U.S. Strategic Competition with China

A RAND Research Primer

by Timothy R. Heath

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A rapid unraveling of the U.S.-China relationship—which had been widely viewed as stable and mutually profitable despite long-standing disputes—has unsettled global politics. Although both capitals appear committed to peacefully resolving their differences, the intensifying acrimony and distrust have raised fears among many observers that the two countries could be headed toward confrontation. 

The author reviews past RAND Corporation studies on relevant topics surrounding this relationship, primarily from the past five years and extending to the middle of 2020. In this examination of more than 60 RAND reports, the author discusses various issues pertaining to the competition, including China's strategic goals and priorities, the policies and measures through which China attempts to fulfill these goals, how China's actions affect U.S. strategic interests, and what additional steps might further protect U.S. interests. This review also encompasses studies that take a broader view of the competitive international environment and consider how the competition might differ from U.S. strategic competition with Russia. The author excluded from this review tactical-level studies that offer detailed comparisons of U.S. and Chinese military capabilities or examine the value of specific assets or systems under certain warfighting conditions.

This review first highlights major findings across the RAND studies, then discusses key themes that RAND researchers have found particularly relevant in the context of U.S.-China strategic competition. A concluding section outlines topics for additional research that could further inform the work of strategy and policy development.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted by the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

This publication is part of the RAND Corporation Perspective series. RAND Perspectives present expert insights on timely policy issues. All RAND Perspectives undergo peer review to ensure high standards for quality and objectivity.

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