What the War in Ukraine Can Teach the US Government about Competition with China

May 4, 2022 | 2:41 pm
U.S. Department of State/flickr
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

The war in Ukraine put the US national security spotlight on Russia. But Secretary of State Blinken, Speaker Pelosi and the lawmakers who went with her to Kyiv will soon turn their attention back to China as they move what may be one of the most important pieces of legislation supported by the Biden administration towards final passage.

The Senate passed the United States Innovation and Competition Act (USICA) with a bipartisan majority of 68-32 last June. The House passed the America Competes Act with only one Republican vote the following February. A conference committee is set to iron out the differences between the two. 

The House bill is focused on lifting the United States up. The Senate bill that passed with a bipartisan majority aims to tear China down. The prevailing political winds suggest Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Schumer may adopt the Senate’s approach to competition with China in the final bill. But the outbreak of war in Ukraine suggests investing our resources at home is the better choice.

“Strongmen” are inherently weak

The most important lesson of the current clash with Russia, and one you think humanity would have learned by now, given the failure rate, is that autocracies don’t function very well over the long term. Concentrating decision-making in a single individual is a lousy way to govern large, complex human organizations. And the Russian military’s performance in Ukraine suggests it doesn’t serve nations well on the modern battlefield either. 

The only thing autocrats seem to excel at is manipulating public opinion. That’s how they get to be autocrats. Restricting the free flow of information then becomes essential to maintaining their authority. Autocrats generally can’t handle criticism or learn from failure. They tend to blame mistakes on subordinates who then stop telling the truth. Apparatchiks and sycophants administer everything. Initiative becomes impossible, creativity fades, and talent withers. Reprisal and punishment are the only reward for those who dare to identify problems. We’ve seen it many times in many societies. 

There are signs this is happening in China. The collective leadership model that governed the country competently after Mao Zedong died–except for its appalling human rights record–is being replaced by a return to one-man rule.  A deadly new virus that might have been nipped in the bud gained time to spread because underlings did not want to upset their leader. COVID-19 has evolved beyond the draconian system the great man put in place to contain it. Instead of intelligently adapting to a nimble force of nature – because he’s afraid to admit he was wrong – China’s new strongman is trying to bend nature to his will by subjecting entire cities to inhuman, impractical, and expensive controls that are crippling the country’s economy. 

The inherent weakness of hubristic leaders has been part of human political consciousness for thousands of years. So, why are President Biden and the congressional sponsors of these two bills so worried about losing a long-term competition with China?  Autocracies self-destruct. There is no need to waste precious resources trying to precipitate the inevitable. It’s better to invest in US success.

The only great danger lies in the continued existence of weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons. If we’d taken the opportunity to get rid of them at the end of the Cold War, the threat to human civilization posed by autocrats today, and the anxiety that creates in everyone else, would be greatly reduced. 

Nobody wins

The second critical lesson from what is happening in Ukraine is that no one wins a great power competition. The costs to the contestants, their allies and billions of innocents throughout the world far outweigh the benefits of whatever “victory” Speaker Pelosi imagines at the end of the horrible road the United States is walking with Russia.

The World Bank estimates Ukraine’s economy could shrink by 45% this year. Recent images of demolished Ukrainian cities suggest it will take a very long time to recover. Russia’s economy could decline by an estimated 11% due to a combination of economic sanctions and the cost of the war. The ripple effects are impoverishing their neighbors and disrupting the entire global economy. The large mass of desperately poor families at the bottom of that economy, who bear no responsibility for the war, will suffer the most. All of that is in addition to the lives lost, the injuries of the wounded and the grief of their loved ones.

The war in Ukraine is also likely to produce a spike in carbon emissions at a moment climate science tells us we can least afford it. President Biden is less likely to keep his promises to reduce emissions at home. Those long-term costs are incalculable but certainly can’t be considered a victory for anyone, including Americans.

Many of the anti-China provisions in the pending “competitiveness” legislation are aimed at decoupling the US and Chinese economies. They target “supply chains” that run through almost every critical industry, country, and international business enterprise on earth. The intent of these provisions is to restrict Chinese access to technology, markets, and resources. 

Disruptive US demands to sever so many productive supply chain relationships with China will not go over well with most Asian governments at a time they’ve chosen to move decisively in the opposite direction. They recently completed negotiations on the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a major regional trade agreement the United States abandoned and China is applying to join. Many Asian nations are also part of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), another new regional trade pact that already includes China. 

If these anti-China provisions remain in the final bill, the United States government seems more likely to weaken its competitive position in Asia than to strengthen it.

Diplomacy is preferable to confrontation

It is impossible to say for certain if greater US attention to diplomacy with Russia in the post-Cold War period might have created a relationship that prevented Putin from invading Ukraine. But it is hard not to see the outbreak of war as a diplomatic failure. When the Russian autocrat assumed power at the turn of the century he was favorably disposed towards the West. This conflict wasn’t inevitable.

Effective diplomacy with autocracies does not require unsavory moral compromises or reforming their governments. It only requires enough skill to avoid the worst outcomes – like war – long enough for autocracies to collapse from their own inherent weakness. Pugnacious, uncompromising, and threatening US language and behavior intended to demonstrate resolve invites the same in return, especially from autocrats, who cannot bear the indignation. And when that language and behavior is directed at an entire country instead of the individual autocrat, that strengthens, rather than weakens, the autocrat’s hold on power.

There is an abundance of pugnacious, uncompromising, and threatening provisions in the China competitiveness legislation that will serve the same ill purpose if left in the final bill. This is the first in a series of posts that examine the worst of those provisions. The hope is this may help the conference committee craft a bill that articulates a desire to help the people of the United States rather than to harm the people of China, which the Russian experience suggests has a better chance of keeping the peace and promoting prosperity.

About the author

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Gregory Kulacki is a Senior Analyst and the China Project Manager for the Global Security Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). He is also a Visiting Fellow at the Research Center for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (RECNA) at Nagasaki University. He works on improving cross-cultural communication between the United States of America, China and Japan on nuclear weapons and related security issues. Prior to joining UCS in 2002, Dr. Kulacki was the Director of External Studies at Pitzer College, an Associate Professor of Government at Green Mountain College and the China Director for the Council on International Educational Exchange. Gregory completed his doctorate in government and politics at the University of Maryland College Park.