China’s “Stiff Competition”

In a recent press briefing from White House Press Secretary, Jen Psaki, she said: “I can say and would echo what he said, which is, generally speaking, we’ve made clear our concerns about the military capabilities that the PRC continues to pursue. And we have been consistent in our approach with China: We welcome stiff competition, but we not — we do not want that competition to veer into conflict. And that is certainly what we convey privately as well.” Thinking of China as a “stiff competitor” has already attracted a great deal of criticism. I thought it worth commenting on here because it points to a moral equivalency that constitutionalism, if it is to remain the best alternative, must resist. Constitutionalism permits and even encourages competition in politics and in economics. This competition is structured by the rule of law and takes place within its boundaries. As such, the competition remains peaceful. Both sides can accept the results so long as both sides played within the rules of the game. Psaki’s statement seems to place China and the United States within these same constitutional boundaries.

But, unlike the rules within a constitutional regime, the same rules don’t apply between nations. There is no guarantee, there is even a strong likelihood that stiff military competition will necessarily “veer into conflict.” The two sides aren’t playing by the same rules and so won’t peacefully accept the results. So long as there is no meaningful international Constitution, the language of competition is not only unsuited for relations between nations, it is fundamentally mismatched. Although Psaki surely slipped in using such language to describe our relationship to China, the slip shows a meaningful misunderstanding as to where, how, and when competition is acceptable. The rule of law structures competition; outside of it, competition is dangerous.

Competition might still make a little more sense if we’re referring to two nations, both obedient to the rule of law, competing with one another. Although even here the notion of stiff military competition still seems dangerous. Nonetheless Great Britain and the United States may compete in attracting international companies and other sorts of economic goals. Two nations mutually governed by the rule of law can legitimately compete with one another.

The problem then with the language of competition in reference to China is that it is not governed by the same rule of law as we are. As the evidence has piled up regarding the Wuhan leak (and its subsequent and disastrous cover-up), the treatment of the Uighurs, and its leadership’s long-standing resistance to any kind of accountability, it should be clear to us that China isn’t the same kind of regime that we are. And any attempts at moral equivalence are profoundly misguided. China has perpetrated evils on both its own people and the world. It is a regime that denies the legitimacy of constitutional “rules of the game.” As such, they are not and can never be our “competition.” Constitutional regimes can accept competition within their own borders and even between other constitutional regimes; but, that acceptance should not bleed into an acceptance of regimes that are antithetical to the principles of constitutionalism.

Attempting to create a moral equivalence between the Chinese regime and our own is bad for our security. But, perhaps even worse, it is bad for the principles of our regime and our belief in them. We are not morally equivalent to the Chinese because the principles of constitutional government are better than China’s “principles.” The attempt, though not always successful, to hold government accountable and to insure that the people remain free guarantees a better life for us than China’s “principles” guarantee for their citizens. America’s constitutional principles are better than their alternatives. And, only on this plane only does it make sense to speak of competition.

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