Filling Out the China Grid
What kind of a people will the Americans choose to be?
Keep it simple, if you can. We impose paradigms on a complicated world because we must—without these patterns we could not act, only react. In my interview with Sen. J.D. Vance earlier this year, the freshman from Ohio presented a tool for thinking about American policy towards China. He described a classic two-by-two grid: On the x axis we can put China should make all our stuff and China should not make all our stuff; on the y axis, place We should go to war with China and We should not go to war with China. There are, then, according to this paradigm, only four fundamental American responses to an emerging bipolar world order. I have returned to Vance’s quadrant model often since our conversation; I hope filling it out some here is useful.
The grid was also presented by Peter Thiel late last year, very briefly towards the end of his remarks at the National Conservatism Conference. We can, Thiel said, be economically hawkish towards China or economically dovish; we can be militarily hawkish towards China, or militarily dovish. Those familiar with Thiel’s written work will find it reminiscent of another two-by-two quadrant model from Zero to One, which he co-wrote with Blake Masters. That model describes his principle of definite optimism—as opposed to indefinite optimism or definite and indefinite pessimism.
The definite optimist intervenes, works in the world, for a better future. He builds things. The definite pessimist guards against specific expected trouble. Meanwhile, the indefinite optimist trusts in progress, and the indefinite pessimist bemoans decline. The paradigm is ostensibly about business and technology, but of course really it marks out more fundamental human postures to the future and the status quo. Do we have agency and responsibility, or are we subject to historical forces beyond our control?
Vance is a definite optimist, and he thinks the right view of the national interest is: China should not make our stuff, and we should try to avoid war with China. To that end, he and his team have focused on industrial policy and protecting a productive American middle class. His chief piece of legislation and most high profile activity as senator thus far have been concerned with railway safety and the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. But his comments to me and others, his Senate staffing choices, and his allies in Washington all point to an emphasis on economic statecraft on the world stage.
Vance and others in this square of the quadrant want to repair what decades of globalization have done to the U.S. economy and to make as much as we can here at home. To that end, it is far more important to change the incentive structures for nominally American businesses and major multinational corporations than to engage in aggressive behavior contra the Chinese. If markets can be made to work for the American middle class again, and financial benefits shown to accrue to countries aligned with us, then we can avoid a shooting war.
There are definite pessimists out and about, though, most notably Elbridge Colby of the Marathon Initiative. They say China should not make our stuff and the U.S. needs to plan for a war with China, usually over Taiwan. Robert Almelor Delfeld wrote a piece for The American Conservative making this case, published late last week. Delfeld concedes the need for national renewal and economic reform, but argues that without a forward defense posture in the Pacific guaranteeing either deterrence or victory, reformers like Vance simply won’t have the time or resources to rebuild America. An ascendant China will displace the U.S. as an economic pole for the critical Asian market before, politically or materially, the country is ready.
According to Delfeld, in the short term, economic decoupling uncoupled from any actions taken to keep further Chinese growth limited—the sorts of things that lead to wars—will hurt the very middle class that, in the long term, efforts to reshore and rebuild are supposed to protect. Delfeld’s implicit claim is that voters are less ready for a loss of consumer purchasing power than they are for a war in the Pacific.
That leaves two other squares on the grid, which represent the status quo. China should make our stuff and we should not go to war with China, and, what Vance rightly calls the “absolutely stupidest view,” China should make our stuff and we should go to war with them. Rhetorically, Capitol Hill is well aboard the stupid train—hawkish statements about Taiwan and the CCP abound, and industrial policy energy is being spent on largely superficial measures like banning TikTok that have little to do with building things here or there. The heat is being turned up without any apparent strategy.
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Revealed preferences, on the other hand, suggest a general willingness to let China become economically dominant without a contest. Optimists or pessimists, the indefinite thinkers that fill our establishment can’t seem to think beyond the next election. The proxy war with Russia in Ukraine remains the only show in town when it comes to efficient use of the legislative process or national security state. Resources, both of material and of attention—which might be more important—are all going to Europe. Whatever is spent there is not going to Asia, or coming home.
The realist international relations theorist John Mearsheimer called me a “complexifier” in a graduate school seminar. Though not mean-spirited, it was not meant as a compliment. But having laid out the simple grid I’ll hazard some complexity. The quadrant can only describe means of responding to China and our bipolar future, not political ends. States seek independence and security, but how a people define those ideas will vary, and is a reflection of that people’s character. America is a commercial republic; like the other commercial republics of history she has become an empire, and like other empires her external rule has changed her internal regime.
The divide between the industrial policy square and the deterrence square in the China paradigm—that is the divide among definite thinkers who wish to change an indefinite status quo—is not just between optimism and pessimism about the chances or necessity of war, but about the character and virtues of the American people. Decoupling from China and rebuilding at home will be expensive, painful, and hard; it will take more toil, tears, and sweat than this country has known for a hundred years. Are Americans prepared to be poorer, a power alongside other powers, in order to know peace? Or would we rather risk the blood of war to hold onto our wealth and glory?