China and the US have been at loggerheads on almost all fronts, but with tensions continuing into the Joe Biden presidency, where is the relationship heading? After US deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman’s visit to Tianjin last week, and the Washington debut of China’s new envoy to the US Qin Gang, this series aims to check the temperature of bilateral relations. In this article, Sarah Zheng looks into how the US sees Beijing’s efforts to build up its own world order.

Democrats and Republicans may well agree on one thing – that China wants to displace the United States in the global order.

Or at least that is the view put forth by Rush Doshi in his new book, The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order, which argues that China has been explicitly undermining the US global position and building the foundations for its own world order in the aftermath of Brexit, the election of Donald Trump as president in the US and the Covid-19 pandemic.

“If there are two paths to hegemony – a regional one and a global one – China is now pursuing both,” writes Doshi, the China director for US President Joe Biden’s National Security Council.

“It is clear, then, that China is the most significant competitor that the United States has faced and that the way Washington handles its emergence to superpower status will shape the course of the next century.”

Doshi’s book, written before he joined the Biden administration and already well received by prominent China scholars in the US, is a window into how one of the White House’s most senior officials views Beijing’s long-term strategic intentions at a time of escalating tensions and Biden’s review of America’s China policy.

As one of the younger members of Biden’s team, Doshi is part of the slew of Asia experts and veteran advisers in the administration supportive of a more hardline policy to compete with an increasingly assertive China, a view also shared by officials such the National Security Council’s Indo-Pacific coordinator, Kurt Campbell.

In a Foreign Policy piece last December, Doshi and Campbell rejected anxiety about the US’ decline, calling for a constructive China policy under Biden that strengthened the US at home and made it more competitive abroad in a way that “need not require confrontation or a second cold war”.

In reviewing Doshi’s book, Georgetown University political scientist Michael Green said “the debate over whether China has a strategy to displace American leadership is over”.

However, Chinese scholars argue that Doshi’s view of a grand strategy from China dating back to the late 1980s is a stretch. But, regardless of how long or how extensive Beijing’s strategic ambitions have been, it is less relevant than the fact that this view has become the political consensus in Washington – one that will inform a more hardline strategy for both the US and China going forward, they say.

The practical steps that Doshi, a former director of the Brookings China Strategy Initiative, advocates in his book already mirror Biden’s current approach of leaving the era of engagement with Beijing behind, in favour of strategic competition with a country they now see as their primary threat. For Beijing, the message from the US is increasingly clear: expect stormy waters ahead.

There are echoes of hawkish Trump adviser Michael Pillsbury’s warnings of Beijing’s grand ambitions in The Hundred-Year Marathonas Doshi’s book details how China’s strategic efforts in recent years have been the most assertive phase in a decades-long strategy to displace the US, dating back to the end of the Cold War.

Despite China’s initial quasi-alliance with the US over shared concerns with the Soviet Union, he says a “traumatic trifecta” of events – the collapse of the Soviet Union, Beijing’s bloody crackdown on protesters at Tiananmen Square and the US-led Gulf War in Iraq – shifted China’s focus to the looming threat of the United States, the world’s lone superpower.

Drawing extensively from Chinese Communist Party primary source documents, Doshi argues that the first phase of China’s grand strategy, from 1989 to 2008, was to quietly engage in “blunting” – his term for efforts to diminish a state’s power to regulate the behaviour of other states – of American power, particularly in Asia.

This was followed by China’s efforts to begin “building” – establishing its own forms of control over other states – the foundation for regional hegemony in Asia, after perceiving US weakness in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis.

The latest step in China’s strategy, a shift after Trump’s election and Brexit in 2016, to expand its “blunting” and “building” tactics worldwide, was the product of Beijing’s perception of its relative strength to a declining US rather than Chinese President Xi Jinping’s more aggressive personal style, Doshi argues.

“In this period, the Chinese Communist Party reached a paradoxical consensus: it concluded that the United States was in retreat globally but at the same time was waking up to the China challenge bilaterally,” Doshi writes.

“In Beijing’s mind, ‘great changes unseen in a century’ were under way, and they provided an opportunity to displace the United States as the leading global state by 2049, with the next decade deemed the most critical to this objective.”

China’s vision of its global order, key to its articulated goal of “national rejuvenation” by 2049, would be one that would “erect a ‘zone of superordinate influence’ in its home region” and “partial hegemony” across developing countries along the belt and road, he says.

It might also mean the withdrawal of US forces from Japan and Korea, the unification of Taiwan with mainland China and the resolution of maritime disputes in the East and South China seas.

Doshi posits that the US, in response, needs to adopt an asymmetric strategy to undermine Beijing’s displacement efforts rather than compete “dollar-for-dollar, ship-for-ship, or loan-for-loan”.

This includes investing in weapons that would deny China access to areas, stalling Chinese-led multilateral processes and keeping in check the leverage China has gained from the Belt and Road Initiative.

At the same time, the US would need to rebuild its foundations for power and order, including by ensuring continued US dollar dominance, reinvesting in US innovation, maintaining a diverse US military posture in the Indo-Pacific and building allied coalitions.

“US-China competition is primarily a competition over who will lead regional and global order and what kind of order they might create from that position of leadership,” he writes. “In many places, but not all, it is a zero-sum game because it is over a positional good – that is, one’s role within a hierarchy.”

Doshi’s book, released on July 8, is not yet available in China. But Chinese analysts who have secured copies are sceptical of his interpretations of Chinese ambitions, and warn that the two powers need to engage in dialogue to dispel suspicion.

Zhu Feng, an international relations expert from Nanjing University, said his biggest problem with Doshi’s book was that it “overly uses the American perspective to exaggerate China’s strategy”.

“China is not trying to displace the United States, the current world order or the US hegemonic position,” he said. “Although many people in China domestically think that the US is in decline, most international relations observers and scholars and people in the Chinese government do not.

“The perspective in this book aggressively demonises China and, most importantly, the argument matters less than its efforts to justify a more hardline US policy on China.”

Like other analysts in China, Zhu, whose research is quoted in Doshi’s book, sees Biden as worse for China than Trump was. But even if Biden’s administration wanted to “delink” cooperation on issues such as climate change and global health – transnational issues that would be impossible to tackle without China – from competition, it may be hard for Beijing to accept cooperation alongside US sanctions on China over human rights or heated restrictions in their trade and technology wars, they say.

Wei Zongyou, a specialist on US-China relations at Fudan University, said Biden’s administration had already adopted elements of the asymmetric policy on China that Doshi outlines, including Washington’s focus on coordinating with allies on China and the G7’s roll-out of a green alternative to Beijing’s belt and road programme.

“[Biden’s] administration is similarly emphasising strategic competition between the two, this question of who will lead the world order, the fight between democratic norms and autocratic ones and the notion that China wants to displace the US,” Wei said.

“China, of course, does not want the relationship to be confrontational and to fall into this spiral of conflict and confrontation but at the same time says it does not fear confrontation on its core issues of Taiwan, Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

“Biden wants to separate cooperation and competition with China, but from China’s perspective, if they are asking to cooperate but also engaging in suppression, they will not accept this.”

Wei said that while Doshi’s book contained extensive research on China’s domestic politics and its belt and road programme, the argument that China had been strategising to replace the US since the Cold War was “clearly an overstatement”.

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