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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchCompetition Versus Exclusion in U.S.-China Relations: A Choice Between Stability and Conflict

Competition Versus Exclusion in U.S.-China Relations: A Choice Between Stability and Conflict

Author: Jake Werner

Affiliation: Research Fellow at the Quincy Institute, Acting Director of East Asia Program

Organization/Publisher: Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Date/Place: September 14, 2023/USA

Type of Literature: Research Article 

Number of Pages: 26 


Keywords: U.S.-China Relations, Competition, Selective Exclusion, Conflict, Zero-Sum Tensions


Washington claims that it seeks competition, not conflict, with China. This claim has been repeated since the Obama administration by seemingly every U.S. diplomat in almost every speech on China. In this article, Jake Werner challenges the claim that the U.S. seeks competition with China. He demonstrates that U.S.-China relations in reality is moving in two different directions: competition and connectedness on the one hand, and exclusion and conflict on the other. Werner cites examples of restrictive and exclusionary measures employed by the U.S. against China to conclude that Washington’s orientation toward China is not so much about engaging in competition as much as cutting off competition. He then argues that this move away from healthy competition and towards exclusion of China is highly destabilizing and can lead to international conflict. Werner therefore proposes establishing shared projects of mutual interests to resolve the zero-sum tensions around U.S.-China relations. He stresses that this is the only way to resolve the conflict and save U.S-China relations from a trajectory into deep conflict.


This article is divided into four parts. In the first part, the author differentiates between the terms “competition” and “exclusion” to demonstrate how U.S.-China relations are not based on healthy competition. He explains that “competition” takes place through a connection between two sides operating in a shared space – such as a sports arena – and is often based on shared norms and guardrails that keep it from spiraling into violence. It also involves the willingness of both parties to respect the norms. “Exclusion,” in contrast, is when one side seeks to restrict or constrain the other so it can no longer compete in the previously shared space. Its aim is to extinguish connection rather than mediate it. Exclusion, therefore, is the opposite of healthy competition and is often a result of a feeling of vulnerability.

Werner suggests that U.S.-China relations is pulling in both these directions, with a higher focus on exclusion in recent years. On the one hand, the U.S. seeks a connectedness with China that allows for healthy forms of competition and cooperation to flourish, such as through trade in low-value products and diplomatic contact, while on the other, the U.S. seeks to dissolve a number of important connections with China due to fears over national security and the future of America. The latter is achieved through partnerships against China such as the Quad, AUKUS, the JAROPUS, and other exclusionary measures. Despite this, the contradiction is concealed because both approaches are called “competition.” Werner suggests that U.S. leaders invoke “competition” with China and place all antagonistic measure under the banner of “competition” because it allows them to denounce retaliation coming from Beijing as an unreasonable refusal to compete.


In the second part of the article, after having clarified the difference between healthy competition (which plays a stabilizing role) and unhealthy competition (which leads to violence and conflict), the author tackles the factors that lead to healthy competition and constraints in competitive tactics between competitors. Werner identifies two key factors. The first is the presence of an established set of ground rules that limit and stabilize competition. The second is the acknowledgement of a common good from the competition beyond the interest of the individual competitors. Werner argues that having a mutually acknowledged common good, such as creating a peaceful international order, is crucial for healthy competition as it gives the competitors a reason to respect the rules. It also helps establish a sound basis for trust on both sides as each will know what is at stake in the future.

Werner demonstrates the necessity of having a common good in U.S.-China relations with examples of two such frameworks that helped facilitate healthy competition and cooperation with China in recent decades. The first is the shared commitment to contain the Soviet Union which lead the Nixon administration to open to China in 1971 during the Cold War. The second is the shared interest of both societies in liberalization and market-led globalization in the early 1980s that lead to greater economic growth. Even as sharp tensions and mutual suspicions persisted on both sides, these frameworks convinced each side that their own success was tied to the success of the other. This commitment therefore guided both immediate interests and general sensibilities.

The third part of the article exposes the changes that occurred in U.S.-China relations and its shared commitment in recent years. It explains the factors that lead to an increase in exclusion policies. It also highlights a number of different approaches to exclusion that are taking place. Werner explains how the market–led globalization framework for U.S.–China competition disintegrated after the 2008 financial crisis as global growth slowed and Chinese businesses began to challenge their U.S. competitors more directly. This fostered a sense that the two countries were engaged in a zero–sum contest where the gains of one party were directly balanced by the losses of the other. At the same time, internal insecurity and domestic challenges to regime legitimacy in both countries also lead to highly securitized thinking where both sides became unusually sensitive to economic, military and geopolitical moves by the other.

The U.S. faced even greater internal problems as its military failures in Iraq and Afghanistan lead to doubts about the merits of American leadership. Even though most of these intrinsic tensions had little to with China, American leaders focus all their anxieties on China because China is the “only country that is simultaneously strong enough to limit U.S. freedom of action and clearly independent of U.S. control.” Werner explains that this feeling of vulnerability on the part of the U.S. could be a leading cause for higher exclusion policies against China.

Nonetheless, although American leaders agree that China poses a threat to America’s future, there is significant disagreement about the correct strategy for confronting that threat. The key question is whether all connection with China should be severed. In other words, the disagreement is on whether or not it should adopt a policy of total exclusion. Werner states that the Biden administration thinks such an approach would lead to conflict. Therefore, the U.S. seeks to exclude China only selectively, by concentrating on strategic sources of economic and geopolitical power instead of cutting all connections. The aim is not to eliminate China, but to trap it in a position of permanent subordination. Werner then outlines a number of selective exclusion policies in place, which focus on excluding Chinese businesses from strategically important sectors and rich or fast–growing markets.


In the fourth and final part of the article, the author discusses how this method of selective exclusion has put U.S.-China relations on a trajectory towards deep conflict. Because the sectors of exclusion are strategically vital to the future of global authority and economic prosperity, U.S. steps to sever these links pose a profound threat to China’s core concerns of regime legitimacy, national security, and economic growth. Even though Beijing has thus far restrained from strong forms of retaliation against the U.S., Werner believes that exclusionary policies are still risky for the future of U.S.-China relations as it sends the message that the world that the U.S. seeks “has no room for Chinese success.” This could provoke Chinese nationalism, which could in turn result in more extreme forms of China exclusion by the U.S. In short, Werner expects exclusionary policies to result in an escalatory cycle of exclusion and retaliation that risks hardening zero–sum pressures in the global system into a permanent structure of hostility. If this happens, the U.S. will be facing a bitter and strong enemy.

According to Werner, ignoring the potential risks of exclusionary policies is therefore a risky gamble on the part of the U.S. He states that “the U.S. is gambling that it will succeed in permanently subordinating China and, thus humbled, China’s leaders will capitulate to U.S. demands.” Therefore, Werner emphasizes the need for a new and inclusive direction for the relationship to break the momentum toward conflict. He stresses that the U.S. needs to recognize that it will not be able to exclude China. Werner argues that only a shared project with China and other major countries to revitalize the global system will make “competition, not conflict” possible. 

By: Amana Hanan, CIGA Research Intern



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