The statement that China poses a serious challenge, if not a dangerous threat, to the U.S. is one of the few consensus beliefs in Washington. Today the best way to build bipartisan support for legislation on Capitol Hill is to claim that it bolsters America’s defenses against Beijing.
What makes the People’s Republic of China unique is its size. If China was more like other nations, it would present as an annoyance, not a crisis. Liberal-minded people and governments worldwide never had to consider what to do about, say, Franco’s Spain, the horrid Eritrean dystopia, or assorted Central Asian tyrannies. These regimes created serious problems for their own citizens, but not much beyond.
In contrast, the 20th Century’s two most aggressive totalitarian death states, Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, presented very different challenges. Ability and ambition merged to create an uncommon international danger that required collective action. Still, their relatively modest economies and populations ultimately limited their capabilities, despite the great evil that they tragically accomplished.
The original PRC, which emerged in 1949, was uncommonly prolific in killing its own citizens but largely limited its depredations beyond its own borders. Even the island of Taiwan, but 100 miles offshore, was beyond Beijing’s reach. But what of today’s Chinese incarnation?
It no longer is Mao Zedong’s impoverished, low-tech murderous despotism. Rather, the PRC not only possesses the world’s largest (though soon to be second-largest) population. China also is middle income and high-tech. How far do China’s ambitions go? Although more restrained than its Maoist incarnation, the CCP’s aspirations matter. If outsize, those desires will require a greater response from Washington and other democratic states.
Even a restrained Beijing poses some challenges. One aspect is what has been called the Beijing Consensus, in contrast to the famed Washington consensus. China has offered what appears to be a successful development model, a statist or constrained capitalism, with no pretense of protecting liberty, and most importantly, civil and political freedom. This perspective has served the interests of aspiring authoritarians worldwide.
China Reaches Outside its Borders
More practically, the PRC enabled such regimes, through trade with, investment in, and aid to such authoritarian systems. Burma/Myanmar, Sudan, and Zimbabwe were among the uglier dictatorships which benefited from Chinese economic support. In all three cases, Beijing’s presence undercut Western pressure. For instance, when Sudan was under U.S. sanctions, China was involved in the former’s energy development. At the time, I visited Khartoum and found Chinese business leaders staying at my hotel and Chinese food among the offering in buffet meals.
Nevertheless, though the Beijing Consensus is contrary to liberal values, reducing incentives for authoritarian regimes to reform, it is not aggressive. Although the PRC enjoys acting in ways alternative to the West, Beijing does not appear to be attempting to win converts to its cause. China is more an enabler than an evangelist, most effective when the West is applying punitive pressure to force another government to change. Although a moral affront, this is more of a problem than a threat for liberal democracies, and the U.S., in particular, since the latter is the world’s most avid proponent of economic sanctions, driving countries toward the PRC.
Where is China Headed?
Of greater concern is whether Beijing has larger ideological objectives. Today’s CCP is not your father’s or grandfather’s communist party. It is Leninist, ruthlessly so under Xi, but not Marxist in practice. The party contains far too many businessmen and Chinese party members who believe markets are necessary.
Indeed, for years adherents of Mao sought to revive his legacy, even targeting Mao Yushi (no relation to the “Red Emperor”), founder of the Unirule Institute of Economics, for criticizing his namesake. Although Xi has increasingly modeled his rule after Mao (Zedong, not Yushi), that does not mean a revival of ideological communism. Rather, Xi has backed away from markets for political reasons—not so much to build a Marxist economic system as to quiet criticism of economic inequality, limit the influence of entrepreneurs, and strengthen party control over all that is China. This obviously undermines liberals in the PRC (today mostly in the closet), who no longer have much voice, more than those outside China.
More troublesome is the claim that Beijing is seeking global domination, more for nationalist than ideological reasons. Discerning what is in the minds of Zhongnanhai’s residents is not easy. Under Mao, the PRC was in no position to impose its way upon the world. Deng was famous for enunciating the strategy of China biding its time. Xi has abandoned any sense of national restraint—which has had negative practical consequences—but so far has limited his aggressiveness to his Asian neighborhood.
There is little to suggest that Xi’s PRC wants to make the world communist, though he has mouthed the usual platitudes about socialism’s ultimate triumph. After all, “socialism with Chinese characteristics” really is not socialism, but a much more extreme version of economic interventionism as practiced by most of the world’s industrial states. The question is the degree to which he hopes for China to displace the U.S. and refashion what has been characterized as the “rules-based international order.” (The latter is more accurately characterized as the Western order, since Washington violates the rules whenever it chooses, as Beijing has pointed out.) Much has been written in an attempt to assess the PRC’s intentions as well as capabilities. Some predictions have been near-apocalyptic, with warnings of inevitable confrontation and even conflict.
Trump-Era and Later Assessment
The Trump administration presented the essential claim in a detailed State Department paper: “The CCP aims not merely at preeminence within the established world order—an order that is grounded in free and sovereign nation-states, flows from the universal principles on which America was founded, and advances U.S. national interests—but to fundamentally revise world order, placing the People’s Republic of China (PRC) at the center and serving Beijing’s authoritarian goals and hegemonic ambitions.”
Earlier, Michael Pillsbury, particularly known for his work with the U.S. Department of Defense, made a similar, more detailed argument. Last year Rush Doshi, formerly of the Brookings Institute, now with the Biden National Security Council, also argued that the PRC has employed multiple “strategies of displacement” against the established hegemon, the U.S. and the order established by the latter.
Other respected Sinologists disagree, not so much over China’s desire to rise but the nature and breadth of control desired. For instance, Oriana Sylar Mastro of Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies pointed to limitations in Doshi’s argument. She argued: “Chinese discourage, capabilities, and behavior all demonstrate that the PRC’s focus remains on regional contingencies, even those involving the United States. If China’s military ambitions are global, they are not defined by plans to fight wars against the United States in the Middle East, Africa, or South America (the United States would easily win those wars).”
Nevertheless, Beijing’s aspirations, though not an existential threat to the U.S., still appear to be large, however exactly formulated. For instance, explained Mastro:
“Although China does not want to usurp the United States’ position as the leader of a global order, its actual aim is nearly as consequential. In the Indo-Pacific region, China wants complete dominance; it wants to force the United States out and become the region’s unchallenged political, economic, and military hegemon. And globally, even though it is happy to leave the United States in the driver’s seat, it wants to be powerful enough to counter Washington when needed. As one Chinese official put it to me, ‘Being a great power means you get to do what you want, and no one can say anything about it.’ In other words, China is trying to displace, rather than replace, the United States.”
The issue is not so much America’s position as dominant power—which is the central problem as seen from Washington—as Beijing’s presumed desire to become the new dominant power with the ability to make detrimental changes in the status quo. A transformed global order in which the PRC effectively rewrote the rules could be increasingly uncomfortable, especially for smaller and neighboring states. What is important is less American control, and more the absence of Chinese control, which in practice probably requires retention of significant U.S. and European international influence, at least. While perpetual preservation of Washington’s unusual position, gained in the unusual circumstances after World War II, is unlikely. Even countries friendlier toward Beijing are unlikely to want the latter to have monopoly international power in their countries.
China’s Ambition to Dominate
However, it is important not to overestimate China’s ability to dominate the international order. Aspiration differs from intention, which in turn differs from capacity. That Beijing would like to become the globe’s praecipua potentia, or principal power, is unexceptional. The U.S. was all too happy to surpass Great Britain, which worked particularly hard to block Wilhelmine Germany from taking that position. However, the PRC is not yet capable of surging past Washington.
Beijing’s weaknesses and limitations are manifest. These will hamper its efforts to develop a dominant military and influential foreign policy. Argued the Brookings’ Institution’s Ryan Hass: “it is hardly a foregone conclusion that China will travel a linear path toward realizing its goals. For an accurate measure of the challenges China poses to U.S. interests, Beijing’s strengths must be evaluated alongside its vulnerabilities. Xi and his advisers face as stiff a set of challenges as almost anyone else in the world.”
Although the PRC has been building up its military, the U.S. remains well ahead globally. Beijing’s advantage is threefold: it focuses on the Asia-Pacific, is surrounded by nations that long have underinvested in the military (though that is changing to some degree), and is thousands of miles from the U.S. However, even in the best of circumstances, China, with 14 land and 6 sea boundaries, and surrounded by nations with which it has been at war with during the last century (India, Japan, Korea, Russia, Vietnam), is far from exercising regional, let alone world domination.
Inflating the China threat is as problematic as dismissing it. Argued the Quincy Institute’s Michael Swaine: “Framing the military challenge Beijing poses in categorical and exceedingly alarmist, worst-case ways removes the need to determine the limits of Chinese threats. China becomes 10 feet tall, undeterred from wanting to destroy the United States except by a massive U.S. counterforce. Such threat inflation also undermines those voices within China that favor moderation, significantly raises the danger of Sino–American crises and military conflict, and diverts huge amounts of U.S. resources away from desperately needed nonmilitary uses at home and abroad.”
Analysts on China
Yet few analysts believe that conflict is genuinely inescapable, hence the reason they write books urging America (and, to a much lesser degree, other nations) to adopt a new, usually much tougher, approach to the PRC, which they hope will preclude a Sino-dominated world. Even more so, whether China seeks domination, and to impose its will coercively, depends on decisions made in Beijing. Wrote Pillsbury: “A China-led world in 2049 will be worse if the [Chinese] hawks decide China’s policies. If the moderates and real reformers take over, with Western help, then a dominant China would not be as menacing.”
Policy by the PRC’s rivals also will help determine the direction of Chinese policy. That requires not endless appeasement, but steady discernment. Beijing may interpret some policies as being dangerously hostile and respond accordingly. Other approaches not so much. Swaine and Ashley J. Tellis, now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, warned: “First, so long as there is some chance that the predicted outcome of assertiveness may not occur, U.S. strategy ought to neither create the preconditions for its occurrence nor retreat in the expectation that its occurrence is inevitable. Second, if there exists some hope that the worst ravages of future security competition between the United States and China can be avoided, U.S. grand strategists are bound both by the dictates of prudence and by moral sensibility to explore every possibility that reduces the prospects of international turmoil.”
In the end, the exact contours of the ambitions of any given set of Chinese leaders at any given time are unlikely to be known and are likely to change with new leaders and over time. Prudence indicates that liberal-oriented states should assume Beijing will seek to amass power and influence and use it to shape the international system to its advantage.
To what degree remains unclear. However, policymakers should prepare for the worst. But they should consider the possibility that Chinese policy will turn out to be more benign than predicted. With the exact future uncertain, the prospect of a stronger PRC should be treated as a multi-faceted challenge and potential threat, but not so urgent as to force them to give up the moral principles and freedom policies. which makes democracy right as well as successful.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.