Shadow Government

Thinking competitively about China

By Julian Eagle Platón and Will Inboden

Does the United States benefit from having a strategic competitor? We share the common assessment that the U.S.-China relationship will be the most important geopolitical relationship this century. The complex competition between these two powers will play out not just in Asia but across the globe. Much commentary rightly focuses on the many ways a rising China may threaten U.S. interests.

But is this competition from China merely a threat, or also potentially an opportunity for the U.S.? We think it can be the latter.

Competition is good. We welcome competition in the marketplace. As one of the fundamentals of market capitalism, we have anti-trust laws to break up monopolies and allow competition to flourish. Competitive markets are more innovative and efficient than monopolistic markets, as competitors constantly strive for improvement and advantage.

These benefits translate to the political sphere. David Landes' The Wealth and Poverty of Nations accurately identifies competition as a critical factor in Europe's ascent to world leader for half of the last millennium. "Enterprise was free in Europe. Innovation worked and paid, and rulers and vested interests were limited in their ability to prevent or discourage innovation.  Success bred imitation and emulation..." Even inventions created elsewhere in the world (e.g. gunpowder) reached their maximum potential via European rivalries.

Lack of competition can breed complacency and inefficiency, hence the constant soul-searching of U.S. foreign policy wonks following the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union as our chief rival. A competitor focuses and invigorates thinking, while providing a benchmark to measure progress. Chinese competition can spur America to address its weaknesses, driving the U.S. to reach new heights.

Here we are optimistic. America's capacity to compete remains strong; indeed the fundamentals of American power are undiminished. The U.S. enjoys a position of almost unparalleled geographic privilege. Natural resources are abundant, particularly arable land, new petroleum and natural gas reserves, and renewable resource capacity.  America benefits from secure borders and negligible territorial disputes. And access to two oceans facilitates continued maritime supremacy. China faces a critical shortage of arable land, numerous territorial disputes, uneasy and resentful neighbors, and comparatively limited access to the sea.

The U.S. also possesses a demographic advantage, which can continue if the U.S. maintains and reforms our open immigration system, and arrests our recent decline in fertility rates. Future immigrants will add to the population, spur greater entrepreneurship, widen the tax base, and help soften the burden of the baby boomer retirement. China faces the triple demographic peril of a shrinking and aging population with a growing gender imbalance.

Even economically, American competitiveness remains strong. The recent recession and ongoing budget travails notwithstanding, the U.S. continues to be the dominant creative force in the world. U.S. firms are strongly competitive in world markets. The U.S. also retains a significant advantage in soft power, evidenced by the greater willingness of regional powers to work with the U.S. over China.

Historically, America has a record of responding well to competition, even amidst adversity. During the 1970s, American stagnation and decline was exemplified by an ignominious retreat from Vietnam, Watergate, the oil embargo, stagflation, the Iranian hostage crisis, and an apparently ascendant Soviet Union. Similarly, Japanese economic competition in the 1980s, during another downturn in the American economy, had many prognosticators warning of looming Japanese supremacy. Japan's economy was surging and Japanese investors - steered by the powerful Ministry of International Trade and Industry - purchased scores of American assets. Ezra Vogel's 1980 book Japan As Number One crystalized this thinking.

In both cases, the magnitude of the competition was not nearly as threatening as the predictions. And in both cases the U.S. responded positively to the challenge. The Reagan economic expansion and military build-up in the 1980s helped end the Cold War, and the increased productivity and economic growth of the 1990s enabled the U.S. to meet Japan's economic challenge.

Does Chinese competition rise to the level of the Cold War contest of the superpowers? Certainly not yet, and hopefully never. Skeptics highlight China's relative weakness in comparison to the U.S., particularly in military power. Moreover, Chinese territorial ambitions in the East and South China Seas do not yet equate to Soviet domination behind the Iron Curtain and designs beyond.

China also fails to present a competing worldview in the manner of Soviet communism. Authoritarian capitalism has many hindrances and has not demonstrated an enduring appeal, as bribing populations to support authoritarian leaders can only stave off demands for self-determination in boom times. When the economy begins to lose steam, the cracks in such a scheme can be fatal. Deep flaws are already apparent in China's vaunted economic growth, in the form of environmental degradation, a speculative real estate bubble, and soaring local debt.

Continued sober and accurate analyses of rival capabilities are essential to avoid exaggerated threats and wasted resources. Imagined threats are rightfully discarded, but it is imperative to respond to actual competition. Another risk comes from tunnel vision focused exclusively on the chief rival. This necessitates an awareness of potential competition from unlikely sources, and the flexibility to respond appropriately.

It is evident, however, that the Chinese leadership views the U.S. as a threat, and that China's remarkable growth positions it as the chief competitor to the U.S. So, how can we make the most of this going forward, to ensure that competition remains free of conflict? After all, competition may have driven European supremacy in the last millennium, but it also caused incessant warfare that ultimately eroded Europe's global dominance.

First, we must identify areas of cooperation and competition, building frameworks to make the most of the former, and be assertive on the latter. The dicey challenge comes from those issues that cut across both cooperation and competition (e.g. China's holdings of U.S. debt; dual-use technology exports). The U.S. can enhance its comparative advantage in soft power by bolstering our alliances in the Asia-Pacific. Among other things, this means working with regional partners to deepen our economic engagement in Asia, such as completing the Trans Pacific Partnership to expand a liberalized trade regime. The U.S. must also address our internal weaknesses and inefficiencies. Serious debt reduction efforts will improve American efficiency and help restore economic growth, while boosting science, technology, engineering, and math education will ensure the intellectual capital necessary to compete.

Competition is not easy; it is an unending struggle demanding sacrifice and hard choices. But to stagnate in complacency carries a greater cost of decline. The magnitude of China's "threat" may vary considerably with circumstance, but the existence of competition is undeniable. We should welcome the rise of a peer challenger as an opportunity to push ourselves to be better.

Julian Eagle Platón is a graduate student at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin. Will Inboden is an assistant professor at the LBJ School, and co-curator of Shadow Government.


Shadow Government

On doctorates, Dan Drezner, and getting ahead in DC...

As a professor at a policy school who previously spent a decade in policy jobs in Washington DC, I'm often asked by students for advice on the best academic and professional routes for breaking into policy work. So I've taken particular notice of the ongoing blogosphere debate that my FP colleague and friend Dan Drezner has prompted, on the question of who should pursue a Ph.D, and why? Dan has been getting ample attention from our Shadow Government ranks recently; see here and here for the thoughtful exchange between Dan and Phil Levy on prospects for progress on trade liberalization during President Obama's second term, an exchange prompted in part by me being suckered persuaded by Dan's original post. [ed. -- you are shameless, Inboden, stealing Drezner's blogging gimmicks like that!]

Of course there are downsides to agreeing with Dan, such as foregoing a chance to win dinner at his expense. But on this question of whether people interested in a Washington policy career should get a Ph.D., I think Drezner has it right: if your main reason for pursuing a Ph.D. is to burnish your résumé for a national security job, then you probably shouldn't pursue a Ph.D. The doctoral process is simply too long and laborious, and prospects for finishing are too meager, if your motivation is mainly to get those letters after your last name. There are plenty of other pathways to successful policy careers. Rather, as I often tell my students, the single most important factor in determining if you should go for a Ph.D. is if you love the process for its own sake. In other words, if the prospect of spending 5, 6, 7, or more years in relative isolation reading, researching, and writing about a specialized (and often obscure) topic excites you, then you are probably cut out for a doctorate. Whereas if that sounds merely tolerable, or downright unpleasant, then you will be at high risk of being one of those bright and ambitious people Dan describes who start but never finish their doctorate, and face the worst of all worlds of paying high opportunity costs for little reward.

This is not at all to say that a Ph.D. isn't of use for a policy career. It can be tremendously helpful, for assets you develop such as a deep knowledge base, critical thinking, and writing skills. This is why the foreign policy community has an abundance of Ph.D.s, and why getting a Ph.D. can be very good for a policy career. But there are other ways to develop those assets besides doctoral work, and there are skills and qualities more important than a Ph.D. for succeeding in a policy career. Here are just a few that I have observed and experienced:

Interpersonal skills. Policy accomplishments are rarely a matter of who has the most brilliant idea or the most extensive issue knowledge. The foreign policy world is full of experts with brilliant ideas (as the experts are happy to tell you). Few of those ideas ever get realized. The people that succeed are those who can persuade others, who can build a coalition to support and then implement their ideas, and who can artfully navigate the inevitable roadblocks. Doing this demands strong interpersonal skills, such as being able to read other people, understand their motives and interests, and persuade them to want to support you.

Personality and character. This relates to interpersonal skills, but is more about who you are. Are you the type of person whom others enjoy being around and want to work with? Are you trustworthy, honorable, winsome, and collegial? Unlike academia, which rewards solitary work, most public policy work takes place in groups and teams. Only in rare cases will a person succeed in policy work if they don't play well with others. Those who get ahead are those who have the types of personality and character that their colleagues find appealing and trustworthy. Be the kind of person whom others want to include in meetings, trust on major projects, and be with during long days and late nights at the office -- or extended trips around the globe.

Good writing. A good idea poorly expressed is not better than a bad idea. The policy community in Washington DC still works by "moving paper" -- meaning written memos and reports that move up the chain of command for leadership decisions. People with good writing skills thrive; those with poor writing skills rarely survive. Learn to write well, and quickly.

Mentorship. Just about every successful Washington DC foreign policy practitioner I've known was the beneficiary of good mentorship. In a town that runs on personal networks, some of the most important but least appreciated relationships are those between mentors and protégés. Seek out multiple mentors whose character you admire and whose professional accomplishments you would like to emulate. Not only will you learn much from them, but you will also have an inside slot on a job working for them next time they get promoted or land a new policy-making position. And once you get started on your career, pay it forward by seeking out opportunities to mentor those younger than you.

Sound judgment. Abundant knowledge and analytic skills are no substitute for wisdom. Good judgment mostly comes from experience, and experience includes learning from mistakes. For young people who want to embark on a policy career, this can sound like an annoying tautology -- after all, the main way to get experience is to get hired in the first place, and making mistakes is not the kind of thing that will normally endear you to a new boss. But if you have cultivated the other qualities above -- interpersonal skills and character, and finding good mentors -- you will be better equipped to develop sound judgment. Yes, often this includes making your own mistakes, but the best of all worlds comes to those who can learn from the mistakes of others, and thus attain the benefits of those lessons without incurring the costs of the mistakes. Two practical ways to do this are to ask your mentors about what they've learned from their mistakes, and read history -- an abundant record of human folly and its endless lessons.

What does all of this mean for students and young professionals who want a foreign policy career and are considering graduate school? Simply this: pursue the graduate degree that is of most interest to you in its own right. This might mean a terminal master's program, law school, business school, or yes a Ph.D. I have seen countless examples of people succeed in foreign policy with any of those degrees. Of course there are other relevant factors to consider in selecting a graduate degree program, including financial cost, time and opportunity cost, career placement record, etc. But those factors, while important, will be insufficient to get you through a graduate program if you otherwise find your studies insufferable.

The difference between those who succeed and those who don't is rarely a matter of degree (pun intended); rather it is a matter of those who cultivate the qualities like those described above. Other qualities could probably be added to this list -- I hope some of my fellow Shadow Government contributors might have some thoughts to add?