In May 2022, Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State, outlined the Biden administration’s approach to the People’s Republic of China. Blinken closed by speaking directly to the Chinese people, vowing “We’ll compete with confidence; we’ll cooperate wherever we can; we’ll contest where we must.” Between Blinken’s maxim and the actual conduct of foreign policy lie countless trade-offs, debates, and decisions. Scott Moore is familiar with those details, having lived in China before serving in the State Department’s Office of Chinese and Mongolian Affairs. His new book, China’s Next Act, offers guidance for how the US should decide when to cooperate and when to compete with China.
The book starts with the notion of an international public good, something that no single country can provide but that benefits all. While at the State Department, Moore worked on Policy Planning for Environment, Science, Technology, and Health, a portfolio replete with such spillover effects. To cite one pertinent example, when China released the full COVID genome in January of 2020 people everywhere became safer. That suggests the diffuse benefits of information itself: a chapter on education makes it clear that academics produce more and better research when they co-author across national boundaries and collaborate with industry. Similar opportunities abound in the private sector: selling to the Chinese market could enable a range of American industries, from green technology to pharmaceuticals, to achieve profitability and economies of scale that ultimately benefit US consumers and shareholders. These examples make a strong case that decoupling the US and China would entail enormous costs, whatever its alleged benefits for US security.
Moore’s argument for selective cooperation extends beyond the exchange of goods, people, and ideas: the US must engage with China on international standards. For years, the US has waged a worldwide campaign against Huawei, but it may be too little too late: led by Chinese nationals, the International Telecommunications Union selected 5G standards that benefited Huawei in 2018.
That anecdote hints at one of the book’s strengths: an eye for the details that matter. Yes, China produces an avalanche of research on artificial intelligence, but most models run on TensorFlow and PyTorch, created by Google and Facebook, respectively. On the other hand, some of Europe’s largest ports run on LOGINK, a program from the Chinese Ministry of Transportation. Anyone hoping for more aggressive Western criticism of China’s policies in Xinjiang should keep in mind that the region supplies half the world’s polysilicon, a vital component for solar panels. The minutiae of this book never feels pedantic; instead it serves to illustrate that effective public policy demands prioritizing some goals at the expense of others.
Moore’s practical agenda rests on long experience in China, from schoolboy days in Hong Kong to professional work in Shanghai and Kunshan. He’s buttressed that knowledge with sources obscure to most Westerners, such as the CCP’s internal publication Qiu Shi (Seeking Truth), Chinese journals of internal relations, and a range of official state policy documents. That combination of the personal and the academic resulted in a book at once both accessible and rigorous.
Moore acknowledges that traditional measures of power like demography, geography and natural resources still matter, but he makes a compelling case that less tangible policy issues will play a greater role as China develops. That development has gone further than many in the West realize: today the service sector constitutes more than half of China’s GDP, while exports have plummeted as a percentage of GDP in recent years. Recognizing that their economy now relies more on domestic innovation, the CCP increased legal protections for intellectual property, to say nothing of new data privacy laws that resemble those in many Western countries.
Moore never hides his allegiances: he is a Westerner hoping for the triumph of liberal values. But he tempers that conviction with a clear-eyed appraisal of China’s strengths, weaknesses, and ambitions. The book opens with Bill Clinton’s 1998 speech at Peking University, suffused with the conviction that economic reforms would lead to changes in the social and political sphere. The weight of evidence today calls for a decidedly less ambitious approach to Western policy. According to Moore, the West should encourage trade, investment, and collaboration in industry and academia, but identify and protect the handful of genuine “keystone” technologies that will remain under domestic control. Democracies should do all they can to help set international standards in areas like communications and biosafety. Lastly, foreigners should be cautious in seeking to effect domestic change within China, being sure that any proposal has a viable Chinese constituency.
No one should expect a sudden return to the halcyon days of the 1990s. But Moore has outlined a viable path forward. If the United States and the Soviet Union could cooperate on polio vaccine trials in the 1950s, surely leaders today can identify similar issues that promise mutual gains. Our leaders should aim for nothing less, or more.