What the United States Can Learn from China?

No great power ever lives up to all its professed ideals, of course, but the greater a state’s claim to be uniquely virtuous, the greater the penalty when it falls short.

by Kazi Anwarul Masud

Stephen Walt needs no introduction as a Foreign Affairs Specialist presently serving on the editorial boards of Foreign Policy, Security Studies, and International Cornell Studies in Security Affairs. Additionally, he was elected as a Fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, co-authored with John J. Mearsheimer, was a New York Times bestseller and has been translated into more than twenty foreign languages. Stephen Walt’s most recent book is The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy. In his latest article, Stephen Walt writes that in any competitive realm, rivals constantly strive to do better. They search for innovations that will improve their position, and they strive to imitate whatever appears to be working for their opponents. We see this phenomenon in sports, in business, and in international politics. Emulation doesn’t mean one has to do exactly what others have done, but ignoring the policies from which others have benefited and refusing to adapt is a good way to keep losing in sports, in business, and in international politics.

President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden take a walk after their talks in the Filoli Estate in the US state of California, Nov 15, 2023. [Photo/Xinhua]

Stephen Walt defines emulation as not necessarily meaning one has to do exactly what others have done, but ignoring beneficial policies and refusing to adapt is a good way to keep losing. Today, the need to compete more effectively with China is perhaps the only foreign-policy issue on which nearly all Democrats and Republicans agree. That consensus is shaping the U.S. defense budget, driving the effort to shore up partnerships in Asia, and encouraging an expanding high-tech trade war.

Yet apart from accusing China of stealing U.S. technology and violating prior trade agreements, the chorus of experts warning about China rarely considers the broader measures that helped Beijing pull this off. If China really is eating America’s lunch, shouldn’t Americans ask themselves what Beijing is doing right and what the United States is doing wrong? Might China’s approach to foreign policy provide some useful lessons for people in Washington? To be sure, a big part of China’s rise was due to purely domestic reforms. The world’s most populous nation always had enormous power potential, but that potential was suppressed for more than a century by deep internal divisions or misguided Marxist economic policies.

Reasons for the Rise of China

Once its leaders abandoned Marxism (but not Leninism!) and embraced the market, it was inevitable that the country’s relative power would increase sharply. One could argue that the Biden administration’s efforts to develop a national industrial policy via the Inflation Reduction Act and other measures reflect a belated attempt to imitate China’s state-backed efforts to seize the high ground in several key technologies. But China’s rise was not solely due to domestic reforms or Western complacency. In addition, China’s ascent has been facilitated by its broad approach to foreign policy, which U.S. leaders would do well to contemplate. First, and most obviously, China has avoided the costly quagmires that have repeatedly ensnared the United States.

Is Russia-China “No Limits” Partnership Real?

Even as its power has grown, Beijing has been leery of taking on potentially costly commitments abroad. It hasn’t promised to go to war to defend Iran, for example, or to protect its various economic partners in Africa, Latin America, or Southeast Asia. It is supplying Russia with militarily valuable dual-use technologies (and getting paid well for it), but Beijing isn’t sending Russia lethal weaponry, debating whether to send military advisors, or contemplating sending its own troops to help Russia win the war. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin may talk a lot about their “no-limits” partnership, but China continues to drive hard bargains in its dealings with Russia, most notably in demanding that it get Russian oil and gas at bargain prices.

USA, Says Walt, Has Unerring Instinct for Foreign Policy Quicksand

The United States, by contrast, seems to have an unerring instinct for foreign-policy quicksand. When it isn’t toppling dictators and spending trillions of dollars trying to export democracy to places like Afghanistan, Iraq, or Libya, it is still extending security guarantees it hopes never to have to honor to countries all over the world. Remarkably, U.S. leaders still think it is some sort of foreign-policy achievement whenever they take on the job of protecting yet another country, even when that country is of limited strategic value or cannot do much to help advance U.S. interests.

US is Now Formally Committed to Defend More Countries Than Ever in Its History

The United States is now formally committed to defending more countries than at any time in its history, and trying to meet all those commitments helps explain why the U.S. defense budget is much larger than China’s. Just imagine what the United States could do each year with the more than half-trillion-dollar difference between what China spends and what we do. If it wasn’t trying to police the whole world, maybe the United States could have world-class rail, urban transit, and airport infrastructure—you know, like China has—as well as a lower budget deficit, too. This is not an argument for leaving NATO, severing all U.S. commitments, and retreating to Fortress America, but it does imply being more judicious about extending new commitments and insisting that our existing allies should pull their weight. If China can grow stronger and more influential without pledging to protect dozens of countries around the world, why can’t we? Second, unlike the United States, China maintains businesslike diplomatic relations with nearly everyone. It has more diplomatic missions than any other country, its ambassadorial posts are rarely unfilled, and its diplomats are increasingly well-trained professionals (instead of amateurs whose main qualification is their ability to raise funds for successful presidential candidates). China’s leaders recognize that diplomatic relations are not a reward to others for good behavior; they are an essential tool for acquiring information, communicating China’s views to others, and advancing their interests via persuasion rather than brute force.

China-USA Foreign Policy Differences

By contrast, the United States is still prone to withholding diplomatic recognition from states with whom we are at odds, thereby making it more difficult to understand their interests and motivations and making it much harder to communicate our own. Washington refuses to officially recognize the governments of Iran, Venezuela, or North Korea, even though being able to communicate with these governments on a regular basis would be useful. China talks to all of these states, of course, and to all of America’s closest allies, too. Shouldn’t we do the same?

Experts Believe that a Comprehensive Economic Strategy Can Forestall China

China has diplomatic relations and economic ties with every country in the Middle East, for example, including those that are closely aligned with the United States such as Israel or Egypt. By contrast, the United States has a “special relationship” with Israel (and, to some extent, Egypt and Saudi Arabia), meaning that it supports Israel no matter what it does. Meanwhile, it has no regular contacts with Iran or Syria or with the Houthis in Yemen, who control much of that country. America’s regional partners take its support for granted and frequently ignore its advice because they never have to worry that the United States might reach out to their rivals.

Stephen Walt Cites, as Example, Saudi Arabia Having Good Relations with China and Russia

Saudi Arabia maintains good relations with Russia and China and has used tacit threats to realign to extract ever-greater concessions from Washington, but U.S. officials never try to play the same game of balance-of-power politics in return. Given this asymmetric arrangement, it is hardly surprising that it was Beijing, not Washington, that helped midwife the recent détente between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Third, China’s general approach to foreign policy emphasizes national sovereignty: the idea that every country should be free to govern itself according to its own values. If you want to do business with China, you don’t have to worry about it telling you how to run your country, and you don’t have to worry that you’ll be sanctioned if your political system differs from Beijing’s. By contrast, the United States sees itself as the principal promoter of a set of universal liberal values and believes that spreading democracy is part of its global mission. With some noteworthy exceptions, it often uses its power to get others to do more to respect human rights and move toward democracy, and it sometimes makes its help conditional on other states pledging to do more to respect human rights and move toward democracy.

China Provides Concrete Benefits (Belt and Road Initiative) to Developing Countries.

But given that a clear majority of the world’s countries are not full democracies, it’s easy to understand why plenty of countries might prefer China’s approach, especially when China is offering them tangible benefits. As former U.S. Treasury Secretary Larry Summers has recounted, “Somebody from a developing country said to me, ‘What we get from China is an airport. What we get from the United States is a lecture.’” If you were an unrepentant autocrat, or the leader of a less-than-perfect democracy, which approach would you find more appealing? Making matters worse is America’s propensity for moral posturing, which leaves it vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy whenever it fails to live up to its own standards.

Joe Biden’s Incoherent Response to Tragedy in Gaza

No great power ever lives up to all its professed ideals, of course, but the greater a state’s claim to be uniquely virtuous, the greater the penalty when it falls short. Nowhere has this problem been more apparent than in the Biden administration’s tone-deaf and strategically incoherent response to the war in Gaza. Instead of condemning the crimes committed by both sides and using the full extent of U.S. leverage to end the fighting, the United States has provided the means for Israel to conduct a brutal campaign of vengeful destruction, defended it at the U.N. Security Council, and dismissed plausible charges of genocide despite the abundance of evidence and the harsh assessments from both the International Court of Justice and the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. All the while, insisting on the importance of preserving a “rules-based order.” It should surprise no one to learn that these events have severely damaged the U.S. image in the Middle East and much of the global south, and that China is benefiting from them. Remarkably, U.S. officials have still not articulated a clear statement explaining how the U.S. response to this tragedy is making Americans safer, more prosperous, or more admired around the world.


In conclusion, China has emerged as America’s principal rival by effectively mobilizing its latent power potential and avoiding the self-inflicted wounds that successive U.S. administrations have suffered. This is not to say that China’s record is spotless—far from it. Xi Jinping’s abandonment of the policy of rising peacefully and the aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy have alienated countries that previously welcomed closer ties with Beijing. The Belt and Road Initiative, while generating goodwill, has also generated resentment and substantial debts.

Despite these shortcomings, Americans concerned about China’s rise should reflect on Beijing’s successes and Washington’s failures. Ironically, China has risen in part by emulating America’s earlier ascent to global power. The fledgling United States capitalized on its innate advantages and stayed out of foreign entanglements, focusing on internal development. Similarly, since 1980, China has followed a pragmatic course that has paid off handsomely so far.

Otto von Bismarck once remarked, “Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.” A wise country learns not just from others’ mistakes but also from their successes. The United States need not seek to become more like China, but it can certainly learn from Beijing’s pragmatic and self-interested approach to global affairs.

Kazi Anwarul Masud is a retired Bangladeshi diplomat. During his tenure, he worked in several countries as the ambassador of Bangladesh including Thailand, Vietnam, South Korea and Germany