United States. However, as intercultural dialogue shows us, this competition is exaggerated and the zero-sum approach to international relations is counterproductive. In fact, the best way for the United States and China to achieve their goals of prosperity is to cooperate with one another, particularly on issues that can only be solved through international initiatives.
The United States and China must recognize that their domestic security, as a result of their extensive international engagements, is inextricably linked to global security. Thus, the success of their self-interested domestic policies depends on many factors outside of any single government’s control. Climate change and global health are two of these factors which directly affect the economic, social, and political stability of both nations; and any efforts to solve these problems will rely upon the work of both superpowers. At this time, unfortunately, neither side is too keen on cooperating. Thus, I am proposing that the leaders of each country move away strategic competition and towards constructive competition on global security issues.
Competition is often the catalyst for development and technological advancement. As adversaries, it should be expected the two countries compete for global influence. But currently, we are competing in arenas (i.e. military, trade) which do not produce immediate economic, intellectual, or social benefits for domestic population. This focus on traditional balancing does a disservice to the intellectual capabilities of Chinese and American citizens: The military doctors tasked with treating soldiers could otherwise be working in public hospitals; the weapons engineers designing missiles could easily repurpose their skills to launch satellites which better monitor the effects of climate change; and portions of the $900 billion combined defense budgets could be reallocated to fund research and development for renewable energies. Make no mistakes, the United States and China would still be competing, just in arenas which improve the welfare of both countries.
This would not be the first time that great power competition led to innovation which benefited the globe. The post-1950s Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union saw increased government funding for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs in U.S. universities. Although the primary purpose of this initiative was to produce the next generation of weapons engineers, many non-military innovators were inspired as well. In addition to great advancements in weapons technologies, people of this era made huge progress in GPS technology, prosthetic limb production, and water filtration systems. And these were merely by-products of the Space Race—imagine the technologies which would arise from a climate change or global health-focused competition.
On the domestic level, this competition would see increased investment in education, infrastructure, and healthcare to support the growing workforce. On the international level, where the United States and China are vying for influence, developing countries would likely experience increased foreign direct investment into infrastructure, healthcare services and sustainability efforts. This win-win approach to spreading influence would likely build stronger, more enduring alliances than traditional strategic relationships. And a race to the top (as opposed to a race to the bottom) approach to competition would inspire other conflicting nations to take similar routes.
Taking this course of action, it is plausible that the United States and China would begin collaborating on projects in the future. Mistrust regarding intellectual property may prove to be a barrier for technological cooperation on climate change issues; however, one would expect an area like global health to see increased cooperation. And by beginning with cooperation in a field with such clear mutual interests, like global health, the two countries will be building the connections needed to tackle more threatening issues in the future. These politically-viable policy changes are in the interest of both states’—and the world’s—long-term survival. If both leaders are truly dedicated to prioritizing their country, they will push for constructive competition as a precursor to cooperation.
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