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Neo-Primacy and the Pitfalls of US Strategy toward China

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Over the last half decade, a bipartisan consensus has emerged in US foreign policy circles calling for sustained competition with China. The ostensible goals of this competition are to protect the extant international order, block Chinese regional hegemony, and defend American allies—all of which notionally require major changes in US grand strategy. Gone is the assumption that the US victory in the Cold War gives it an opportunity to use economic and institutional interdependence to structure international politics in its favor while combating such ills as ethnic violence and terrorism; in vogue is the argument that the United States faces a near-peer great power competitor seeking to challenge the “liberal international order” nominally fostered by the United States since 1945. In keeping with this drive to “compete” with Beijing, the United States is now accelerating efforts to militarily counterbalance Beijing, block Chinese economic and political influence in Asia and beyond, and pressure states to pick a side in the emerging US-China contest.

Still, the new call for competition obscures more than it reveals. At its root, competition is not a strategy. It says little about the links between particular tools of statecraft and underlying US political objectives. This is understandable, for the simple reason that “competition” itself is not really the United States’ strategic response to China’s emergence as a great power. Instead, underlying and embedded in the new competition consensus is a nascent grand strategy I term “neo-primacy.”

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