“The unfolding long-term strategic competition with China is the defining challenge of our generation,” said Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Randall Schriver at a Brookings event on October 1 as part of a broader initiative titled “Global China: Assessing China’s Growing Role in the World.”
In his keynote address, Assistant Secretary Schriver outlined the fundamental principles underpinning U.S. defense strategy toward China and perspectives on engaging with China in an “era of strategic competition.” He argued that current geopolitical realities require a “fundamental change in mindset” away from one of “American dominance” to one that “adapts to the increasingly sophisticated capabilities of its near-peer competitors.” During discussion with Brookings Fellow and Michael H. Armacost Chair Ryan Hass, Schriver described how the U.S.-China military-to-military relationship can be a “stabilizing force” and noted that high-level engagements and confidence-building exercises remain robust and largely insulated from the ups and downs in the U.S.-China relationship.
The panel discussion that followed — moderated by Brookings Fellow Tarun Chhabra — centered on the foreign policy implications of domestic developments in China and trends in “strategic domains” of U.S.-China competition. The panelists discussed continuity and change in domestic and foreign policy under the leadership of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Fellow and Director of Brookings’s China Strategy Initiative Rush Doshi contended that China’s grand strategy transcends regional interests, and that its efforts to cultivate influence and strategic advantages around the world point toward China’s global ambitions. These ambitions also precede, Doshi argued, Xi’s rise to power. China’s interests in shaping global governance, for example, was consistently mentioned in Chinese Communist Party documents before Xi Jinping assumed the presidency, even if certain aspects, such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), were elevated and institutionalized under Xi.
Brookings Post-doctoral Research Fellow Audrye Wong provided context on how Chinese economic coercion plays out in different regions of the world through BRI, and suggested that U.S. national security strategy needs to better address China’s economic statecraft, including through better economic statecraft of its own. Doshi noted that, despite criticism of BRI approaches to development financing, corruption, and transparency, BRI has proven to be resilient. He called on the United States to more systematically raise awareness about BRI risks and partner with BRI recipient countries to negotiate better terms for BRI deals, while also doing more with allies to provide alternatives to BRI.
On domestic legal and political drivers of China’s foreign policy, Senior Fellow and Director of Brookings’s China Center Cheng Li emphasized that it is “very, very important for our policymakers to appreciate” the impact of Xi’s consolidation of authority as a “populist,” including anti-corruption initiatives and a focus on poverty elimination. Li suggested that the impacts of a reported “backlash” to Xi’s rule may therefore be overstated. Brookings Visiting Fellow Jamie Horsley added a legal dimension: Where Xi’s policy departs from his predecessors, she noted, is the codification of Communist Party authority into Chinese law, alongside an intensification of extra-legal measures against perceived enemies of the Party. Horsley warned this approach is likely to further undermine trust and confidence in Chinese state legal commitments both at home and abroad.
President López Obrador's extension of the term of Supreme Court chief Arturo Zaldívar is part of his strong effort to recentralize power in the Mexican presidency and hollow out the independence and power of other Mexican institutions. His other moves to bend the justice system to his will include a reform that lowered the salary of judges but did not improve the quality of prosecutors and his unwillingness to allow an independent selection of the attorney general, with López Obrador himself retaining the power of appointment. His latest move with the two-year extension of Zaldívar’s term is especially worrisome. Zaldívar is also the president of the powerful Federal Judiciary Council. The council appoints and dismisses judges, sets career advancement rules and disciplines judges. Zaldívar will be setting the council’s and, thus, the whole judiciary’s, agenda and priorities for two years. This allows López Obrador to influence how courts will rule in cases regarding the executive branch, what cases they take up and the legality of new policies. These moves are taking place when the effectiveness of the judiciary in Mexico remains limited and deeply concerning. The attorney general’s office has proven weak, unwilling to take up key cases such as against the suspects in the brazen attack on Mexico City’s security minister, Omar García Harfuch—an event that symbolized the impunity with which Mexican criminal groups operate. Mexico’s justice system showed itself equally meek and disappointing in inadequately investigating the alleged complicity of former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos and dismissing the case, potentially the most significant case of corruption and criminal collusion charges against a high-ranking Mexican official in two decades. A decade and a half after Mexico initiated its justice system reforms, 95 percent of federal cases still go unpunished. President López Obrador has scored some points, but the already precariously weak rule of law in Mexico, and thus the Mexican people, will suffer.