President Barack Obama with China's President Xi Jinping at the G20 Summit, Sept. 6, 2013

America and China: Rivalry and Partnership

President Barack Obama with China's President Xi Jinping at the G20 Summit, Sept. 6, 2013

Photo by Lawrence Jackson

Under President Xi Jinping, China is modernizing its military and growing more assertive both regionally and globally. But while Chinese leaders will not shy away from confrontation, they also believe that to maintain stability and prosperity, they have no choice but to get along with the United States. Thus, the United States faces an acute strategic dilemma: a U.S.-China relationship characterized by a complex mix of competition and cooperation and plagued by mutual suspicion and distrust. For example, how should the nation react to Chinese maritime territorial claims? Over-reaction risks escalation while under-reaction risks emboldening China, which could mistake U.S. moderation for weakness or declining commitment to the Asia-Pacific.

Scoring China's Military Modernization

Over the past two decades, China's People's Liberation Army has transformed itself from a large but antiquated force into a capable, modern military. A RAND project tracked past developments and predictions of the future to produce a scorecard comparing U.S. and Chinese military forces:

An image of the China Scorecard, a ranking of U.S. and Chinese military capabilities

Also see the interactive version of the scorecard, based on the report China's Military Modernization Increasingly Challenges U.S. Defense Capabilities in Asia (RR-392).

Why Is the Issue Important for the Incoming Administration?

China will likely reach out very quickly to the next administration, which will need to consider an array of critical policy issues early on in the context of this strategic dilemma:

  • Responding to an increasingly militarily and financially capable China that contests America's Asia–Pacific security architecture and questions U.S. global leadership;
  • Handling Chinese actions that aim to alter or even refute those aspects of the current rules-based international order that China sees as incompatible with its interests;
  • Countering such challenges while simulanenoulsy partnering with China to address national security and economic issues and such global issues as transnational terrorism, cyber security, climate change, pollution, and food safety;
  • Responding to China's greater assertiveness in the South China Sea, which appears to reflect a "might makes right approach" to dealing with the Philippines and other countries that are much less powerful than China;
  • Handling a more turbulent period in cross-Strait relations now that China has suspended official and semi-official communications with Taiwan;
  • Strengthening U.S. relationships with allies and partners in the region;
  • Developing new military strategies, concepts, and capabilities to counter China's development of long-range conventional precision strike capabilities, anti-ship ballistic missiles, and anti-satellite weapons?
  • Persuading China to sustain a tougher line with North Korea on its nuclear program and provocative behavior;
  • Advancing the U.S. cyber security agenda with China;
  • Responding to China's efforts to develop institutions, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).
Chinese citizens wave the U.S. and China flag as the Chinese Navy ship Qingdao arrives in Hawaii

Chinese citizens wave the U.S. and China flag as the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy ship Qingdao arrives in Hawaii in 2013

Photo by Nardel Gervacio/U.S. Navy

RAND Research Addresses China

In Their Own Words

Senior RAND political scientist Andrew Scobell discusses the possibility for a reluctant partnership between the United States and China, and explains that Chinese leadership likely views the United States through Cutluralist, Marxist, and/or Realist lenses.

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