Cover: China's Quest for Global Primacy

China's Quest for Global Primacy

An Analysis of Chinese International and Defense Strategies to Outcompete the United States

Published Jun 7, 2021

by Timothy R. Heath, Derek Grossman, Asha Clark


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Research Questions

  1. What is Beijing's approach to the competition with the United States?
  2. What might be Beijing's desired end state for the bilateral relationship?
  3. What does success in the competition mean to China?
  4. What foreign policy and defense-related objectives regarding the United States might China have?
  5. What might Beijing view as vulnerabilities in its approach?

Focusing on the international and defense dimensions of U.S.-China competition, the authors of this report make three contributions. First, they intend this report to serve as a planning tool by positing international and defense strategies that could allow China to outcompete the United States. Second, they mean to educate readers on Chinese strategy and policy processes. Third, the authors seek to encourage greater public debate about the nature and stakes of the competition.

As presented by the authors, China's international strategy aims to establish the country's primacy in the Asia-Pacific region and leadership of the international order. The international strategy presented seeks to achieve this end state through peaceful methods, although it does not rule out the possibilities of militarized crises or even conflicts of a limited scope, such as proxy wars. The core of the proposed international strategy is a reliance on China's economic prowess and diplomatic maneuver to put Beijing into a position of advantage from which it cannot be dislodged by the United States. A complementary defense strategy would aim to constrain Washington's ability to forestall or prevent its own eclipse by building a superior Chinese military that renders the risks of military conflict intolerably high. A major Chinese military responsibility would be to support diplomatic efforts to shape a favorable international environment by building strong security ties with client states and discrediting or weakening the appeal of the United States as an alternative.

Key Findings

  • Chinese authorities acknowledge the inevitability of competition but reject the notion that conflict is inevitable.
  • China's international strategy aims to establish the country's primacy in the Asia-Pacific region and to establish Chinese leadership of the international order.
  • China's international leadership would bear little resemblance to the forms exercised by previous global leaders; exercising a partial global hegemony centered principally on Eurasia, the Middle East, and Africa, Chinese international leadership would be characterized by a reliance on finance, diplomatic engagement, and security assistance to exercise influence while maintaining a modest overseas military presence.
  • China's standard for successful competition with the United States entails the following conditions by midcentury: (1) War with the United States is avoided, although this does not exclude the possibility of militarized crises or conflicts of a limited scope; (2) the United States respects China's authority as the global leader; (3) the United States largely refrains from harming Chinese interests; (4) China has established primacy across much of Eurasia, the Middle East, and Africa; (5) U.S. primacy has been reduced to the Americas; (6) the United States and China manage their differences according to norms upheld by China; and (7) the two cooperate on shared concerns on terms defined largely by the Chinese.
  • The consequences of Chinese success in strategic competition could be severe for the United States. Poorly positioned to unseat China or easily reverse its own flagging fortunes, the United States could face dwindling economic prospects, international marginalization, and a diminishing ability to shape global affairs.


  • More attention may need to be paid to the many creative ways in which Beijing could direct military action to gain positional advantages in a long-term competition.
  • U.S. policy should aim to weaken the force of Chinese criticisms by demonstrating responsive, effective U.S. leadership, thereby reducing the incentive for other countries to back Beijing's efforts to renovate international organizations in ways that harm U.S. interests.
  • The U.S. Department of Defense may need to maintain a significant presence in the Middle East as a means of bolstering the U.S. position in the Indo-Pacific.
  • Closer coordination between competitive strategies, both within and outside the Indo-Pacific, will become even more essential.
  • Strengthening U.S. conventional capabilities and investing in a technologically advanced future force remain critical tasks, but military diplomacy may grow in importance.
  • As the competition intensifies, U.S. military planners may need to expand the portfolio of possible contingencies involving China beyond such traditional hotspots as Taiwan.
  • The appeal and feasibility of Chinese military efforts to resolve longstanding issues, such as Taiwan, may need to be reexamined through the lens of the broader competition.
  • The development of a strategy that includes some degree of reassurance and cooperation could help stabilize the competition and reduce risks of miscalculation and dangerous incidents.
  • To maximize deterrence and the protection of U.S. interests, the defense and foreign policy dimensions of any U.S. competitive strategy may need to be even more closely coordinated.

The research described in this report was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center (ISDP) of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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