Photo Credit: Mel Gurtov, “Testing Time for US-China Relations,” China-United States Exchange Foundation, May 4, 2020.
“Just as water’s flow avoids the high ground and rushes to the low, so, too, the victor avoids the enemy’s strong points and strikes where he is weak”— Sun Tzu[i]
Recently, the White House reframed its relationship with China from “great power competition” to “strategic competition.” Following guidance from the White House’s Interim National Security Strategy, the Department of Defense announced that it will use this new characterization.[ii] However, the White House has yet to explain how it can transcend the rhetoric and signal a fundamental strategic shift. The semantic shift should encourage a more substantive change in policy— from a focus on augmenting hard power capabilities to investing in strategic communications.
America’s Current Weakness: Strategic Communications
At present, China trounces America in the arena of strategic communications. In fact, America often neglects the significance of strategic communications — tactics to promote favorable views of both its political system and foreign policies. After the Cold War, America coupled its hard power— defense and economic coercion— with development assistance, diplomacy, and the attractiveness of its democratic institutions. However, over the past two decades, America’s democratic institutions have failed to cope with modern problems, including rising economic inequality, partisan polarization, and waning American influence. As a result, America has alienated both staunch allies and potential partners. In response, China has seized opportunities to highlight America’s weaknesses and offer a “better” alternative.
China outmaneuvers America at its weak points — development assistance and diplomacy— and evades America’s strong points — defense. Learning from Soviet failures during the Cold War, China recognizes that competing with America in defense is both high risk and high cost.[iii] Although China continues to increase defense spending, it still pales in comparison with America’s—in both absolute and relative terms. Instead, China focuses on strengthening its political partnerships through its power of attraction with economic campaigns such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)— promoting favorable perspectives of both its political system and foreign policies.[iv]
China grounds its strategic communications in the ancient principle of moral realism- the pursuit of realist policies within reasonable and ethical bounds.[v] As a result, China often retains respect from others while advancing its interests. On the other hand, China frames America as a specious superpower — one that lectures other countries about liberal ideals but continues to pursue its interests with an iron fist. In turn, China seeks to offer an alternative leadership style that brings substantive— not just rhetorical— equity to the international system. China draws from its experience in the Non-Aligned Movement to model leadership within the developing nation community, incurring favor from many in Africa, Latin America, and South Asia that feel America neglects them, or when it does attend to them, uses high-handed tactics.
In contrast, the White House neglects to explain its shift from “great power competition” to “strategic competition.” Some analysts have blasted the shift as a political gimmick to differentiate the current administration from the previous one. Others speculate that it signals a greater willingness to cooperate with China on matters of shared interest. Regardless of the internal logic, the White House should align its semantic shift with a substantive shift in its approach to China: from a cold war confrontation to competition for global influence.
America struggles to counter China’s influence because it fails in the two important components of strategic communications — signaling with actions and framing them with a strategic narrative. To succeed in strategic communications, America must invest in development assistance and diplomacy.
Signaling: The Tyranny of Defense over Development
First, America must improve its signaling with a substantive shift in policies and budget priorities. Although America should continue to invest large sums in defense to maintain international order, it should increase its relative investments in development assistance. At present, America spends about twenty-five times more on defense than development assistance.[vi] Congress should increase investments in development assistance to mitigate the threat of China, like how the Senate passed the Innovation & Competition Act to increase funding for basic scientific research and development in critical, emerging industries. Through its budget priorities, America signals to the world that it prioritizes coercion over supportive leadership.
Similarly, the foreign aid budget that funds assistance programs, with the inclusion of security assistance, has measured about fifteen times smaller than the defense budget.[vii] On the contrary, China emphasizes its economic ties — rather than defense prowess — in its relationships with other countries. As a result, most countries have perceived China as a helpful partner in the past.[viii] But given the fallout of the pandemic, and the attendant negative perceptions on Beijing, the U.S. has an opening to change this.
Although America attempts to project an image of benevolence with development assistance, it lacks the budget to substantiate such an image. For instance, most of the international community recognizes China’s BRI. However, just a handful recognize the Blue Dot Network or the International Development Finance Corporation — a similar, but diminutive initiative from the State Department launched in response to China’s. As a result, foreign audiences more often associate supportive leadership and positive relations with China rather than America.[ix] Such information asymmetries also exaggerate America’s threat perception of China and marginalize other instruments of national power including diplomacy and development assistance.
The White House should shift its focus from “great power competition” — centered on defensive confrontation and arms races — to “strategic competition” — centered on competition for political influence on the global stage. In its shift, the White House should also better observe democratic principles – exercising power through persuasion instead of coercion.
The White House should work with Congress to increase investments in development assistance. In addition, the White House should promote this assistance as important for national security to galvanize public support needed for sustained investment. Over the past few months, the national security establishment has focused on rising tensions over the fate of Taiwan. Instead of responding to establishment concerns, the White House should take initiative and reframe its priorities for “strategic competition” including development assistance in regions such as South Asia and Africa. America can, then, establish better relations with other countries and compete for political influence with China through strategic messaging and development.
Framing: America’s Atrophied Diplomatic Arm
Second, America must improve its strategic communications with respect to how it frames its foreign policies. At present, America does not face a crisis of hard power — economics and defense — it faces a crisis of persuasion: diplomacy.
Although most analysts focus on gross indicators of national power; “net stocks” provide more accurate assessments. Net stocks measure gross indicators minus the net costs of state maintenance including basic welfare, infrastructure, law enforcement, and homeland security. In “net stock” terms of economic and defense power, America continues to outpace China.[x] America must maintain the strength of its economy and defense, it must also consider how to combine and exercise its soft power endowments. In other words, America must better translate its resources into political advantage for desired outcomes.
America should invest in its diplomats who empower defense and economic policies with political meaning. Without a strong diplomatic corps, America cannot influence how other countries interpret its policies. Therefore, America needs a strong diplomatic corps to frame how other countries interpret its policies and how it justifies its political objectives.
While America prioritizes its hard power endowments at the expense of diplomacy, China explores new methods for conducting diplomacy. Over the past decade, the State Department has experienced dramatic setbacks, from marginalization, low morale, brain drain, and biases in promotion and retention: it has atrophied from deficient budgets and political subversion.[xi] While the last administration smeared and targeted career diplomats, the concerning trends transcend the time horizon of past administrations. On the other hand, China has more than doubled its foreign affairs budgets over the past decade and now maintains the most diplomatic posts in the world.[xii]
With a weak diplomatic arm, America often spouts rhetoric characteristic of its domestic norms and expects its message to resonate with other countries. On the contrary, China seeks out foreign countries’ “pressure points” to better understand foreigners and frame their preferred policies in more favorable terms.
In its shift to “strategic competition,” the White House should prioritize strategic communications including how it exercises and frames hard power. In turn, America can better orchestrate and implement its hard power instruments and compete for political influence, harnessing strategic diplomacy coupled with robust influence campaigns.
From “Rebalance to Asia” to “Rebalance to the State Department”
In the current strategic environment, China poses the biggest threat to American power in strategic communications. With much success, China has framed itself as responsible and America as specious. America has failed to thwart China’s narrative and as a result, has lost significant non-defense forms of power. Therefore, America should invest more resources and attention in strategic communications— development assistance and diplomacy— to compete with China.
In other words, America must reinforce its “weakest link” to prevent China from reaping large political gains and influence at its expense. The State Department implements both development assistance and diplomacy. Therefore, America should seek to strengthen the State Department through larger budgets and institutional reform. The White House and Congress should increase the State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs budget to increase the nation’s strategic communications capabilities and better compete for political influence with China. The federal government should also invest more in the diplomatic corps’ language and cultural skills so that America can better understand foreign audiences and persuade them to adopt its preferred policies. In addition, it should invest more in development assistance to help other countries address pressing transnational problems such as climate change, crime, and corruption.
In the short term, the White House should empower the State Department to lead on Indo-Pacific policies. In the long term, the White House must work with Congress to pass annual Department of State Authorization Acts that meet the challenges of the 21st century. Congress should provide the State Department with better tools for framing policies with social media and other new forms of communication. Congress should also reform the State Department’s personnel systems to recruit diverse talent and increase the retention of minorities.
In 2015, President Obama published his second National Security Strategy which featured a long-overdue “rebalance” to Asia. The White House argued that America needed to shift its resources and attention to Asia — a growing center of global power.[xiii] Now, President Biden has announced a shift in how it characterizes America’s relationship with China. For America and its “rebalance” to succeed, it must reinforce its weak points — the State Department — and once again succeed at strategic communications with strong diplomatic and development assets.
[i]Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Translated by Michael Nylan, W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 2020.
[ii]Daniel Lippman, Lara Seligman, Alexander Ward and Quint Forgey “Biden’s Era of ‘Strategic Competition,’” Politico, October 5, 2021, https://www.politico.com/newsletters/national-security-daily/2021/10/05/bidens-era-of-strategic-competition-494588.
[iii]Michael Mazarr et al., Understanding Influence in the Strategic Competition with China, RAND Corporation, 2021. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA290-1.html
[iv]Michael Mazarr et al. and others.
[v]Zheng Yongnian and Liu Bojian, “Non-Western Realism,” The SAGE Handbook of Asian Foreign Policy, 2020.
[vi]Anthony H. Cordesman, “Before You Cut Foreign Aid to Fund Defense, Consider Where it Goes and What it Does for U.S. Troops and National Security,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 13, 2017, https://www.csis.org/analysis/before-you-cut-foreign-aid-to-fund-defense-consider-where-it-goes
[viii] Julie Ray, “Image of U.S. Leadership Now Poorer than China’s,” Gallup, February 28, 2019, https://news.gallup.com/poll/247037/image-leadership-poorer-china.aspx.
[x] Michael Beckly, Unrivaled: Why America Will Remain the World’s Sole Superpower, Cornell University Press, 2018.
[xi]Constanza Castro Zúñiga, Mojib Ghaznawi, and Caroline Kim, The Crisis in the State Department: We Are Losing Our Best and We Need to Ask Why, Georgetown University Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, July 2021.
[xii] U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, “China is Outpacing and Outspending US in Diplomacy and Development,” Global Trade, August 30, 2018, https://www.globaltrademag.com/china-is-outpacing-and-outspending-us-in-diplomacy-and-development/.
[xiii]The White House, National Security Strategy, The White House, February 2015.