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Confidence and conviction will lead to US victory over China

The great Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes argued that when you throw the ball only three things can happen, and two of them are bad. Likewise, U.S. choices with respect to China are cooperation, containment or defeat of China’s regime, and the first two are bad. 

Cooperation with China has been folly since the 1990s. The COVID-19 virus was less a deus ex machina for the world’s relationship with China than the latest negative epiphenomenon of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Containment possesses many advantages but is too passive because it cedes strategic initiative to China. Victory over China is the best choice for the U.S. and should be the goal. Victory preserves the United States’s global position, and that requires defeating the CCP’s grand strategic objectives.

To achieve victory, national security decision-makers must be convinced that the United States can win — that is, maintain its position as the dominant state in international politics with no hostile peer competitor challenging its position. This might appear self-evident but it is not. Throughout history, there have been many times when the United States appeared weak or in decline, unable to cope with the British threat in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Soviet threat, the rise of Japan in the 20th century, or China today.  

And at these times, there were senior U.S. officials and experts in accord with this declinist sentiment. These leaders and policymakers may not have had confidence because of their overestimation of the opponent’s strength, or an exaggeration of the United States’s own weakness. Our decision-makers must have confidence that the United States will be victorious in a long-term competition with a peer rival.  

In World War II, President Roosevelt and the Joint Chiefs of Staff expressed confidence that the United States would win the long war against the Germans, Japanese and Italians, for sound reasons. The foundation of the Allied victory was relative balance of power in its favor, in part because of superiority in manufacturing the material — and through training, the men — necessary for victory. What this meant was complicated in the course of the war, but it often meant that  “good enough” military equipment, such as the M4 Sherman tank, was produced, distributed and deployed utilizing doctrine that was not perfect but adequate. 

Naturally, confidence cannot be misplaced, and indeed, will not be if it is anchored on a clear understanding of U.S. strengths and advantages and knowledge of our country’s weaknesses. On the other side of the coin, U.S. decision-makers must have awareness of the rival’s strengths and weaknesses and, ideally, a strategy to move competition to an arena of the U.S.’s strength.  

During the Cold War, Soviet military strength, intelligence collection and ideological prowess served Moscow well. However, the totalitarian system could never adapt to competition with the advantages of the capitalist West at the dawn of the information age. Additionally, despite Soviet attempts, key U.S. allies such as West Germany and Japan were steadfast and loyal and would not abandon Washington for Moscow’s promises of unification or return of occupied territories.

Today’s decision-makers must understand that they can defeat the challenge posed by China. This comprehension is not misplaced. The United States has many advantages over China — our political principles, open society, adaptive and innovative economy, rule of law, universities and financial sector, military might, intelligence community, diplomatic acumen and worldwide network of alliances. China has notable advantages, to be sure, and they need to be checked, equaled or exceeded. The United States can win the struggle.  

Are we positioned for victory? Not yet. There is work to accomplish in every area. Americans have drawn on the capital accumulated during the Cold War and assumed that the American order would last. For a generation, the assumption that the U.S. would again face a peer competition was taken as a geostrategic 11th Commandment. The most benevolent explanation for this folly was that it was a grave misapprehension of the CCP and our power to influence China’s growth and domestic politics.

Fundamentally, U.S. decision-makers must believe that engaging in competition is the correct path of action — and that victory is possible. The U.S. must squarely face the threat from China and publicly acknowledge that it is doing so. This will raise awareness of the threat, mobilize resistance to it and plot a course to victory. Not terming China a foe of the U.S. — or clearly identifying the intensifying Sino-American security competition for fear of worsening it — does not dissuade China from its challenge. Nor does it reassure U.S. allies and others in the Indo-Pacific that the United States possesses the willpower to resist China and will be a steadfast ally.  

In the past, U.S. grand strategic victories were anchored on a clear understanding of why Americans were in a conflict and why the U.S. would win it. This is needed today.

Bradley A. Thayer is a professor of political science at the University of Texas-San Antonio and co-author of “How China Sees the World: Han-Centrism and the Balance of Power in International Politics.” 

Tags China aggression Cold War Containment Geopolitics US-China relations

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