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Understanding China’s Strategy towards the United States


The director of the Institute of American Studies at CICIR, a leading international relations think tank under the direct supervision of the Ministry of State Security, assesses U.S.-China relations and the state of great power competition at the onset of the Biden administration. In this article, Wang identifies key areas of U.S.-China strategic competition and reflects on the relative strengths and weaknesses of each country.

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Summary: The United States has now taken a long-term competitive stance, and its game against China is gradually shifting from two-way grappling at close range toward alliance system operation and third-party contention. This kind of new strategic posture requires that China’s policy toward the United States be adjusted to keep pace with the times, achieving an elevation from short-term strategies to a long-term strategy, from mixed strategies to a comprehensive strategy, and from a focus on defense to both offensive and defensive capabilities.


Since the start of the new era, with continued increase in China’s influence, the autonomy of China’s strategic thinking, the thoroughness of its strategic planning, and the clarity of its strategic objectives have all taken major steps forward, and China has become a more confident and active player in the Sino-U.S. game. This means that, at this special stage with the intersection of governmental rotation in the United States and the “Two Centenaries” in China, when we look ahead toward the future of Sino-U.S. relations, we must both comprehensively analyze the new U.S. administration’s China strategy, and accurately understand and grasp China’s U.S. strategy.


To consider the future outlook, first review the past. In the last few years, in the face of strategic competition, extreme pressure and all kinds of provocations from the United States, the most typical characteristic of China’s approach has been to insist on both giving tit for tat and actively striving. In terms of trade disputes, China has both highlighted its determination to fight to the finish and shown sincerity that the door to talks is open. In terms of ideology, it has used rare forcefulness in countering the smears of Pompeo and others, while also leaving room to keep the two countries from descending into a new Cold War. In terms of geopolitical security, it has dared to demonstrate its own military strength, and also done a good job of crisis prevention. And in terms of diplomacy, it has taken reciprocal measures on issues such as consulate closures and journalist visas, and also used different channels to preserve communication and dialog in different areas. At a time when the U.S. side is eagerly decoupling, the Chinese side is doing everything possible to maintain integrated bundling. While this kind of mixed, defensive policy choice is admittedly inevitable under conditions where “the West is strong and East is weak,” it also reflects China’s persistent adherence to the “non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation” that it advocates for great power relations. Even more so, it reflects the respect for virtue and dialectical wisdom that China possesses as a responsible great power with a deep foundation and a bright future.

要展望未来,先回顾过去。过去几年里,面对美国的战略竞争、极限施压和百般挑衅,中国做法的最典型特征是坚持针锋相对与积极争取并重。贸易纠纷方面,既亮出打则奉陪到底的决心,也拿出谈则大门敞开的诚意;意识形态方面,既以罕有气势回击蓬佩奥等人污内容摘要蔑,也为避免两国陷入新冷 战留出转圜空间;地缘安全方面,既敢于展示自身军力,也要搞好危机预防;外交人文方面,既在关闭领馆、记者签证等问题上对等反制,也利用不同轨道在不同领域保持沟通对话。当美方急于切割脱钩时,中方则想方设法维系交融捆绑。这种混合性、防御性的战略选择,固然是“西强东弱”条件下的无奈之举,但也体现出中国对“不冲突不对抗、相互尊重、合作共赢”这一大国关系倡议的不懈坚持,更体现出中国作为底蕴深厚、前途远大的负责任大 国所具有的持重美德和辩证智慧。

One would have to say that this game strategy has been successful overall. The Trump administration was superficially fierce toward moves on the Chinese side, while in reality it had many constraints, lacked tools that really worked, and failed to score many substantive points. In specific fields, China came under pressure and even suffered losses, but it has protected its sovereignty, security, development interests and national dignity, while its social cohesion, regime legitimacy and international appeal have increased a great deal. In particular, a strong contrast has formed under the cumulative impact of China’s “100-year Great Change” and the COVID-19 epidemic, with one of the two countries flourishing economically while the other declines, one is governed well politically while the other is chaotically, and one has bright prospects while the other has dim prospects, all there for the world to see. We can say with conviction that China’s ability to maintain unflagging momentum and come out ahead has been due to both the accidental aspects of the epidemic’s impact and the inevitable aspects of China’s scale and strategic planning.

应该说,这种博弈战略总体是成功的。在中方运筹之下,特朗普政府表面凶神恶煞,实则制约颇多,缺乏真正管用的手段,也没有多少实质性得分;中国在具体领域承受了压力甚至蒙受损失,但护住了主权、安全、发展利益及国家尊严,社会凝聚力、 政权合法性和国际感召力大幅提升;特别在百年变局和新冠疫情叠加冲击之下 ,两国经济的一荣一衰、政治的一治一乱、形象的一正一反、前景的一明一暗形成强烈反差,世人有目共睹。我们可以确信地说,中国之所以能在气势上不落下风、在节奏上赢得先机,既有疫情冲击带来的偶然性一面,更有 中国的规模实力和战略谋划带来的必然性一面。

Of course, the situation is always changing. The United States has now abandoned the idea of pursuing quick wins and is instead focused on strengthening domestic fundamentals, taking a long-term competitive stance; its game against China is gradually shifting from two-way grappling at close range toward operation of an alliance system and third-party contention. This kind of new strategic posture requires that China’s policy toward the United States be adjusted to keep pace with the times, achieving an elevation from short-term strategies to a long-term strategy, from mixed strategies to a comprehensive strategy, and from a focus on defense to both offensive and defensive capabilities.


Based on the rules of the great powers game historically and the conditions of the China-U.S. game at its current stage, as well as on China’s current spatial and temporal orientation and future development direction, we can in fact roughly guess at and outline the basic objectives and approximate directions of China’s foreign and U.S. strategies. From the Chinese side’s recent series of academic discussions and policy signals, and in particular from the 14th Five-Year Plan formulated by the Fifth Plenum of the 19th CCP Central Committee, we can also directly intuit the key focal points and implementation path for China’s future grand strategy. Many aspects thereof have implications for strategy regarding the United States, and form important signposts for our understanding of China’s U.S. strategy and Sino-U.S. relations.

基于历史上的大国博弈规律和现阶段的中美博弈状况,立足中国当前时空方位和未来发展方向,我们其实可以粗略猜测并勾勒出中国对外和对美战略的基本目标和大致方向。从近期中方一系列学界讨论和政策信号之中,特别是从中共十九届五中全会制定的“十四五”规划建议中,我们更能直观感受到中国未来大战略的着力重点和实施路径。其中很多地方都有对美战略的内涵,成为我们理解 中国对美战略和中美关系走向的重要路标。

The first implication is a profound transformation in strategic thinking. Over the past several years, a profound appreciation of China’s 100-year Great Change and a calm assessment of extreme pressure by the United States, and especially the comprehensive testing of different countries’ governance capacities by the COVID-19 epidemic, have prompted an accelerated shift in thinking and awareness on the part of China’s decision-makers and strategic circles. This kind of shift is reflected in the handling of four groups of relationships: domestic and international, development and security, stability and progress, and cooperation and competition.

一是战略观念的深刻转变。过去几年中,对百年变局的深刻认识、对美国极限施压的冷静评估, 特别是2020年初以来新冠疫情对各国治理能力的全面测试,促使中国决策层和战略界的思想认识加速转变。这种转变体现在国内与国际、发展与安全、稳定与进取、合作与竞争这四组关系的处理上。

With regard to the relationship between the two overall situations, domestic and international, it can be seen in the high priority given to the “domestic great circulation.” Regarding the relationship between the two major concerns of development and security, the Fifth Plenum clearly stressed the need to “coordinate planning of development and security,” deeply understand the dialectical relationship wherein “security is a prerequisite for development, and development is a guarantee of security,” “properly handle the two major issues of development and security” to achieve more secure development, and “have security development pervade the nation’s development in all fields and throughout the process.” Concerning the relationship between the two paths of maintenance and progress, it is seen in the repeated emphasizing of “the underlying principle of pursuing progress while ensuring stability.” As with the development-security relationship, there is also a dialectical unity between maintenance and progress: Planning the next-step tasks is only possible if the “six stabilities” and “six guarantees” are done successfully. At the same time, maintaining long-term peace and security and building a peaceful China is only possible if we dare to face difficulties in an environment of contrary winds and currents, and quickly go from maintaining to shaping. As for the relationship between the two types of measures, cooperative and competitive, a clear change is also evident in the narratives within Chinese strategic circles. While continuing to adhere to the peaceful development and win-win cooperation that have been consistent for the past several decades, most Chinese realize that changes in great power competition are unavoidable for China in the midst of its 100-year Great Change. A shift in thinking is often the precursor of a strategic shift. From a Sino-U.S. relations perspective, an important characteristic of future relations between the two countries will be a China that puts greater emphasis on strengthening domestic fundamentals, maintaining national security and taking the initiative, while daring to face challenges head-on.

关于国内与国际两个大局的关系,可以从对“国内大循环”的高度重视中看出。关于发展与安全两件 大事的关系,五中全会明确强调要“统筹发展和安全”,深刻认识“安全是发展的前提,发展是安全的保障”这一辩证关系,“办好发展安全两件大事”,实现“更为安全的发展”,“把安全发展贯穿国家发展各领域和全过程”。关于维护与进取两种路径的关系,则见诸对“稳中求进总基调”的反复强调。如同发展和安全的关系一样,维护与进取之间也是辩证统一的:唯有“六稳”“六保”做到了,才有可能谋划下一步工作;同时,唯有在逆风逆水环境下敢于迎难而上,尽快实现从维护到塑造的升级,才能保持长治久安,建设平安中国。关于合作与竞争两种手段的关系,中国战略界的叙事话语也出现明显转变。在继续坚持过去几十年来一以贯之的和平发展、合作共赢之外,大多数中国人意识到,中国卷入百年变局中的大国竞争已不可避免。观念转变通常是战略转变的先导。从中美关系的角度看,中国更重视夯实国内根基、更重视维护国家安全、更重视积极主动进取、更敢于直面竞争挑战,将是未来两国关系的重要特征。

The second implication is making full use of strategic advantages. The Fifth Plenum also confirmed that China “has advantages and the requirements in many areas for continued development” and that it must “strengthen its foundation and promote its advantages,” “comprehensively shape new advantages for development,” and ensure “complementary advantages.” In summarizing the documents of the Fifth Plenum and the various other literature and discussions, those advantages can be generalized as being of four types.

二是战略优势的充分发挥。五中全会还确认了中国“继续发展具有多方面优势和条件”,必须“固根基、扬优势”,“全面塑造发展新优势”并确保“优势互补”。综合五中全会文件及其他各类文献与讨论 ,这些优势可概括为四类。

Firstly, there are institutional advantages. “Institutional advantages are the most significant advantages of a country, and institutional competition is the most basic competition between countries.” For China as a late-developing country in the current international system, adhering to the political system of socialism with Chinese characteristics, characterized by the Party’s centralized and unified leadership, is still the fundamental guarantee of our success in all kinds of endeavors.


Secondly, there are scale advantages. The Fifth Plenum stressed being “firmly grounded in China’s industrial scale advantages and supporting advantages, as well as first-mover advantages in some areas. Under rising Western protectionism, elevated risks of external chains being severed and the serious impact of the epidemic, it was precisely China’s scale advantages that ensured strong development resilience and overall social stability.


Thirdly, there are market advantages. The Fifth Plenum also stressed the need to “rely on the advantages of our large market to promote international cooperation and achieve mutual benefits and win-win outcomes.” Looking at international society, China’s huge internal demand market has become the world economy’s most precious and scarcest resource in an environment of prolonged downturn. Without a doubt, China in the future will more consciously “be firmly rooted in the domestic great circulation, make the most of its comparative advantage, and collaborate to promote the construction of China as a strong domestic market and trading power, using the domestic great circulation to attract global resource factors,” gathering the world’s superior resources and using them, and joining hands with other countries in making the great world economic cake.


Fourthly, there are [development] stage advantages. These also stem from China’s position as a late-developing country. Looking back on the history of the great powers game over several centuries, one can discover that there are advantages as well as disadvantages to late development. Late-developing countries often have greater momentum and more room for overtaking others and making iterative upgrades. These advantages are development advantages for China in the pursuit of high-quality development, and are also understood to be strategic advantages for China to possess when managing the great powers game.

其四是阶段优势。这也是从中国作为后发国家的身份定位中引申出来的。回顾过去几百年来的大国博弈史 可以发现,后发既是劣势也是优势,后发国家往往有更大动力和更广空间实现换道超车和迭代升级。上述这些优势,既是中国谋求更高质量发展所具有的发展优势,也可以被理解为中国运筹大国博弈时 所具备的战略优势。

The third implication is to make up shortcomings as soon as possible. Attacking each other’s shortcomings is a necessary part of the great powers game. In the context of the 100-year Great Change and a competitive atmosphere, whether it is an early-developing power in the declining stage or a late-developing power in the emerging stage, there are always many shortcomings; in order to seize greater initiative in the great powers game, late-developing powers must make up such shortcomings as quickly as possible. Faced with a new situation, China clearly emphasizes that it must “make up shortcomings and strengthen areas of weakness” and “focus on preventing and resolving major risks and challenges,” and it has shown greater awareness of these sorts of concerns. Apart from the areas enumerated by the Fifth Plenum as still having room for improvement, including development imbalances and inadequacies, reform of key areas, innovation capacity, urban-rural disparities, ecological and environmental protection, livelihood protection, and social governance, against the background of the great powers game, China in its current stage still has shortcomings in the S&T, financial, network, and biological areas.


In the S&T area, the risk of a stranglehold by the United States in S&T fields has made China aware of the extreme importance of “S&T self-reliance and self-improvement,” and it has thus made a series of careful arrangements in terms of insisting on innovation-driven development. In the financial area, the continued increase of financial sanctions on China by the United States, the severe imbalance in rights and obligations with the U.S. dollar as the international reserve currency, the ever-increasing instability of the international financial system, and the continued existence of internal risks in China’s financial system—these are all problems that demand a high degree of attention, so as to “hold the bottom line on no occurrence of systemic risks.” In the network area, given the unprecedented systemic impact of the physical world’s deep interconnectedness and the storage and flow of data, as well as the United States’ advantageous position in the network area, China must attach great importance to network security.


The fourth implication is a step-by-step expansion of the strategic layout. This also includes four areas. Apart from accelerating promotion of a systemic layout conducive to the domestic great circulation, there are three other important areas of layout, namely, the international economic and trade layout, the great power relations layout, and the military deterrence layout. In the case of the international economic and trade layout, the most important achievement recently has been the successful signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the strategic significance of which goes without saying. At the same time, China has also expressed its readiness to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which is also regarded as an important move for addressing the great power game. In addition, the in-depth promotion of “Belt and Road” construction and the continued development of the international great circulation will win more opportunities for China. In terms of great power relations, progressively deeper and stronger Sino-Russian relations, smoothly advancing Sino-European relations and the orderly turnaround in Sino-Japanese relations are all contributing to global strategic stability. The military deterrence layout includes rich content, such as preparations for a military struggle against “Taiwan Independence” and strategic prepositioning in multiple realms—sea, air, space, etc.

四是战略布局的循序拓展。也包括四个方面。除加快推进有利于国内大循环的系统性布局外,还有另三个领域的重要布局,即国际经贸布局、大国关系布局和军事威慑布局。国际经贸布局方面,近期最重要成果是 RCEP 成功签署,其战略意义自不待言;同时中国还表达了加入 CPTPP 的意愿,也被认为是应对大国博弈的重要一招。此外,“一带一 路”建设的深入推进和国际大循环持续展开,更将为中国赢得更多先机。大国关系方面,中俄关系的走深走实,中欧关系的平稳推进,中日关系的有序转圜,均有助于全球战略稳定。军事威慑布局方面包括反制“台独”的军事斗争准备,以及在海空天等多领域的战略预置等十分丰富的内容。

China’s strategic culture has consistently embraced overall long-term planning and systematic promotion. One may cautiously foresee that the current type of strategic planning may provide the basic guidelines for long-term relations with the United States as China enters its “second century,” and may also become the main axis and core traction for China’s management of its overall foreign strategy. A comprehensive and long-term strategic game between China and the United States is unavoidable. Not only are all of its aspects interconnected, but it also involves the national fortunes of the two countries. For China, high pressure and high risk will be the norm for a long time to come. These difficulties are ones we must fully reckon with. Whatever happens, as long as we have all beings in mind, follow the rules of history, keep to the righteous path and dare to take responsibility, we will surely be able to turn dangers into successes and crises into opportunities.


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王鸿刚 (Wang Honggang). "Understanding China's Strategy towards the United States  [理解中国的对美战略]". CSIS Interpret: China, original work published in China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) [中国现代国际关系研究院], February 28, 2021

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