Editor’s Note: This article is part of our Below Threshold Competition: China writing contest which took place from May 1, 2020 to July 31, 2020. More information about the contest can be found by clicking here.
Patrick M. Foran is a PhD candidate at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He can be found on Twitter @Patrick__Foran and has a newsletter at CatalogofCurisoties.substack.com. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
National Security Situation: As China grows richer, more powerful, and more revanchist, the U.S., as the world’s current-yet-faltering hegemon, requires options to meet this rising challenger that plays to the edge of, but stays below the threshold of, armed conflict.
Date Originally Written: July 19, 2020.
Date Originally Published: September 30, 2020.
Author and / or Article Point of View: The author is a PhD candidate at the University of Missouri – St. Louis with a broadly realist foreign policy point of view. The article is written from the point of view of the United States towards the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Background: The U.S. under President Donald Trump understands that “great power competition” has “returned,” as announced in the 2017 National Security Strategy. Yet “complex interdependence” between the U.S. and the PRC has created liabilities, challenges, and an entangled relationship that is a double-edged sword for the U.S. should they uncouple without care.
Significance: The significance of this interdependence cannot be overstated. The U.S.-China relationship is certainly the most important in the world, and this goes for finance, climate, trade, the future of international institutions and regime maintenance, and so much more.
Option #1: The U.S. could attempt to carefully decouple its critical minerals relationship and defense-industrial base needs in a neo-Hamiltonian way, referring to the Secretary of State Alexander Hamilton and his belief in infant industry support and fostering research and development to build competitive industries. This option would be understood as support for re-developing and re-conceptualizing what is critical using the broad scope of powers delegated to the president under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. The U.S. would also form a Five Eyes or Democratic Club-like international agreement with fellow liberal democracies. This agreement would ensure cooperation regarding research and development, logistics, and ensure robustness and sustainability. This cooperation would look like a shared pool similar to the U.S. strategic petroleum reserve but for minerals and high-tech components with the addition of ally access to the reserve. This pool would be shared with Western and liberal allies who agree to shun China’s current dominance in the realm of rare earth minerals.
Risk: This option risks sparking a “beggar thy neighbor” system, where zero-sum moves engaged by those inside and outside the system produce a worst world for all. In other words, it risks a new Cold War that hardens into blocs, blocs that would make future pandemics, for example, or future financial crises harder to manage. Further, this option risks more realpolitik when it comes to ocean exploration and when it comes to African state sovereignty where rare earth minerals are present.
Gain: This option contributes to a renewed liberal international order, one that is modern, looking towards the future, and one that is concerned with sustainability and shared prosperity. Offering an “opt-in” for liberal and democratic countries is aligned with much evidence that shows that positive inducements work more than negative inducements; and also the fear of kinetic conflict with China nudges allies to take strategic materials and infrastructure seriously. Moreover, much of the gains would accrue to the U.S. since it would be the leader and sustainer of this strategic mineral reserve; new U.S. companies could be created to manage such an important reserve.
Option #2: The United States creates a sister channel to Radio Free Asia that exclusively highlights the horrors of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This radio station’s content would encourage the use of onion addresses and virtual proxy networks as ways to pursue internet freedom, and could feature audio essays of “Civil Disobedience,” “The Rights of Man,” and the U.S. Constitution, for example.
Risk: This option risks escalation in this sphere. And, shouts of hypocrisy could fairly be leveraged by the CCP against the U.S. since this option could be interpreted as a violation of the United Nations Charter, Article II, Section 7 which states that “states that the United Nations has no authority to intervene in matters which are within the domestic jurisdiction of any State.”
Gain: This option bolsters support for already existing information programs. It suggests that the U.S. is serious about promoting democracy and about pushing back against China’s goal of spreading its influence worldwide. And, more importantly, this option counters the spreading of the CCP’s “capitalism with Chinese characteristics” model around the world.
Option #3: A perhaps counterintuitive option involves the U.S. could taking a long-term accommodation strategy. This strategy would be built on the assumption that China’s internal problems and international liabilities are so vast and challenging that a bearish strategy is warranted. This is still a great power strategy yet privileges a “foreign policy begins at home” concept: rebuild American schools, roads, infrastructure, and human and social capital.
Risk: Without the U.S. checking its behavior, China becomes hyperaggressive and revisionist, even more so, leaving the world with worst options, which increase the likelihood of war or disorder.
Gain: The gains are enormous. To ensure that the U.S. remains “unrivaled,” truly rebuilding American institutions that make them more democratic, more responsive, and more with institutions in mind. This rebuilding would oppose the current situation where institutions are personalistic and engage in performative displays. Through this option the U.S. can become a sustainable superpower, one that once again reminds that world that a hegemon can be liberal, democratic, and patient.
Other Comments: The U.S. U.S.-China is a dyadic relationship, one situated in an international system. Relationships are managed—they are not problems to be solved. How the U.S.-China dyad evolves and how it shapes the world is the most important question of the next few decades and this seriousness deserves careful consideration.
 Trump, Donald J. (December 2017). “National Security Strategy of the United States of America.” Retrieved July 19, 2020, from http://nssarchive.us/national-security-strategy-2017
 Keohane, R. O. and Joseph s. Nye.  (2012) Power and Interdependence: World Politics in Transition. Boston: Longman Books.
 The International Emergency Economic Powers Act (1977). Title 50, §§1701–1707.
 Axelrod, R. (1981). The Emergence of Cooperation Among Egoists. American Political Science Review, 75 (2), 306-18. Retrieved July 26, 2020, from DOI:
10.2307/1961366 https://www.jstor.org/stable/1961366; Axelrod, R. (1984) The Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Basic Books; Drezner, D. W. (1999/2000). The Trouble with Carrots: Transaction Costs, Conflict Expectations, and Economic Inducements. Security Studies, 9 (1-2), 188-218. Retrieved July 20, 2020, from
https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0963641990842939; Nincic, M. (2010). Getting What You Want: Positive Inducements in International Relations. International Security, 35(1), 138-183. Retrieved July 26, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40784650
 UN Charter, Article II, Section 7.
 Haass, R. N (2013). Foreign Policy Begins At Home: The Case for Putting America’s House in Order. New York: Basic Books.