Paper - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

The Great Rivalry: China vs. the U.S. in the 21st Century

| Dec. 07, 2021

In the past two decades, China has risen further and faster on more dimensions than any nation in history. As it has done so, it has become a serious rival of what had been the world’s sole superpower. To paraphrase former Czech president Vaclav Havel, all this has happened so quickly that we have not yet had time to be astonished.

To document what has actually happened in the competition between China and the U.S. in the past twenty years, Professor Graham Allison has directed a major study titled “The Great Rivalry: China vs. the U.S. in the 21st Century.” Originally prepared as part of a package of transition memos for the new administration after the November 2020 election, these reports were provided to those leading the Biden and Trump administrations’ strategic reviews. They are now being published as public Belfer Center Discussion Papers. The major finding will not surprise those who have been following this issue: namely, a nation that in most races the U.S. had difficulty finding in our rearview mirror 20 years ago is now on our tail, or to our side, or in some cases a bit ahead of us. The big takeaway for the policy community is that the time has come for us to retire the concept of China as a near peer competitor” as the Director of National Intelligence’s March 2021 Global Threat Assessment still insists on calling it. We must recognize that China is now a full-spectrum peer competitor.” Indeed, it is the most formidable rising rival a ruling power has ever confronted.

In Washington, the first question officials ask about an issue is: What to do? “Don’t just stand there, do something,” however, is a political reflex, not strategic guidance. Strategy insists that diagnosis precedes prescription. The specific assignment to which the Papers on the “Great Rivalry” respond is “to document what has actually happened in the past two decades in the array of races between China and the US.” The goal was to provide an objective database that could serve as a foundation for policy makers who would undertake a fundamental strategic reassessment of the China challenge. Five Papers drill down on the rivalry in five core arenas of power: technological, military, economic, diplomatic, and ideological.

News about China overtaking us and even surpassing us in some races is unsettling. Indeed, as students of international security, we recognize that the international order the United States has led for the seven decades since World War II provided a rare “long peace” without war between great powers, and larger increases in health and prosperity worldwide than in any equivalent period in history. The impact of China’s meteoric rise on that order is thus a matter of deep concern. But as John Adams repeatedly reminded his compatriots as they fought for freedom against the most powerful nation in the eighteenth-century world: “facts are stubborn things.”

Contrary to those for whom these findings lead to defeatism, the authors of the Papers do not believe that this means “game over” for the United States. Recognizing the magnitude of the challenge posed by what Singapore’s founding leader Lee Kuan Yew predicted would be “the biggest player in the history of the world” is the starting point for crafting an effective and sustainable China policy. We believe it should—and will—lead the United States to mobilize a response proportionate to the challenge.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham. “The Great Rivalry: China vs. the U.S. in the 21st Century.” Paper, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, December 7, 2021.