China Isn’t America’s Enemy, at Least Not Yet

On the rise.

Photographer: Billy H.C. Kwok/Bloomberg

In HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” the most impressive single force on a very complex battlefield is the trio of dragons mastered by Queen Daenerys Targaryen. As she says, “We will lay waste to armies and burn cities to the ground!” The symbol of China, of course, is the dragon. The U.S., whose symbol is the eagle, will need to learn to fly in uneasy company of the dragon in the decades ahead. These metaphors can fly independently, but they are going to have to deconflict the airspace.

Let’s begin with a hopeful disclaimer: I do not believe we are headed toward a war with China. Our interests are far more likely to converge than to diverge overall, and our economies are deeply intertwined. Yet the competition, assuming we can avoid outright conflict, will be fierce. A recent cover of the Economist talked about Chinese “sharp power,” meaning the combination of traditional “soft power” (hospitals, medical diplomacy, humanitarian operations) with more coercive tools (trade, economic domination, cyber piracy). The U.S. needs a strategy to deal with a China that is increasingly comfortable engaging aggressively in the world.

A good primer on this is Graham Allison’s recent book, “Destined for War: Can America and China Avoid the Thucydides Trap?” Allison, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, tells the story of China’s truly meteoric rise over the past three decades, and makes the point that while we are playing checkers, the Chinese are not simply playing chess — they are playing a different game altogether: Go. It is a complex, multi-move, long-dwell game of strategy. While we craft a strategy for the next decade or so (see the Donald Trump administration’s new National Security Strategy), China is planning the 200-year future. They are playing a long, long game.