The U.S. Congress and the White House have made a series of moves during the past two weeks signaling a new approach to China. On June 8, a bipartisan majority in the Senate passed the nearly $250-billion Competition and Innovation Act, the first industrial-policy legislation approved in decades, investing in the semiconductor industry, quantum computing, basic research in the National Science Foundation, and more. The law aims to bolster American competitiveness against China in high-tech industriess and to reduce dependence on it and other outside producers. Also June 8, U.S. President Joe Biden outlined plans to strengthen the resilience of critical supply chains, similarly intending to cut U.S. reliance on China for raw materials and production. Two days later, Biden expanded a Trump-era ban on American investment in firms tied to China’s military or surveillance-technology industry. This past weekend, Biden and the other leaders of the G-7 agreed to compete against China’s global infrastructure-investment strategy—the Belt and Road Initiative—with their own program for building infrastructure in developing countries. What’s the United States up to here?

According to G. John Ikenberry, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University and the author of eight books on international relations, the emerging U.S. strategy is the same grand strategy that the U.S deployed against the Soviet Union in the Cold War and against Germany in World Wars I and II. The U.S. seeks to mobilize its allies to show that liberal, democratic countries can shore up the rule-based international order and solve problems for their domestic populations. As Ikenberry sees it, Donald Trump undermined those alliances, but both Democrats and Republicans now support the strategy of confronting China—making it a rare locus of bipartisanship. But, he says, the erosion of democracy, in the U.S. and elsewhere, raises questions about whether the old order will be able to withstand China’s challenge.


Michael Bluhm: How is the U.S. thinking about competition with China?

G. John Ikenberry: I see a grand strategy emerging for galvanizing support within the democratic world to compete with China in 21st-century realms such as high technology and advanced industrial goods—and to offer the world a model for the future organized around liberal democracies working together to solve problems and exercise leadership.

It’s not a new strategy. It’s an old strategy. It’s a strategy that draws on the 75-year playbook of American leadership. The United States is stepping forward to use its resources and capacities as the leading liberal, democratic economy in the world to provide a system of relations—economic, political, security, and so forth—that will provide a critical mass for organizing the world system.

The U.S. did it during the Cold War. It provided security assistance, it used its economy, it invested in leading technologies, and it offered an ideological vision of how a U.S.-led global order would be organized and work to the benefit of partners, client states, and other countries that wanted to be part of that world system.

Bluhm: Why is that strategy emerging now?

Ikenberry: Over the last five to 10 years, the most important change is the rise of China. We can look into the future where China will meet and surpass the United States, in all likelihood, as a world economic power.

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