(Bloomberg View) -- 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.
So what should America do? Where are there zones of cooperation, and where must we confront? Is there a sensible strategy we can pursue to ensure we are not incinerated in the dragon’s fire?
Let’s start with confrontation. At the top of the tactical watch list is the controversial set of Chinese claims over the South China Sea. A body of water roughly the size of the Gulf of Mexico, it has billions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas under its normally placid waves. Acquisition of this rich trove of hydrocarbons would complete China’s strategic suite of cards in the 21st century. The U.S. rightfully opposes such an appropriation, and will continue to fly planes overhead and drive ships through what Beijing insists are its “territorial seas.”
Similarly, we are in conflict in another dimension of time and space altogether: the cyber world. The Chinese habit of stealing intellectual property and pressuring U.S. companies in the cyber sphere is accelerating, despite assurances from President Xi Jinping to former President Barack Obama and President Trump that he would rein in Chinese activities.
Finally, the U.S. will continue to fight with China over what constitutes “free and fair trade,” and find ways to bring its trade deficit more into balance. There will be confrontation and hard negotiations (and hopefully not a full-blown trade war) ahead.
Here’s the good news: We do have a set of shared interests, starting with perhaps the most important one, Kim Jong Un. China wants to continue to see a divided Korean peninsula (fearing the creation of a powerful juggernaut in the form of a unified, Western-aligned democracy post-Kim). Beijing also wants to avoid a full-blown refugee crisis on the border. There is room to work together in crafting a compromise to solve the potentially catastrophic possibility of a war between the U.S. and North Korea.
The two nations can also work together on a wide range of global problems from climate change (the Trump administration is even talking about re-entering the Paris accords) to peacekeeping (perhaps on the turbulent Horn of Africa, where China is building a military base and has real interests). China and the U.S. could conduct medical diplomacy together (both nations operate hospital ships) and humanitarian operations in Africa and Latin America. There is the possibility of working together to reduce tensions in South Asia, where the U.S. is still at war in Afghanistan and China holds great influence over Pakistan. None of these will be easy, but all are at least possible.
The goal, then, is to craft a sensible strategic approach that confronts China where we must, but cooperates where we can. It should be developed together by the Departments of Defense, State, Treasury and Homeland Security (for the cyber piece), and led by National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. The working group should take input from outside experts and strategists including Allison, former ambassador to China and retired Navy 4-star Admiral Joe Prueher, current head of the U.S. Pacific Command Admiral Harry Harris (nominated to be the next U.S. ambassador to Australia), and Henry Kissinger. It should feature six key elements:
Use True Long-Term Thinking. Like China, the U.S. must stop thinking year-to-year or even over the current decade -- where do we see the U.S.-China relationship in a century? Two centuries? We are a Pacific nation, but sensible accommodations that can be made that reflect the power and reach of China. We need to think about long-term strategies and the resources necessary to execute them.
Conduct International Coalition-Building. The strategy needs to leave behind the mode of “China versus the U.S.” and into a truly integrated Asian coalition. We must not appear to encircle, contain, or intimidate China; we must avoid creating a stark choice between Washington and Beijing for our partners in the region. Rather, we want to build stronger coordinated approaches with Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and other allies, friends and partners. Above all, we must work with India, the other emerging superpower of the 21st century and a fellow democracy.
Retain a Values-Based Approach. We must not surrender the importance of democracy, liberty, freedom of speech, gender equality, racial equality and other human rights. The U.S. executes these values imperfectly, but they are the right ones and must be part of our strategic approach. Sometimes we think of this as a “war of ideas,” but that is not quite right. We are in a marketplace of ideas, and must compete with the alternate vision for structuring a society offered by China.
Enhance our Geo-Economic Posture. As the U.S. becomes an energy superpower, revitalizes its infrastructure (both physical and cyber), improves its global balance of trade, renegotiates important trade agreements, and uses Bretton Woods institutions -- the World Bank, International Monetary Fund -- aggressively, it will have a more robust set of economic tools. We should use them with confidence in dealing with China, starting with returning to the idea of a multistate Pacific trade agreement (a follow-on to the torpedoed Trans-Pacific Partnership) about which even Trump has mused. Energizing the private sector by defending its interests in China and our markets here can provide leverage.
Integrate the Interagency. Today, various parts of the government are not well-coordinated in terms of an approach to China. The Defense Department is pursuing an aggressive strategy that names China (correctly) as a potentially dangerous peer-competitor; the State Department has a much softer approach. Treasury is hard-edged on currency manipulation, but the Department of Homeland Security is not aggressive enough in working on cyber defenses. We don’t have a two-speed approach -- we are more like a ten-speed bicycle.
Maintain a Qualitative Military Edge. While the U.S. still enjoys an overall military advantage over China, the margin is shrinking. It will require smart investments -- especially in cyber, unmanned vehicles, advanced maritime platforms and fifth-generation fighters -- to ensure we can succeed if forced into combat.
Above all, we need to move from a reactive China “policy” to a real strategy that connects ends, ways and means. We could easily take a page from Sun Tzu, the legendary Chinese strategist, who was known for his sophisticated blend of hard and soft power to win complex battles. Yet even he ultimately said, “In death ground, fight.” We are not yet on a death ground with China, but we will need a new approach to ensure we don’t stumble onto one.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former military commander of NATO, and dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. His most recent book is "Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World's Oceans."
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