Fear a Chinese planet

Excerpted from “The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order”, provided by Sinocism and Oxford University Press.

Rush Doshi is the founding director of the Brookings China Strategy Initiative and a fellow (on leave) at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center. Previously, he was a member of the Asia policy working groups for the Biden and Clinton presidential campaigns and a Fulbright Fellow in China. His research has appeared in The New York TimesThe Wall Street JournalThe Washington PostForeign Affairs, and International Organization, among other publications. Proficient in Mandarin, Doshi received his PhD from Harvard University focusing on Chinese foreign policy and his bachelor’s from Princeton University. He is currently serving as Director for China on the Biden Administration’s National Security Council (NSC), but this work was completed before his government service, is based entirely on open sources, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the US Government or NSC.


Introduction

It was 1872, and Li Hongzhang was writing at a time of historic upheaval. A Qing Dynasty general and official who dedicated much of his life to reforming a dying empire, Li was often compared to his contemporary Otto von Bismarck, the architect of German unification and national power whose portrait Li was said to keep for inspiration.

Like Bismarck, Li had military experience that he parlayed into considerable influence, including over foreign and military policy. He had been instrumental in putting down the fourteen-year Taiping rebellion—the bloodiest conflict of the entire nineteenth century—which had seen a millenarian Christian state rise from the growing vacuum of Qing authority to launch a civil war that claimed tens of millions of lives. This campaign against the rebels provided Li with an appreciation for Western weapons and technology, a fear of European and Japanese predations, a commitment to Chinese self-strengthening and modernization—and critically—the influence and prestige to do something about it.

And so it was in 1872 that in one of his many correspondences, Li reflected on the groundbreaking geopolitical and technological transformations he had seen in his own life that posed an existential threat to the Qing. In a memorandum advocating for more investment in Chinese shipbuilding, he penned a line since repeated for generations: China was experiencing “great changes not seen in three thousand years.”

That famous, sweeping statement is to many Chinese nationalists a reminder of the country’s own humiliation. Li ultimately failed to modernize China, lost a war to Japan, and signed the embarrassing Treaty of Shimonoseki with Tokyo. But to many, Li’s line was both prescient and accurate—China’s decline was the product of the Qing Dynasty’s inability to reckon with transformative geopolitical and technological forces that had not been seen for three thousand years, forces which changed the international balance of power and ushered in China’s “Century of Humiliation.” These were trends that all of Li’s striving could not reverse.

Now, Li’s line has been repurposed by China’s leader Xi Jinping to inaugurate a new phase in China’s post–Cold War grand strategy. Since 2017, Xi has in many of the country’s critical foreign policy addresses declared that the world is in the midst of “great changes unseen in a century” [百年未有之大变局]. If Li’s line marks the highpoint of China’s humiliation, then Xi’s marks an occasion for its rejuvenation. If Li’s evokes tragedy, then Xi’s evokes opportunity. But both capture something essential: the idea that world order is once again at stake because of unprecedented geopolitical and technological shifts, and that this requires strategic adjustment.

For Xi, the origin of these shifts is China’s growing power and what it saw as the West’s apparent self-destruction. On June 23, 2016, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. Then, a little more than three months later, a populist surge catapulted Donald Trump into office as president of the United States. From China’s perspective—which is highly sensitive to changes in its perceptions of American power and threat—these two events were shocking. Beijing believed that the world’s most powerful democracies were withdrawing from the international order they had helped erect abroad and were struggling to govern themselves at home. The West’s subsequent response to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, and then the storming of the US Capitol by extremists in 2021, reinforced a sense that “time and momentum are on our side,” as Xi Jinping put it shortly after those events. China’s leadership and foreign policy elite declared that a “period of historical opportunity” [历史机遇期] had emerged to expand the country’s strategic focus from Asia to the wider globe and its governance systems. The “great change unseen in a century” associated with this transition are at the center of China’s grand strategy. “I often say that leading cadres must keep two overall situations in mind,” Xi noted in a recent speech, “one is the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and the other is the great changes unseen in a century. This is the basic starting point of our planning work.”

We are now in the early years of what comes next—a China that not only seeks regional influence as so many great powers do, but as Evan Osnos has argued, “that is preparing to shape the twenty-first century, much as the U.S. shaped the twentieth.” That competition for influence will be a global one, and Beijing believes with good reason that the next decade will likely determine the outcome.

As we enter this new stretch of acute competition, we lack answers to critical foundational questions. What are China’s ambitions, and does it have a grand strategy to achieve them? If it does, what is that strategy, what shapes it, and what should the United States do about it? These are basic questions for American policymakers grappling with this century’s greatest geopolitical challenge, not least because knowing an opponent’s strategy is the first step to countering it. And yet, as great power tensions flare, there is no consensus on the answers.

This book attempts to provide an answer. It enters a largely unresolved debate over Chinese strategy divided between “skeptics” and “believers.” The skeptics have not yet been persuaded that China has a grand strategy to displace the United States regionally or globally; by contrast, the believers have not truly attempted persuasion.

In its argument and structure, the book takes its inspiration in part from Cold War studies of US grand strategy. Where those works analyzed the theory and practice of US “strategies of containment” toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War, this book seeks to analyze the theory and practice of China’s “strategies of displacement” toward the United States after the Cold War.

To do so, the book makes use of an original database of Chinese Communist Party documents—memoirs, biographies, and daily records of senior officials—painstakingly gathered and then digitized over the last several years from libraries, bookstores in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and Chinese e-commerce sites. Many of the documents take readers behind the closed doors of the Chinese Communist Party, bring them into its high-level foreign policy institutions and meetings, and introduce readers to a wide cast of Chinese political leaders, generals, and diplomats charged with devising and implementing China’s grand strategy. While no one master document contains all of Chinese grand strategy, its outline can be found across a wide corpus of texts. Within them, the Party uses hierarchical statements that represent internal consensus on key issues to guide the ship of state, and these statements can be traced across time. The most important of these is the Party line (路线), then the guideline (方针), and finally the policy (政策), among other terms. Understanding them sometimes requires proficiency not only in Chinese, but also in seemingly impenetrable and archaic ideological concepts like “dialectical unities” and “historical materialism.”

In addition to examining Chinese sources, the book adopts a falsifiable approach anchored in social science and conducts a systematic study of key puzzles in Chinese military, political, and economic behavior.  It argues that to identify the existence, content, and adjustment of China’s grand strategy, researchers must find evidence of (1) grand strategic concepts in authoritative texts; (2) grand strategic capabilities in national security institutions; and (3) grand strategic conduct in state behavior. Without such an approach, any analysis is more likely to fall victim to the kinds of natural biases in “perception and misperception” that often recur in assessments of other powers.

Argument in Brief

For more than a century, no US adversary or coalition of adversaries – not Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, or the Soviet Union – has ever reached sixty percent of US GDP. China is the sole exception, and it is fast emerging into a global superpower that could rival, if not eclipse, the United States.

The book argues that the core of US-China competition since the Cold War has been over regional and now global order. It focuses on the strategies that rising powers like China use to displace an established hegemon like the United States short of war. A hegemon’s position in regional and global order emerges from three broad “forms of control” that are used to regulate the behavior of other states: coercive capability (to force compliance), consensual inducements (to incentivize it), and legitimacy (to rightfully command it). For rising states, the act of peacefully displacing the hegemon consists of two broad strategies generally pursued in sequence. The first strategy is to blunt the hegemon’s exercise of those forms of control, particularly those extended over the rising state; after all, no rising state can displace the hegemon if it remains at the hegemon’s mercy. The second is to build forms of control over others; indeed, no rising state can become a hegemon if it cannot secure the deference of other states through coercive threats, consensual inducements, or rightful legitimacy. Unless a rising power has first blunted the hegemon, efforts to build order are likely to be futile and easily opposed. And until a rising power has successfully conducted a good degree of blunting and building in its home region, it remains too vulnerable to the hegemon’s influence to confidently turn to a third strategy, global expansion, which pursues both blunting and building at the global level to displace the hegemon from international leadership. Together, these strategies at the regional and then global levels provide a rough means of ascent for the Chinese Communist Party’s nationalist elites, who seek to restore China to its due place and roll back the historical aberration of the West’s overwhelming global influence.

This is a template China has followed, and in its review of China’s strategies of displacement, the book argues that shifts from one strategy to the next have been triggered by sharp discontinuities in the most important variable shaping Chinese grand strategy: its perception of US power and threat. Since the end of the Cold War, each leader has publicly anchored Chinese grand strategy to concepts like “multipolarity” and “the international balance of forces” that are essentially polite euphemisms for the relative balance between Chinese and American power. When China’s perception of American strength shifts, its strategy generally changes.

Over the last 30 years, this has happened twice and produced two strategies. The first time was after Tiananmen Square, the Gulf War, and the Soviet collapse. This “trifecta” led China to see the United States—once a Cold War quasi-ally—as a powerful and ideologically threatening adversary. In response, Chinese leaders such as Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin encouraged the country to “hide its capabilities and bide its time” [韬光养晦]. This first Chinese strategy was about quietly blunting American regional influence. Beijing used asymmetric capabilities to thwart American military power, trade agreements to constrain American economic coercion, and membership in regional institutions to stall American rule-setting and coalition-building.

A second strategic shift came 20 years later, when the global financial crisis of 2008 convinced Beijing that the United States was weakening. Chinese leader Hu Jintao revised China’s Deng-era strategy to emphasize “actively accomplishing something” [积极有所作为]. This second Chinese strategy was about building regional order. Beijing now openly pursued power projection capabilities to intervene in the region, used the Belt and Road Initiative and economic statecraft to create and wield leverage over others, and built international institutions to set regional rules.

Now, with the invocation of “great changes unseen in a century” following Brexit, President Trump’s election, and the coronavirus pandemic, China is launching a third strategy of displacement, one that expands its blunting and building efforts worldwide to displace the United States as the global leader.

In its final chapters, this book uses insights about China’s strategy to formulate an asymmetric US grand strategy in response—one that takes a page from China’s own book—and would seek to contest China’s regional and global ambitions without competing dollar-for-dollar, ship-for-ship, or loan-for-loan.

China-Led Order

What might Chinese order might look like if China is able to achieve its goal of “national rejuvenation” by the centennial of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 2049?

At the regional level, China already accounts for more than half of Asian GDP and half of all Asian military spending, which is pushing the region out of balance and toward a Chinese sphere of influence. A fully realized Chinese order might eventually involve the withdrawal of US forces from Japan and Korea, the end of American regional alliances, the effective removal of the US Navy from the Western Pacific, deference from China’s regional neighbors, unification with Taiwan, and the resolution of territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas. Chinese order would likely be more coercive than the present order, consensual in ways that primarily benefit connected elites even at the expense of voting publics, and considered legitimate mostly to those few who it directly rewards. China would deploy this order in ways that damage liberal values, with authoritarian winds blowing stronger across the region. Order abroad is often a reflection of order at home, and China’s order-building would be distinctly illiberal relative to US order-building.

At the global level, Chinese order would involve seizing the opportunities of the “great changes unseen in a century” and displacing the United States as the world’s leading state. This would require successfully managing the principal risk flowing from the “great changes”—Washington’s unwillingness to gracefully accept decline—by weakening the forms of control supporting American global order while strengthening those forms of control supporting a Chinese alternative. That order would span a “zone of super-ordinate influence” in Asia as well as “partial hegemony” in swaths of the developing world that might gradually expand to encompass the world’s industrialized centers—a vision some Chinese popular writers describe using Mao’s revolutionary guidance to “surround the cities from the countryside” [农村包围城市]. More authoritative sources put this approach in less sweeping terms, suggesting Chinese order would be anchored in China’s Belt and Road Initiative and its Community of Common Destiny, with the former in particular creating networks of coercive capability, consensual inducement, and legitimacy.

Some of the strategy to achieve this global order is already discernable in Xi’s speeches. Politically, Beijing would project leadership over global governance and international institutions, split Western alliances, and advance autocratic norms at the expense of liberal ones. Economically, it would weaken the financial advantages that underwrite US hegemony and seize the commanding heights of the “fourth industrial revolution” from artificial intelligence to quantum computing, with the United States declining into a “deindustrialized, English-speaking version of a Latin American republic, specializing in commodities, real estate, tourism, and perhaps transnational tax evasion.” Militarily, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would field a world-class force with bases around the world that could defend China’s interests in most regions and even in new domains like space, the poles, and the deep sea. The fact that aspects of this vision are visible in high-level speeches is strong evidence that China’s ambitions are not limited to Taiwan or to dominating the Indo-Pacific. The “struggle for mastery,” once confined to Asia, is now over the global order and its future. If there are two paths to hegemony—a regional one and a global one—China is now pursuing both.

This glimpse at possible Chinese order maybe striking, but it should not be surprising. Over a decade ago, Lee Kuan Yew—the visionary politician who built modern Singapore and personally knew China’s top leaders—was asked by an interviewer, “Are Chinese leaders serious about displacing the United States as the number one power in Asia and in the world?” He answered with an emphatic yes. “Of course. Why not?” he began, “They have transformed a poor society by an economic miracle to become now the second-largest economy in the world—on track . . . to become the world’s largest economy.” China, he continued, boasts “a culture 4,000 years old with 1.3 billion people, with a huge and very talented pool to draw from. How could they not aspire to be number one in Asia, and in time the world?” China was “growing at rates unimaginable 50 years ago, a dramatic transformation no one predicted,” he observed, and “every Chinese wants a strong and rich China, a nation as prosperous, advanced, and technologically competent as America, Europe, and Japan.”

He closed his answer with a key insight: “This reawakened sense of destiny is an overpowering force. . . . China wants to be China and accepted as such, not as an honorary member of the West.” China might want to “share this century” with the United States, perhaps as “co-equals,” he noted, but certainly not as subordinates.

Houses and Holes

Comments

  1. Ronin8317MEMBER

    Li Hongzhang was a visionary. More than 50 years after his death, his corpse was dug up, mutilated, tied to a tractor and dragged along the road until nothing is left.

    That’s the fate of all visionaries in China.

  2. As long as they don’t let themselves be distracted from their strengths by the Yanks they will get through. They need to stick to their knitting and concentrate on being the manufacturing powerhouse of the world. Think of China more like the British manufacturing centre of the world in the 19th century, not like the US or Russian Empires.

    Their real Achilles heel is their use of the US Dollar, as is going to be shown in the attempted bailout of Evergrande shortly……..US Dollar debts here I suspect are a lot bigger than reported and there is a great shortage of US Dollars at the moment around the world.

    https://twitter.com/TheLastBearSta1/status/1417492372573798412

    In a real face off they would have to ask the Fed for a swap line……….a huge loss of face. They need to get out from under the US Dollar like the Russians have done whatever the cost………because at the moment their financial system is not sovereign.

    • I imagine the Yanks are very well aware of the opportunity to weaponise the dollar and kick the Chinese in the teeth. All’s fair game in the grand game

  3. Good read, thanks
    The line “a “deindustrialized, English-speaking version of a Latin American republic, specializing in commodities, real estate, tourism, and perhaps transnational tax evasion.” hurt for some reason, can’t quite put my finger on it?
    Overall from this point it looks unlikely, but who knows, they do have Pakistan as a key ally. It seems to me that the key ingredient in any of this stuff, historical or future, is energy…could they dominate that space?
    Maybe I’m to wedded to western liberalism but the statement “Chinese order would likely be…consensual in ways that primarily benefit connected elites even at the expense of voting publics” builds in corruption that must limit performance. I know democracy has its problems but it is far better at dealing with this IMO (even if I am feeling very gloomy about it currently).
    If you’re going to put weight on 5,000 years of culture or whatever, watch out world cos Iran and Iraq are coming for you…
    Anyway @bina, what do you think?

  4. Banana ManMEMBER

    what evs. the direct foreign investment that was set up by kissinger is still run by and for the 1%. give me control of the printing press and i dont care who controls the laws, said some bloke. social credit scores coming to a country near you.

  5. On the upside, competition is good for innovation but think they have declared their dominating intentions a bit early ignoring their own “hide ur strength…” advice. Still N Korea has shown effective strategy for small nations to follow.

  6. Chinese CCP vision for Australia ?

    Southern China Co-Prosperity Zone.

    Progress so far:
    Establish onshore over 1.4 million mainland born Chinese nationals as initial stages of infiltration and colonisation. ✔️

    The bulk being the Chinese Hukuo underclass internal illegals – 2nd & 3rd generation peasantry, misfits, criminals, vice workers, old, sick, useless – that China exports with an Australian onshore party elite and political officers to keep them loyal to China.

    Ensure the majority of these Chinese nationals remain Chinese. Australia assists greatly here. A wide open easily corrupted border & visa system ($2k or 10,000 RMB buys a broken down old factory worker, his peasant wife & the fat kid an Australian PR in Guangzhou). Falsified documents, falsified health check all included.
    Then straight onto Australian welfare and that Hukuo underclass becomes Australia’s burden.

    Fact check.
    We have 1.4 million Chinese main born with the bulk remaining 🇨🇳 China First 🇨🇳 CCP loyal communists in Australia.
    Only 360,000 of the 1.4 million Chinese mainland born who are onshore in Australia are Australian citizens, the remaining 1.1 million Chinese have remained as PR or TR and are Chinese sole passport foreign nationals. They are Hukuo underclass.
    They are low or no skilled, earn far less than Australian average income and they dominant our Centrelink & Medicare costs

    Because the bulk of the Chinese in Australia can not vote federally, the CCP take advantages via their local colonists to stack our State & local government with Chinese foreign nationals & to use lobbyists and use cash payment to influence & control federal government. ✔️

    Buy up key Australian strategic resource, public infrastructure & port, rail & transport assets. ✔️

    Buy up Australian low end established urban housing – using the Chinese PR foreign nationals to avoid any FIRB check to wash over $110 billion into acquiring 360,000 modest Australian units or dwellings to house the Chinese and another million or so other foreign nationals in cash in hand migrant only slum share.
    Safe haven, colonisation of housing, cash flow goldmine & even Australian negative gearing financial support.✔️

    Studiously muffle & censor via political influence in local, state or federal government the fact that 116,000 Australian permanent homeless and the other 360,000 Australians are now without affordable housing because of this – literally ethnically cleansed & evicted onto the street.

    Swamp Australian Centrelink & Medicare with the Chinese foreign national Hukou underclass.✔️

    Corrupt & destroy the Australian education system as it prostitutes itself as a migrant trafficking alibi. ✔️

    Take control of the black market, labor rings, ABN fraud, supply chain – driving down Australian wages, increasing the cost of housing & living, casualisation of employment to third world standards. ✔️

    Infiltrate & attack Australian business, academic, scientific and tech IP, neutralising or thieving any science or technology advantage. ✔️

    Next steps.

    Continue to flood Australia with the Chinese Hukuo underclass, as students, rural workers, sponsored, business, partners.

    Selectively release new & more lethal virus variants (the Obama Biden Fauci decision in 2014 after the US ban on virus gain of function & decision to outsource virus gain of function via the US NIH / EcoHealth Alliance to Wuhan labs China)..
    …resulted in over 1,150 humanized & lethal virus variations stockpiled -( US embassy cables warnings & alerts to the Obama Biden administration).

    To further ravage & weaken Australian, Asia Pacific & western world economies.

    Use the 1.4 million Chinese mainland born, already in Australia esp the 640,000 PR as an anchor in family reunion, skilled worker, dependent, business, partner, sponsored etc.

    A ratio of at least 2 or 3 additional Chinese mainland born per Chinese PR already here is another 1.6 million in 5 years to give around 3 million mainland born Chinese communists onshore & the Chinese CCP critical mass and control of their new Australian colony.

    • Yes. Importing millions of invaders from a hostile nation isn’t the best national strategy, as Gladys Liu’s presence in Parliament is amply demonstrating.

  7. Probably one of the best posts on MB for a long while, and I suspect most won’t read it. There is nothing in that article I disagree with, and maybe MB’s views are coming around to that LT outlook at as well.

    There does feel a sense of history here. Western Culture has eschewed its roots, its strength was an historical focus of Judaeo-Christian beliefs imbued with scientific endeavour and, among the Anglo-Saxons, and strong Protestant work ethic.

    Now we don’t believe in anything, we have no common purpose, pleasure seeking pups, and society wracked with woke warriorism, and concepts totally foreign to most of us outside academia, even five years ago, and the basis of modern discourse. And its primarily around factionalism. Would I, would I send my kids, to fight in a cause I didn’t believe in???

    It is that vacuum that China steps in, and gain it does feel like history is turning against us. I former colleague the other week, suggested the US (which he knows well) needs a war, as a mechanism to pull it together, and as a great unifier. My fear would be, within its current state, it would be a recipe for disaster – and what would happen if it lost!

    We may have several decades yet ahead of us, where freedom appears to be so.

    But demographics are turning against us, and although it may take three or four decades to rectify population issues in China, we all know they will. In any case, our closest neighbour is steadily becoming more religious, and soon they will have a new powerful ally, at which point, the worlds six or seventh largest economy and a population >300m will slowly take our north, and Russia will lose the East.

    Its going to be a very different world. Not the one we envisaged a decade ago. But I suppose that is history in the making…

  8. El MerenderoMEMBER

    Thing is, you need many allies to achieve that and real, solid alliances are built on cultural affinities. China hardly has that with anyone, if at all: it simply pulls a coalition made out of mercenary states or coerced ones. Very, very shaky and fickle grounds to build the foundations to world domination.

    • They don’t care about the Americas, nor Europe. Africa only a little bit… but they will control all of Asia and be a major land power; if they take Eastern Russia, that supplies their natural resource requirements.

      You misunderstand their world view, they are not interested in global domination. Just being the preeminent power.

      • El MerenderoMEMBER

        “world domination” was meant as mockery, next time I’ll add an alert next to it.

        We’ll have to agree to disagree on your other statements

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