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

The U.S.-China Future: Competition and Collaboration With a Rising China

| Fall 2021

Featured in the Fall 2021 Newsletter »

Whether they regard it as competitive, cooperative, or confrontational, virtually all observers agree that the U.S.-China relationship is consequential. From cyber norms and AI to military tensions in the Taiwan Strait and the global struggle to turn the tide on climate change, how Washington and Beijing manage their shared future will shape the globe for decades to come.

U.S. Ambassador to China nominee Nicholas Burns speaks during a hearing to examine his nomination before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

U.S. Ambassador to China nominee Nicholas Burns speaks during a hearing to examine his nomination before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

To articulate and defend U.S. interests, President Biden has nominated the Belfer Center’s Nicholas Burns to be U.S. Ambassador to China. (At press time, the U.S. Senate had yet to confirm his appointment.) Burns was already one of America’s most respected diplomats when he came to Harvard Kennedy School in 2008. He was Special Assistant to President Clinton for Russia and Ukraine Affairs, State Department spokesperson, U.S. Ambassador to Greece, U.S. Ambassador to NATO, and then Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, serving as lead U.S. negotiator on Iran’s nuclear program and on the landmark Civil Nuclear Deal with India.  

Burns made diplomacy a central element of the Kennedy School’s teaching, programming, and leadership development. At the Belfer Center, he led three exemplary research efforts: the Future of Diplomacy Project, the Project on Europe and the Transatlantic Relationship, and the Secretaries of State Project that has interviewed nearly all living former Secretaries of State. “How fitting that the nation’s premiere scholar-diplomat should be nominated to the nation’s most consequential diplomatic post,” said Ash Carter.

In his Senate confirmation hearing, Burns called China America’s “most dangerous competitor” and called on China to stop its “genocide” in Xinjiang, abuses in Tibet, and bullying behavior in Hong Kong and Taiwan.  Burns isn’t the only Belfer figure being asked to serve in this arena. Former Senior Fellow Kurt Campbell, the architect of the past decade’s pivot to Asia, is serving as the White House Asia Coordinator.

As Washington works to reinvigorate its China policy, it must begin with an unvarnished accounting of China’s global status in key dimensions of power. That’s the impetus behind a major new report series from Graham Allison and his research team. 

Originally prepared as a set of transition memos to the new administration, Allison has carefully documented China’s trajectory over the past two decades in economics, military might, technology, diplomacy, and ideology. In a conclusion he acknowledges is personally painful, his team finds that China has made extraordinary leaps to become a full peer competitor in nearly every domain of competition with the United States. For example, the past 18 war games U.S. military planners have conducted show American forces losing to the Chinese in a contest sparked by Taiwan. And in the technologies most likely to shape the coming decade—AI, semiconductors, 5G, quantum information science, biotechnology, and green energy—China could become the global leader. In some cases, it is already No. 1.

Foundations for a Low-Carbon Energy System in China Book Cover

The U.S.-China story isn’t entirely based on rivalry, of course. Both countries must contend with global environmental challenges, particularly climate change. As the world’s leading emitters of greenhouse gasses, China and the U.S. have a particular responsibility to make their economies less carbon-intensive. Both sides have made bold pledges to reach net-zero emissions in coming decades. 

Implementing such structural reform won’t be easy. Developing a road map for this generational effort is the goal of a team of scholars at the Belfer Center. Henry Lee, Daniel Schrag, Matthew Bunn, and several other Western experts have collaborated with some of China’s leading energy and environmental scholars to explore the best path for China to decarbonize. In their new book, Foundations For a Low-Carbon Energy System in China, the authors examine one of the biggest potential roadblocks for reform: China’s massive state-owned electricity supplier, a rigid monopoly.

For a number of years, including the months leading up to the COP26 climate conference, the Belfer Center’s John P. Holdren, along with Lee and others, have worked closely with their Chinese counterparts from Tsinghua University on critical energy and climate issues, including finding ways for both countries to reach net zero GHG emissions. Their long-term relationship and discussions have allowed them to provide their governments with research and recommendations on critical steps they must take to significantly reduce emissions now and in the years ahead. 

The Center has also led important dialogues about cyber norms with senior Chinese military leaders, part of a broader effort to encourage mil-mil relationships between the world’s two great powers. Under Eric Rosenbach’s leadership, the Center is also building out a new Indo-Pacific research project, designed in part to strengthen alliances and defuse tensions across India, Australia, and the Korean Peninsula. Belfer Senior Fellow Lieutenant General Charles Hooper will be a critical contributor to this work.

Graham Allison sometimes compares the U.S.-China relationship to Siamese twins: each side must by necessity learn to live and cooperate with the other. Consistent with our mission to build a more secure, peaceful world, the Center is dedicated to helping the U.S. and China collaborate and compete without conflict.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

"The U.S.-China Future: Competition and Collaboration With a Rising China." Belfer Center Newsletter. Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School. (Fall 2021)

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