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The Logic of US-China Competition

The success of US President Joe Biden’s China policy will depend on whether the two powers can cooperate in producing global public goods, while competing in other areas. The US-China relationship is a “cooperative rivalry,” in which the terms of competition will require equal attention to both sides of the oxymoron. That will not be easy.

CAMBRIDGE – In his recent address to the US Congress, President Joe Biden warned that China is deadly serious about trying to become the world’s most significant power. But Biden also declared that autocrats will not win the future; America will. If mishandled, the US-China great-power competition could be dangerous. But if the United States plays it right, the rivalry with China could be healthy.

The success of Biden’s China policy depends partly on China, but also on how the US changes. Maintaining America’s technological lead will be crucial, and will require investing in human capital as well as in research and development. Biden has proposed both. At the same time, the US must cope with new transnational threats such as climate change and a pandemic that has killed more Americans than all the country’s wars, combined, since 1945. Tackling these challenges will require cooperation with China and others.

Biden thus faces a daunting agenda, and is treating the competition with China as a “Sputnik Moment.” Although he referred in his address to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Great Depression, and avoided misleading cold-war rhetoric, an apt comparison is with the 1950s, when President Dwight Eisenhower used the shock of the Soviet Union’s satellite launch to galvanize US investment in education, infrastructure, and new technologies. Can America do the same now?