The rise of China is the most formidable challenge that American foreign policy faces. With its population of nearly 1.5 billion people and its rapid growth, China has transformed itself into an economic and political powerhouse.
We face other challenges, of course. Among them, terrorism, a turbulent Middle East, a nuclear-armed and unpredictable North Korea, climate change, and in relationships with many friends and adversaries around the globe.
But China has emerged as a unique, strong, and sometimes hostile competitor. In a relatively short time, it has built world-class cities, become a global leader in technology, and lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty. Its autocratic, centralized model for governing and the economy sharply contrasts to the open, democratic approach advocated by the United States and our allies.
The U.S. has been the world’s leading nation largely because of the strength of our economy. We still have the largest GDP, at over $20 trillion. China is second, far ahead of Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom. Some observers think China’s economy will surpass America’s by the middle of this century.
In some parts of the world, China is already thought to have eclipsed the U.S. According to Pew Research Center surveys from 2019, Europeans and Australians were more likely to view China than the U.S. as the world’s leading economic power. In South Korea, Japan, and India, majorities saw the U.S. as more powerful.
But China’s poor record on standards of behavior handicaps its global leadership. Its aggressive actions in the South China Sea worry its neighbors. It has stifled dissent, doubled down on its control of Hong Kong, and cracked down on the media. Its treatment of the Uighur minority led U.S. officials to accuse it of genocide.
China’s lack of transparency and accountability and its propensity for currency manipulation make it problematic for businesses. According to the Global Business Council, the U.S. remains the most attractive country for foreign direct investment while China is No. 12.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping calls the shots, having amassed more personal power than any head of state in the country since Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s and, of course, Mao Zedong before that. Recently, the ruling Communist Party gave Xi full credit for China’s rise and set the stage for him to win a third five-year term as the country’s leader.
How should the U.S. respond to China? First, we can’t neglect the home front. As Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass put it in the title of his book “Foreign Policy Begins at Home.” When we struggle to deal with our own problems, we weaken our position for world leadership. Moreover, we need to invest in the knowledge economy, including education from pre-K to graduate studies; fund technology and innovation; and strengthen the social safety net. The recently approved infrastructure bill, which provides funding to repair and improve roads, bridges, and public transit and to expand broadband internet, is an important, but not sufficient, step.
Also essential is maintaining a firm and straightforward relationship with China, one that puts American interests first. President Joe Biden spoke with Xi in September and met virtually with him [in November]. These high-level conversations are essential to managing the competition between the U.S. and China and preventing it from veering into conflict.
This is the most consequential relationship in the world right now, and we’ve got to get it right. The U.S. and China have many common interests — addressing climate change, trade, preventing terrorism, and reducing conflict. There are many issues on which we disagree, sometimes strongly. To avoid conflict and enhance the quality of life of our citizens, we need to work with China whenever we can and oppose it whenever we must.
Lee Hamilton, 90, is a senior advisor for the Indiana University (IU) Center on Representative Government, distinguished scholar at IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, and professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Hamilton, a Democrat, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years (1965-1999), representing a district in south central Indiana.