Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

What the United States Can Learn From China

| June 20, 2024

Amid China's rise, Americans should ask what Beijing is doing right—and what they're doing wrong.

In any competitive realm, rivals constantly strive to do better. They search for innovations that will improve their position and they strive to imitate whatever appears to be working for their opponents. We see this phenomenon in sports, in business, and in international politics. Emulation doesn't mean one has to do exactly what others have done, but ignoring the policies from which others have benefited and refusing to adapt is a good way to keep losing.

Today, the need to compete more effectively with China is perhaps the only foreign-policy issue on which nearly all Democrats and Republicans agree. That consensus is shaping the U.S. defense budget, driving the effort to shore up partnerships in Asia, and encouraging an expanding high-tech trade war. Yet apart from accusing China of stealing U.S. technology and violating prior trade agreements, the chorus of experts warning about China rarely considers the broader measures that helped Beijing pull this off. If China really is eating America's lunch, shouldn't Americans ask themselves what Beijing is doing right and what the United States is doing wrong? Might China's approach to foreign policy provide some useful lessons for people in Washington?

To be sure, a big part of China's rise was due to purely domestic reforms. The world's most populous nation always had enormous power potential, but that potential was suppressed for more than a century by deep internal divisions or misguided Marxist economic policies. Once its leaders abandoned Marxism (but not Leninism!) and embraced the market, it was inevitable that the country's relative power would increase sharply. And one could argue that the Biden administration's efforts to develop a national industrial policy via the Inflation Reduction Act and other measures reflect a belated attempt to imitate China's state-backed efforts to seize the high ground in several key technologies.

But China's rise was not due solely to domestic reforms or Western complacency. In addition, China's ascent has been facilitated by its broad approach to foreign policy, which U.S. leaders would do well to contemplate.

First, and most obviously, China has avoided the costly quagmires that have repeatedly ensnared the United States. Even as its power has grown, Beijing has been leery of taking on potentially costly commitments abroad. It hasn't promised to go to war to defend Iran, for example, or to protect its various economic partners in Africa, Latin America, or Southeast Asia....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“What the United States Can Learn From China.” Foreign Policy, June 20, 2024.

The Author

Stephen Walt