U.S. national security strategies are most successful when they incorporate the values and expectations of the American people and the overlapping areas of common interest among key stakeholders at home and allies and partners abroad.
When assessing the relative power of its adversaries, Beijing looks at the degree of domestic cohesiveness and the robustness of international relationships, and as such, it likely perceives growing advantages vis-à-vis the United States. This CSIS survey, however, strongly indicates a high degree of convergence over concerns stemming from China’s continued rise. U.S. strategy should leverage those points of convergence while understanding and managing the remaining points of divergence.
This is not to suggest that these survey results offer definitive preferences for certain policy choices, nor should policy be derived on the basis of surveys alone. In particular, the CSIS polls of thought leaders are impressionistic rather than predictive and do not necessarily reflect the full range of views on these questions.
Nonetheless, the results overall do provide indicators of alignment on some key issues and point to 10 major recommendations for U.S. policymakers to consider as potential elements of an enduring strategy on China.
I. The administration must articulate a clear and achievable set of objectives for U.S. policy toward China and design a strategy to achieve these objectives.
It is clear from the U.S. thought leader and public opinion survey results that there is little expectation of a convergence of U.S. and Chinese strategic interests in the foreseeable future.
With the exception of respondents from the financial sector, who have seen some modest progress in Chinese economic reforms in recent years, there is virtually no expectation that U.S. policy will transform China into a free market economy.
The robust support across all surveyed groups for blocking Chinese 5G equipment in U.S. and allied markets and even sales of components to Huawei similarly indicates the widespread concern about the national security risks inherent in many high-tech sectors and low expectations that Beijing will shift away from predatory techno-nationalism in the near future.
Instead of seeking to change China internally, there is much more support for pressing China to abide by its international commitments. While there is robust support for defending allies against Chinese military threats and confronting China on human rights, the survey results and focus group discussions suggest this is a matter of defending rules and values rather than optimism about an affirmative agenda for positive change within China. Responses were similar among thought leaders in the most powerful countries in Asia and Europe.
Articulate a strategy that aims to defend U.S. values, technology, and alliances, rather than seeking the collapse of the Chinese Communist Party.
That said, U.S. thought leaders did not attribute all the blame for the deterioration in U.S.-China relations to Beijing. Nor did thought leaders at home or abroad or the U.S. public favor ending cooperation with China in areas of mutual benefit, such as trade in goods and services, cooperation on climate change, global health, and academic exchange.
The United States will have the broadest domestic support and international alignment if it can articulate a strategy that aims to defend U.S. values, technology, and alliances, rather than seeking the collapse of the Chinese Communist Party or the containment of China itself.
To the extent the Trump administration has expressed a theory of victory in strategic competition with China, the message has veered toward containment and even hinted at regime change. The CSIS survey results indicate that this is not a winning message if the goal is to solidify domestic U.S. support for the strategy and work closely with allies and partners. A strategy to "induce China to change more creatively and assertively" is unlikely to gain currency if framed mainly in terms of ideological confrontation rather than defending a rules-based order.
But the survey results also show little appetite for prioritizing cooperation with China over allies and partners, necessitating a coordinated approach that balances elements of interaction and competition.
II. The United States must harness the growing domestic and international concern about China to dissuade further coercion by Beijing.
A crucial challenge remains on how to operationalize the clear preference among thought leaders in the United States, Europe, and Asia for aligning more closely in response to national security challenges posed by China. One proposal would be a summit of the leading democracies, as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has proposed with the "D-10."
The reality is that international coalitions on China will have to be eclectic, multilayered, and flexible to reflect the varying levels of power, influence, and dependency on China around the world.
The broadest multilateral approaches, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum or the European Union, require consensus and have proven vulnerable to Chinese cooption. Smaller mini-lateral groupings such as the U.S.-Japan-Australia-India "Quad" have grown in importance, and more can be done to institutionalize military exercises, diplomatic coordination, and intelligence sharing.
The CSIS survey indicates what many diplomats in Asia recognize—that most Southeast Asian countries will resist joining groupings clearly aimed at constraining China, though many have participated in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific sessions held by the United States. Results from thought leaders in Europe track generally with others surveyed but there is some churn and the European debate on China is at an inflection point, which makes coordination with the United States and other countries all the more important.
International coalitions on China will have to be eclectic, multilayered, and flexible.
What stands out in the survey is the degree to which thought leaders in countries that have been more cautious on China believe that there should be greater coordination with the United States to deal with challenges from Beijing. South Korean, French, and German thought leaders track much more closely with U.S. strategic thinkers than those governments’ current policies suggest, and more should be done to promote greater collaboration on security issues in the Indo-Pacific and globally with those key allies.
Japan stands out as the most aligned with the United States and most willing to take risk across the security, economic, and human rights fronts. Japan also enjoys strong relations with other G-7 countries and high favorability ratings in Southeast Asia and is well positioned to reinforce and guide U.S. diplomatic strategy with third countries.
The results also point to the greater potential for an enhanced trans-Atlantic strategic dialogue on China and increased intelligence sharing and strategic planning coordination between NATO and U.S. alliances in the Asia-Pacific. Each alliance will bring different tools to that effort, but there is value in developing a comprehensive set of plans across all alliances to dissuade China from coercive security policies.
Beijing prefers a multipolar world in which China can play the United States and Europe off against each other. It is, therefore, critical to demonstrate that the world is not divided on the issue of defending the rules-based order against coercion and mercantilism.
III. Plurilateralize alliance coordination on tech competition with China.
The strong consensus on banning Huawei among respondents from advanced industrial countries suggests that more can be done to create an effective version of the clean network for 5G. However, only about one-third of respondents across the thought leader surveys support cutting off components trade with Huawei and similar Chinese firms, illuminating why alignment may be proving harder on 5G competition. The current use of the Entity List to impose restrictive U.S. export licensing requirements on specified Chinese companies is losing key U.S. constituencies (other than national security experts) and allies and partners, including even Japan and Australia, which have the most deliberate policy of blocking Chinese investment in 5G. Focused diplomatic effort is needed to align the approach toward export controls among those economies with the most advanced components technology—particularly South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan.
Digital trade agreements would address the most advanced technology challenges.
The survey results show a strong preference for multilateralizing economic policy toward China among thought leaders globally, but U.S. public opinion polls suggest continued ambivalence about multilateral trade agreements (though a plurality of the CSIS public survey respondents do prefer multilateral approaches to unilateral trade measures to deal with China).
Comprehensive free trade agreements (FTAs) such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) may be the most effective rule-making tools vis-à-vis China on contentious issues such as state-owned enterprise disciplines and intellectual property rights.
However, if these comprehensive FTAs prove politically elusive for the foreseeable future, digital trade agreements such as those ongoing at the World Trade Organization (WTO) or contained in the new USMCA and the U.S.-Japan FTAs could be more achievable and would address the most advanced technology challenges.
Trans-Atlantic views on digital trade are still not fully aligned, so taking advantage of the U.S.-Japan-ROK-Taiwan semiconductor nexus to formulate a Pacific Rim digital trade agreement would be a good start. In the meantime, the convergence of views on 5G market security suggests the importance of continuing the nascent U.S.-Japan-EU trilateral trade ministerials on digital technology.
IV. Do not put American research, innovation, and educational exchange at unnecessary risk.
Respondents from civil society and academia were most reluctant to decouple or to put other priorities at risk to advance human rights. This is a reminder that advancing human rights and opening civil society space is often a bottom-up, grassroots, educational process that represents a longer-term investment.
Preserve an open, collaborative research architecture for basic research while separating and protecting proprietary research.
Taking this long view, the relative optimism about China’s future among Americans aged 18–30 (who have the most positive views of China among the different age groups surveyed) should be considered an opportunity rather than a problem in American society.
At the same time, leaders in civil society and academia will come under increased pressure to protect technology and academic freedom from more intrusive Chinese state interference in their sectors.
Protecting U.S. innovation is a knottier problem, but leaders in higher education leadership interviewed for this survey make a compelling case that the United States should preserve an open, collaborative research architecture for basic research to attract the most talented scientists and engineers, while separating and protecting proprietary research and development for the U.S. government or private sector.
V. Restore deterrence in the Western Pacific.
The relatively high confidence in U.S. deterrence and security guarantees in Asia is encouraging. However, the drop of 20–30 points in confidence among national security experts and allied thought leaders about the ability of the United States to prevail in a conflict in 10 years is noteworthy.
This uncertainty likely reflects China’s massive military expansion over the past two decades, including PLA deployments of over 1,250 ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles, 350 surface combatants and an integrated air defense system that extends toward the First Island Chain; and power projection capabilities beyond the Western Pacific.
It is important to note that despite the rapid advances in China’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities, U.S. national security experts do not favor U.S. restraint or retrenchment. Instead, the emphasis in the survey results was on increasing capabilities to deter China in cyber and outer space and increasing the U.S. military presence in the Western Pacific. These are all key elements in the Pacific Deterrence Initiative passed by Congress in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.
Strengthen command and control relationships with key allies.
National security experts also recognized the need to strengthen command and control relationships with key allies such as Japan. Development of new technologies was also viewed as important but not a silver bullet absent these other investments.
The fact that deployment of ballistic missiles to the Western Pacific ranked fairly low as a priority should not necessarily be seen as a rejection of the importance of enhancing deterrence by denial and punishment, since Japan, Australia, and South Korea are all planning to expand their own capabilities in terms of surface-to-surface missiles.
That development is one more reason why modernizing command and control relationships is critical. The United States and South Korea have the only joint and combined command relationship in the region, but with allies now able to reach out and strike adversaries, the United States will have to be inside those decisionmaking loops and well-integrated with allies in terms of domain awareness and decisions on the use of force.
VI. Form an international coalition to coordinate human rights policy.
The robust support among thought leaders from almost all sectors in the United States as well as in Europe and Asia suggests that the United States should continue emphasizing human rights as a central component of its strategy toward China (the public also supports confronting China on human rights issues, even if at a slightly lower level of risk tolerance than thought leaders).
Empower a senior official within the State Department or National Security Council to coordinate human rights policy.
The application of the Global Magnitsky Act targeted sanctions against perpetrators of human rights violations in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet enjoys strong support, including in the business community. Thought leaders in Asia and Europe also appear prepared to accept risk in pressing human rights issues with China. The United States should test this proposition with coordination among like-minded allies to create a tool kit of actions to be taken jointly to address new violations by Beijing.
At the same time, the United States should support a variety of approaches to advancing democratic norms, encouraging countries such as Indonesia or South Korea to demonstrate within Asia that democratic norms represent the mainstream aspiration in China’s own neighborhood.
Given the support evident for a robust strategy on human rights, the next administration sworn in should empower a senior official within the State Department or National Security Council to coordinate with regional bureaus and directorates to mainstream human rights policy in relations with key allies and partners.
VII. Pursue active cooperation with China on transnational issues that serve U.S. interests.
Thought leaders identify climate change as the most appropriate area for expanding cooperation with China, but global health also ranked fairly high. These are not purely bilateral issues, and given the strong preference for working with allies and partners evident in other parts of the survey, the United States should pursue a coordinated approach with key allies to advance cooperation on transnational issues with China.
Technological cooperation in the areas of climate change and health will obviously be complicated by concerns about intellectual property rights theft, but mutual learning, best practices, and even cooperation to help third countries address these challenges would reduce the tension in U.S.-China relations and provide some public goods for regional and global benefit.
Signaling that the United States is prepared to cooperate with China in areas of mutual interest would also align the United States with the approaches of allies and partners that are generally combining competition with cooperation.
Pursue a coordinated approach with key allies to advance cooperation on transnational issues with China.
The relatively low interest in cooperation with China on infrastructure probably reflects concern over the non-transparent, debt trap dimensions of China’s current Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) strategy. However, intensified cooperation with Japan and Australia on quality infrastructure alternatives to the BRI has the longer-term potential to put political and financial pressure on the China Development Bank to begin aligning the BRI with World Bank and Asia Development Bank standards the way the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) already has.
The North Korean nuclear problem also ranked below climate, health, and educational exchange as an area of U.S.-China cooperation—perhaps lower than it might have been 15 years ago when Beijing was hosting the six-party talks on North Korea. The reality is that Beijing has demonstrated a willingness to put pressure on Pyongyang primarily to avoid provocations and not to actually denuclearize.
Nevertheless, Chinese leverage over North Korea remains significant, and with sustained alignment among U.S. allies (Japan-Korea relations remain a challenge in that regard), the United States may be able to increase the costs to Beijing of inaction on North Korean proliferation.
In other words, in both infrastructure investment and North Korean non-proliferation, the road back to some cooperation with China runs first through increased effort with allies.
VIII. If Trump is re-elected, his administration should reflect on why allies preferred Biden . . . and if Biden wins, his transition team should not take reassurance of allies for granted.
The overwhelming European belief that Joe Biden would be better prepared to handle China may reflect the unprecedented trans-Atlantic tensions under President Donald Trump.
Trump should reconsider the potential for stronger trans-Atlantic partnerships around the China challenge.
Nevertheless, a second Trump administration would do well to reflect on the self-imposed damage to its own China strategy of policy divergence with Europe and, judging from the CSIS survey results, should reconsider the potential for stronger trans-Atlantic partnerships around the China challenge.
If Biden wins, his transition team should be careful not to assume that all allies and partners will instantly assume reliable U.S. leadership. The confidence Japan and South Korea have in the U.S. defense commitment is noteworthy but not to be taken for granted.
Biden should consider ways to invest in those relationships at the front lines of real military competition with China.
It is significant that the partners other than Japan facing the most direct military pressure from China are most inclined to prefer Trump: Indian and Vietnamese respondents had a clear preference for Trump, and opinion was split in Taiwan.
The Biden team should consider ways to invest in those relationships at the front lines of real military competition with China.
IX. Engage in a national dialogue on China strategy.
The 2020 presidential election has done little to elevate the national dialogue on China and does not accurately reflect the perspectives of the broad array of stakeholders in the U.S.-China relationship.
When the dust settles after the 2020 election, the country would be well served by a more measured national dialogue on the future of U.S.-China relations. CSIS will attempt to play a role, as will other national groups such as the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that are well positioned in their own ways.
The CSIS survey suggests that the American public is internationalist and sophisticated on the broad questions of U.S.-China relations, but there are certain areas where the public has far greater alarm than the experts who follow China in business, national security, human rights, or civil society. For example, the public appears far more focused on resisting China in the South China Sea—which features prominently in mainstream news coverage—than in countering the less visible but pernicious threats in the East China Sea around Japan.
Younger Americans also remain both more optimistic about China’s future and more pessimistic about maintaining peace, suggesting a significant generational divide.
Finally, while the public has bipartisan views on security and human rights issues, trade strategy toward China evokes major partisan differences between Republicans and Democrats. Ironically, the Republican base is more skeptical of trade even as the Republican members of Congress are most likely to support trade agreements.
When the White House prepares the National Security Strategy report, the process is usually very secretive and moves from the top down. In contrast, the 2017 Australian Foreign Policy White Paper—which was largely focused on the China challenge—went through a national review process with stakeholders and citizens across the country as well as experts in allied countries before final publication.
Given how central China will be to the next U.S. National Security Strategy, the White House would do well to consider the Australian approach to maintaining domestic support for international competition.
In short, the White House should approach these documents as enduring strategic frameworks rather than speechwriting exercises, as so often happens. Given the enormity of the China challenge and the broad array of stakeholders in that policy, an inclusive approach would be better.
Congressional leaders should work to reconstitute the original proposals for a bipartisan China study group.
Congress also has an important role to play. There is considerable bipartisan consensus in the House and Senate on key aspects of defense policy, human rights, and technology competition as they relate to China. However, Senate cooperation has diminished, and initial efforts to build a bipartisan congressional China study group in the House collapsed in the storm of partisanship that characterized debates on China in the lead-up to the 2020 election.
Congressional leaders should work to reconstitute the original proposals for a bipartisan China study group once the 2020 election is over, and new bipartisan initiatives should be developed within congressional committees. The CSIS survey results suggest that on the substantive questions regarding China policy—as opposed to the divisive rhetoric of the election—this would not be difficult.
X. Resume strategic dialogue with China.
For the first time since Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai began holding lengthy exchanges of views on the bilateral relationship and the world situation, the United States and China now lack a reliable channel for strategic dialogue. There have been episodic interruptions, at the beginning of administrations in particular, but never such a deliberate dismantling of high-level dialogue structures.
Re-engage on strategic dialogue with Beijing to set expectations, communicate redlines, and carve out areas of mutual benefit.
The United States needs to re-engage on strategic dialogue with Beijing—not to seek accommodation per se, but to set expectations, communicate redlines, and carve out areas of mutual benefit.
If and when such a strategic channel is re-established, the U.S. side should clearly convey the depth of views about China in this country and the evident determination of the American people and stakeholders across all sectors to compete wisely.
The purpose of such a channel should be to convey these interests accurately and not to paper over differences with distracting slogans about "strategic partnership" or "win-win" relations.