Hybrid Narratives and Competing with China

| January 2020
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The Center for a New American Security (CNAS) has released its Congressionally-requested report on what the American approach ought to be in order to cope and compete with a rising China.  In reading Rising to the China Challenge: Renewing American Competitiveness in the Indo-Pacific, what struck me was how the report’s recommendations are grounded in a number of the new and emerging narratives about the role and scope of U.S. engagement in the world–a clear effort to broaden the potential base of support for its recommendations beyond the traditional “bipartisan consensus” about the need for the United States to exercise “leadership” in the world.

The “seven vectors” on which a new U.S. approach should be based reflect this:

  1. Sustaining Conventional Military Deterrence
  2. Securing Vital U.S. Technological Advantages
  3. Bolstering U.S. Economic Power and Leadership
  4. Strengthening American Diplomacy
  5. Competing Over Ideology and Narrative
  6. Promoting Digital Freedom and Countering High-Tech Illiberalism
  7. Cultivating the Talent to Compete with China

Mind you, the report largely follows the established Washington think tank script for its recommendations, and overall its tone would fall under our category of the “restorationist” approach. Yet it also important to see how it creates hooks in its advice meant to appeal to other constituencies. There is a call for closer partnerships to deal with climate change and developing resiliency; an appeal to defend and enhance human rights; a definitive call for forging a closer democratic community among the United States and its principal partners. But what was most apparent to me was to see the recognition that the “America First” impulse in American political discourse must be addressed. The explicit calls for linking American approaches in the Indo-Pacific region to domestic economic constituencies; the apparent embrace of aspects of the “regeneration” narrative, even the recognition that the benefits of American activism in the region are just not automatically assumed to be beneficial but must be directly connected to American domestic concerns–testify to how the shifts in American political discourse about what the U.S. should be doing in the world are having an impact.

Of course, the CNAS report remains grounded largely in assumptions about the desirability of American forward engagement. It is not a blueprint that would have been developed by the Cato Institute or the Institute for Policy Studies. Yet its authors recognize that long-term policy towards China must be grounded in a strategy that rests on broad foundations in the American body politic–and this means coming to terms with the objections raised by those who prefer to see some degree of retrenchment or those who want to see more emphasis on values or climate.

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