by Bradley A. Thayer and Lianchao Han
With the election of Joe Biden, there is increasing pressure for the United States to accommodate the global ambitions of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Such a policy will weaken the strategic position of the United States and embolden the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which seeks to transform the rules of international politics, and has demonstrated its willingness to employ coercive measures, including threats and open conflict, to achieve its aims.
As it has done for decades, and does so now with the Biden Administration, the CCP makes appeals for accommodation while emphasizing the need to turn away from more confrontational policies, like those most recently advanced by the Trump Administration. And as always, China’s words must be seen as tactical measures it deploys in pursuit of its objectives. Thus, it is only a matter of time before attempts to cooperate with China fail. However tempting, accommodation will not succeed for the stark reason that China does not want it.
Party Chairman Xi Jinping has made clear that what China seeks is world hegemony. And it is upon the pursuit of this hegemony that his power in the regime depends.
The CCP’s proclivity for expansion is fully expressed in Xi, who has vowed to achieve China’s “national rejuvenation” and to lead “world governance.” The reasons are straightforward: The party’s ideology requires it to smash capitalism and establish a new economic order based on socialism. To advance these aims, the PRC’s founder, Mao Zedong, employed the People’s Liberation Army to invade Tibet and Korea, launch a Sino-India border war, and participate in the Vietnam War. He fought for the leadership of the Third World and struggled with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev for leadership of the global Communist movement, and provided training, military and financial aids to Communist guerrilla insurgents throughout the world.
Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping continued this ambitious plan by accelerating China’s modernization, including military modernization in the 1970s. In the process, he waged a border war to punish Vietnam, and ordered the murder of hundreds, even thousands, of protesters. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, a major leader from the CCP’s top echelon urged Deng Xiaoping to replace the Soviets in leading the Communist community. Deng argued that the time was not propitious, and—famously—urged the PRC to “hide our capabilities and bide our time.”
Although there were no major armed conflicts under the rule of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, respectively, China continued to race toward its goal of world dominance. This phase included dispatching tens of thousands of companies to every corner of the world. As China gained more markets from its global trade and from stealing Western technology, its power, particularly its military capability, increased rapidly. After the 2008 financial crisis, China’s leadership believed that the time was right for its global ideological, political, and military expansion.
To understand China’s quest for global hegemony, two themes deserve special attention. First, the “Xi Doctrine” is “the CCP’s domination of China, and the PRC’s domination of the world.” The Xi Doctrine explains why Xi is a unique leader and singular threat to both the Chinese people and America’s global interests. The Xi Doctrine seeks to replace the United States as the world’s dominant state.
The second theme is the need for the United States to return to the principles of great power competition. That means recognizing that the United States is in essential and irrevocable conflict with the PRC. To defeat Xi’s objectives, the United States must adopt a foreign policy of measured confrontation toward China.
The Xi Doctrine and World Domination
Since he took power, Xi has repeatedly vowed that: “no country should ever presume that we will trade with our core interests, nor that we will swallow the ‘bitter fruit’ of harming our sovereignty, security, or development interests.” This means that Xi will never compromise, make meaningful concessions, or bargain away what he perceives as core interests of the party-state in exchange for a modern form of peaceful coexistence. Xi’s “Wolf-Warrior” style leaves no room or possibility for negotiation, to say nothing of the prospects of rational dialogue or persuasion.
As China’s power, strength, and ambition have increased its core interests have grown. According to the regime’s 2011 white paper, China’s core interests include: 1) state sovereignty; 2) national security; 3) territorial integrity; 4) national reunification; 5) China’s political system established by the Constitution and overall social stability; and 6) basic safeguards for ensuring sustainable economic and social development. Among these core interests, Xi and his officials have stated clearly and consistently that the security of the regime is foremost. No entity is allowed to challenge the CCP’s one-party dictatorship and its “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” The most important core interest, according to Qiao Liang, a major general with the People’s Liberation Army, is that “the road to rejuvenation of the Chinese nation cannot be interrupted.”
Xi has given “territorial integrity” a new and broader meaning, which encompasses the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea and the entire South China Sea, in addition to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Xinjiang and Tibet. Internet security and maintaining China’s position in the global supply chain are also added to China’s ever growing core interests. Xi uses these erstwhile core interests as pretexts to target his domestic opponents and reward allies, and has vowed to use force to defend any of these deliberately framed core interests.
Thus, China is confronting and will continue to confront the United States because it is the single major impediment to China’s strategic objectives. With the United States weakened—and ideally removed—there would be no single power, or constellation of powers (such as Australia, Japan, and India) that could prevent Beijing from achieving its aims. These objectives have been boldly and transparently advanced by Xi in his conception of a hegemonic China by 2049. The United States is the obstruction to the realization of China’s ambitions and its ideological opponent. Thus, it is the focus of China’s enmity.
The Two Domestic Components of the Xi Doctrine
The objectives of the Xi Doctrine are both domestic and international. Domestically, these include the continuation of the CCP’s rule underXi Jinping’s clique, along with the PRC’s sustained economic growth and development.
The rule of the CCP has always been intended to be permanent. Since the CCP seized control of China in 1949, it has ruled the country with terror and oppression in the spirit of a dynasty much like the Chinese emperors. Mao killed millions to terrorize the opposition. After the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre and collapse of the Soviet Union, the CCP feared a regime change, or “color revolution” might occur in China, supported by the United States. Therefore, it considers any advocacy of constitutional democracy, political and civil rights, or Internet freedom in China to be interfering with its internal affairs and harming China’s core interests.
Xi’s ambitions are shadowed by deep insecurity and megalomania. After he took power in 2012, he issued a complete ban against any discussion of Western ideas and values, including constitutional democracy, civil society, freedom of the press, and “nihilistic” views of history—otherwise known as the historical truth about the CCP. He demands unwavering adherence to the CCP’s absolute control of every aspect of Chinese society, and requires absolute loyalty to himself. Xi has censored the Internet and imprisoned hundreds of human rights lawyers. He has also built massive, high-tech surveillance systems to watch everyone, which makes the Chinese people live in constant fear.
Xi essentially has wiped out any effective dissent. He has been targeting rivals, such as Ren Zhiqiang, an influential and longtime critic of the Chinese Communist Party. Ren was born to a CCP veteran family, and thus is a “Red princeling” like Xi. He has a close relationship with many of China’s top leaders, such as Wang Qishan, China’s current vice president, and Yu Zhengsheng, former Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. He criticized Xi for ordering China’s media outlets to remain loyal to only the CCP.
In February 2020, Ren circulated an essay critical of Xi’s response to the pandemic. In the essay, Ren boldly stated that he perceives Xi: “not an emperor standing there exhibiting his ‘new clothes,’ but a clown stripped naked who insisted on continuing being emperor.” He not only mercilessly mocked Xi in the missive, but also detailed Xi’s missteps in “personally directing” the Chinese government’s efforts to contain the Wuhan coronavirus, refuting Xi’s lies point-by-point, and the CCP’s propaganda apparatus’ lavish praise of him. Specifically, he noted and criticized Xi’s concealment of the truth about the outbreak, failure to disclose in a timely manner critical information to the public, evasion of responsibility for the tardy and incomplete response, lying to cover up his mismanagement, and crackdown on whistleblowers to ensure the CCP lies would not be revealed. Ren’s essay is a damning indictment of Xi’s performance in this global crisis. Fundamentally, it is an indictment of the CCP’s rule. Ren argued that the pandemic is caused by the defects of the CCP system. Not unexpectedly, Ren has since been imprisoned.
Xi also ensures that potential rivals, such as billionaire entrepreneur Jack Ma, do not come into a position to challenge him. Ma’s frank and accurate criticisms of China’s banking system and regulations—including describing China’s banks as “pawn shops”—marked him as an enemy. As China becomes more powerful, Xi’s actions reflect the fruits of its expanding power, and should be cause for great concern for the rest of the world.
In the past decades, the United States and China have had many meetings at all levels. Consistently, China has rejected the American appeals for political reforms and respect for human rights as interference in its internal affairs. China has now extended its “internal affairs,” into international politics. As such, it prohibits any criticism from other states, particularly with respect to its suppression of its ethnic minorities and territorial ambitions.
The second domestic goal of sustainable economic growth and development is of central importance for the Xi Doctrine. China understands that the trade war initiated by the Trump Administration has upended its economic power and threatens its economic security. One one hand, China seeks to ensure its dominant position in the global supply chain. But this is contravened by Xi’s determination to weaken China’s free market economy and strengthen socialism through state monopolization of key sectors. He also ordered the CCP to make unwavering efforts to develop stronger, better, and larger State Owned Enterprises (SOEs). Increasingly, the Chinese regime’s economic structure contradicts and conflicts with its system of free trade established under Deng. Fundamentally, to resolve China’s unfair trade practices identified not only by the Trump Administration but worldwide will require the regime to change its socialist economic institution. This, of course, Xi is unwilling to accommodate.
From the perspective of U.S. national security, a worrying development is that the regime seeks to dominate the global supply chain not only with respect to manufacturing, but also in advanced technology. To secure those commanding heights, the regime will continue its multifaceted approach to achieving technology superiority over the United States, including the theft of American intellectual property and sustained efforts to access or recruit global talent, including American academics, scientists, and businesspeople.
Internationally, the objectives of the Xi Doctrine are to harness economic, technological, ideological, diplomatic, and military means to expand China’s power and supplant the United States as the world’s dominant power. The economic means include grandiose enterprises such as the Belt and Road Initiative and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank,. The “China 2025 project” and the Digital Silk Road (DSR) are intended to create the next digital 5G infrastructure, as well as quantum computing and artificial intelligence (eventually), with the objective to control the internet, gather intelligence, and coerce other states through cyber-dominance.
The ideological means are just as broad, and are centered on such purportedly noble messages as creating the “shared destiny of mankind” and other measures, such as the spread of Confucius Institutes around the world. In much of the developing world, China advances the “China model” for growth and modernization which combines repressive political rule with crony capitalism—all supported by China and requiring China’s good will to sustain.
The diplomatic and military mechanisms are largely traditional avenues for expanding power, e.g., creating bases in Djibouti and Pakistan as part of a global network of intelligence and military bases. The PRC’s conventional and nuclear weapon expansion will strengthen China’s hand against Hong Kong and Taiwan, and far beyond China’s borders as well. We should expect that Beijing willt further expand its nuclear and conventional capabilities, and may even challenge the United States to an arms race, in a bid for nuclear superiority.
China’s Hegemonic Ambition
Under Xi, the PRC is working assiduously to alter—not embrace—the status quo in international politics. Among its many policies to bring about change, it has confronted Japan over contested territory (the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands), and declared a new Air Defense Identification Zone in the region, clashed with India repeatedly over their disputed border, threatened Taiwan, militarized the PRC’s facility in Djibouti, created new islands in the South China Sea (supported by the local military power to enforce its claims absent a U.S. response), and has had series of diplomatic clashes with the Philippines.
Additionally, it has rejected the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling that the PRC was violating international law in the South China Sea, contravened the 1984 Hong Kong treaty with the U.K. to crush Hong Kong and, de facto, ended the “one country, two systems.” Moreover it has imprisoned Uighur, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz Muslims in concentration camps in Xinjiang, and abused many of the families of these inmates by requiring them to house and host Han men to humiliate not only the family but their people and religion.
The PRC has launched a variety of international institutions, which it uses to advance its own interests, and dominates the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership free trade zone in the Indo-Pacific, which encompasses about a third of global economic output. It has expanded its influence in the Arctic and sub-Arctic, in Melanesia, and Polynesia, and is increasingly assertive in opposing U.S. air and sea operations in South China Sea, East China Sea, and North Pacific. These measures are intended to expand the PRC’s sovereignty beyond even the ambitions of the Ming dynasty, the Qing dynasty, or Mao.
Targeting America’s Military Supremacy
In November 2020, Xi Jinping presided over a Politburo meeting in which he ordered the CCP to prepare for war. Since he came to power he repeatedly demands absolute loyalty from the PLA. His goal is to upgrade military capabilities to such a degree that by the mid-21st century China will fully transform the PLA into a world-class military instrument.
Most significantly, China has launched an arms race in conventional, nuclear, and space weaponry, aggressively expanding its military capability. China’s expansion of nuclear weapons has not received the attention it deserves due to its threat to U.S. interests and international stability. China’s actions undermine the ability of the United States to deter attacks against itself, to extend deterrence to its allies, and to protect its interests. Strategic stability results when both or all sides in a deterrence relationship have little incentive to race for superiority. Strategic stability will not be obtained with respect to China, however, for several reasons.
First, while common estimates of China’s nuclear weapons suggest it has approximately 300 warheads, its lack of transparency means that its arsenal may be considerably larger. There have been calls within China for expanding its nuclear arsenal to 1,000 strategic warheads, to say nothing of intermediate-range nuclear weapons or other nuclear capabilities. While the United States has taken a “strategic holiday” in the wake of the Cold War, the PRC has used the opportunity to expand its nuclear, cyber, and conventional capabilities. China’s rapid expansion of its nuclear arsenal—which has doubled over the last decade and is on a trajectory to double it yet again in the next decade—is deeply troubling for U.S. national security. Beijing already has a large and diversified strategic missile force. The world witnessed a glimpse of this on October 1, 2019, which was the 70th anniversary of the founding of the PRC. The military parade debuted the DF-41 solid fueled, road mobile ICBM, the DF-100/CJ-100 supersonic cruise missile, and the DF-17, with its hypersonic glide vehicle.
This rapid expansion has been made possible by U.S. strategic passivity, despite the fact that
China’s arms race specifically aims to defeat the United States. For example, defying the international ban on arms in space, China has been secretly developing space weapons to destroy America’s communication satellites. As early as 2007, China successfully developed a space weapon capable of destroying satellites. Now China may have the capability to disable GPS systems. Its new anti-ship missiles, the DF-21D and DF-26B, were developed to cripple and destroy America’s aircraft carriers. In early December, China successfully tested an anti-ship ballistic missile against a moving target, which indicates the Chinese regime has developed a significant threat to U.S. carriers and other vessels. Always secretive, the Chinese have concealed much of this arms build-up to avoid provoking a reaction from the United States and its allies. More damning is that the Chinese are secretly “preparing the battlefield” to ensure that they have the ability to damage the United States through other, non-nuclear, non-kinetic means. These non-kinetic avenues of attack include cyber, supply chain dominance, economic influence and trade insecurity, technological mastery of 5G and artificial intelligence, export of fentanyl and similar narcotics, and theft of American intellectual property and technology. These new attack vectors, aimed at hurting the U.S. economy and population, are intended to weaken and damage us, and induceU.S. political leaders to yield to the PRC’s ambitions.
Anticipating this failure of resolve by America’s politicians, China rejects arms control both in practice and in principle. Thus far, Beijing has refused unilaterally to reduce or limit its arsenal or enter into arms control talks. American and European assumptions about international stability are not shared by China. In November 2020, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called for Beijing’s participation in future arms control agreements: As “a major nuclear and military power, Beijing must engage more strongly in arms control, transparency and risk reduction.” China could acquiesce to such calls, and signal its peaceful intentions. This would have an important stabilizing effect on states concerned with China’s increasing power. Instead, China rejects arms control, and continues to demonstrate that it is an aggressively expansionist power, and wants to be unfettered as it develops its military arsenal.
Territorial Expansion: Xinjiang and Tibet, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South China Sea, Senkaku Islands
In a 2018 meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, Xi Jinping unequivocally warned that he would never give up “even one inch” of territory that the country’s ancestors left behind. The CCP holds that Xinjiang and Tibet, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the South China Sea, and the Senkaku islands have been, as Xi said, “China’s territory since ancient times.”
Xinjiang and Tibet
Before the PRC was created in 1949 there was an independent East Turkestan Republic (ETR) which was coerced into the PRC. The CCP also invaded and occupied Tibet, and forced the Dalai Lama to leave his country and seek exile in India. Since the early 1990s, the CCP leaders have seen the revival of both Islamic and Tibetan Buddhist faiths as an existential threat, and have waged a systematic crackdown on the two religions. Beijing frames the Xinjiang issue as a regime stability question and argues that that ethnic separatism, terrorism, and religious extremism in the region endanger China’s security. This is to justify the killing and imprisonment of tens of thousands of Uyghur, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz Muslims. The persecution climaxed when the regime put about two million Muslims in internment camps across the region. Thirty-nine countries condemned China’s atrocity in the UN, but China amassed 45 countries to support its policies. The United States sanctioned a few perpetrators of human rights abuses, including Xinjiang’s party chief Chen Quanguo, and Congress passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act which President Trump signed into law. But the CCP insists that “Xinjiang affairs are purely China’s internal affairs. The U.S. has no right and no cause to interfere in them.”
Xi has elevated Tibet as one of the critical regime security issues, saying, “To govern the country well we must first govern the frontiers well, and to govern the frontiers well we must first ensure stability in Tibet.” To carry out this strategy, the CCP has put 46,000 monks and nuns effectively under house arrest and deracinated millions of Tibetans from their ancestral land and their nomadic life. They have been coerced into vocational training to work in cities, and cut off from their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, whom China demonizes as a separatist, “a wolf in a sheep’s skin.” In despair, over 150 Tibetans have immolated themselves to protest China’s continued persecution. The United States has been supporting the Dalai Lama for decades. In 2018 Congress passed Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act, and used the law to restrict Chinese party and government officials’ travels in the United States because Beijing systematically obstructs Americans’ travel to the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
Xi, however, sees Xinjiang and Tibet as part of China, and the stability of the regions as one of China’s core interests. In a familiar refrain, any state that criticizes the PRC for its cultural genocide is regarded as interfering with China’s internal affairs. Meanwhile, without the help of the United States, the identities of ethnic peoples in Xinjiang and Tibet will soon disappear by forced assimilation.
China used the slogan “one country, two systems” when it regained Hong Kong from Britain and Macau from Portugal. It promised to keep the island’s political system unchanged for 50 years and allow people to select their own chief executive. Hong Kongers defied Beijing by protesting the CCP’s atrocities during the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre and demanding acknowledgement of their political rights. The PRC has broken all its promises made to the British government and the people of Hong Kong. It de facto abolished “one country, two systems” long ago. The recent brutal crackdown on protests against China’s national security law indicates an intention to deploy dictatorial rule in Hong Kong. Despite its international legal obligations, Beijing has warned foreign countries to shut up.
China is not averse to issuing bold threats about Hong Kong. In 2020, the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing group—consisting of Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States—criticized China for its retaliation against democratic members of the Hong Kong Legislative Council, “part of a campaign to silence critics,” and called on Beijing to reinstate them. In response, Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for China’s foreign affairs ministry, threatened “No matter how many ‘eyes’ you have, be careful not to be poked and get blinded by harming China’s sovereignty, security and development interests.” After the United States sanctioned four Hong Kong government officials responsible for gross human rights abuses, China also retaliated against four American NGO staff.
American political and economic interests are deeply embedded in Hong Kong as an independent customs territory and economic entity separate from the PRC, and as an international entity. As early as 1992, U.S. law stipulated separate relations with Hong Kong. In 2018 and 2020 Congress passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act and the Hong Kong Autonomy Act, which President Trump signed into law. After China enacted a new security law in Hong Kong, President Trump signed an order to end its preferential economic treatment, claiming that the United States sees the security law as a threat to the freedoms Hong Kong has enjoyed under the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration.
Keeping Hong Kong’s prosperity, autonomy, and separate way of life is in everyone’s best interests. But the CCP perceives that this endangers its rule. It worries that democratic ideas will spread to the mainland. Now the world witnesses Beijing directing the Hong Kong government to convict and jail pro-democracy activists Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, and Ivan Lam for “unlawful assembly,” and fabricate fraud charges against journalist Jimmy Lai and two of his fellow colleagues at the Apple Daily. Despite all efforts, Hong Kong as we know it is disappearing. China can apparently do whatever it wants to in the territory, harming America’s interests there in an alarming manner.
The United States and Taiwan’s Republic of China were strong allies during the Cold War until the Carter Administration recognized the PRC in 1979. When the United States abandoned Taiwan, there was a Sino-American understanding that Beijing must resolve the Taiwan issue peacefully. The terms were that Taiwan’s sovereign status could not be determined unilaterally, the status quo across the strait must be maintained, and the United States would continue to support Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act. But since then China has built a formidable modern military, many times the size of Taiwan’s. America’s arms sales, including the Trump Administration’s ten packages, are inadequate to meet China’s threat.
Beijing frequently threatens using this power to seize Taiwan by force. In 2019, Xi announced again: “we make no promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary means,” and that the “Taiwan question is China’s internal affair and allows no external interference.” Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo countered this aggressive claim by noting the historical fact that Taiwan has not been a part of China. China also bullies the international community to abstain from normal relations with Taiwan, with the result that today only 15 countries recognize its independence. As a full democracy, Taiwan’s sovereign status has been eroded. Xi has stressed that “China must be, will be reunified” with Taiwan. Under President Biden, there are grave doubts whether the United States will be able or willing to deter Xi from military action against Taiwan.
The South China Sea
China claims about 90 percent of the South China Sea as its territory, and has a history of using force to expand its control. In 1974, Mao ordered the seizure of the Paracel Islands from South Vietnam. Fourteen years later, Deng ordered the PLA to fire at Vietnamese forces and seize the Johnson South Reef in the Union Banks region of the Spratly Islands, thus starting China’s militarization of the region. The rich oil and gas deposits and other abundant natural resources further encourage China’s aggressions, which include island building, base construction, and weapon deployment.
On the South China Sea issue, Xi is much more aggressive than his predecessors. He has insisted that all islands have been Chinese territory since ancient times, and that China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights in the South China Sea are in no way affected by established international law and legal rulings. Even though Xi promised President Obama in 2016 that China would stop its militarization of the Sea, China in recent years has increased its pace of militarization. In 2018, Xi told Secretary of Defense Mattis that “We cannot give up even one inch of the territory left behind by our ancestors” in the South China Sea.
China is rewriting maritime law and bullying Southeast Asian coastal countries through intimidation, coercion, and threats of force to undermine their sovereign rights. For most of 2020, China sent a coast guard ship to patrol and monitor Luconia Shoals, a contested area that Malaysia claims as its maritime exclusive economic zone. Beijing insists it falls within its territory. China’s ship harassed Malaysian drilling rig and supply ships that were operating 44 nautical miles offshore, and Malaysia responded with a naval vessel. The stand-off continues. Numerous similar incidents occurred with the Philippines and Vietnam. China’s predatory practices are destabilizing the region and introduce the possibility that these disputes will escalate to a clash of arms.
In response to China’s actions, the United States has been exercising free navigation in the South China Sea according to international customary law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. U.S. interests in preserving peace and stability and upholding freedom of the seas directly clash with those of China’s. Previous American administrations’ actions have failed to dissuade China from its malign actions.
China’s claim of sovereignty over Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands is another flashpoint for potential military conflict. American presidents, including Barack Obama, repeatedly confirmed that the United States would defend the Senkaku Islands if attacked under Article 5 of the security treaty between Japan and the United States. Through a joint written declaration, President Trump even affirmed the obligation to defend the Senkaku Islands. But the situation has been getting worse since Xi came to power. China declared an Air Defense Identification Zone near the islands in 2013. He has ordered multiple incursions by Chinese ships in waters of the Senkaku Islands, including fishing boats as well as armed vessels, in order to change the status quo. Recently, when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Japan to improve ties with the country, he asserted again that the islands belong to China, and vowed that China will “continue to absolutely defend our sovereignty.”
Given what Xi has successfully accomplished against Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong, we should anticipate that he will seek similar territorial changes against India, the Senkaku Islands, in the South China Sea, and against Taiwan. Indeed, further actions in the Indo-Pacific are likely to be taken by Xi sooner than the American foreign policy elite, or elites in allied states, might anticipate.
The Necessary Response: Measured Confrontation, Not Collaboration
The fundamental question American policymakers now face is whether the United States should confront China, or continue to collaborate, in the hope of sustaining certain areas of cooperation. Ultimately, this would probably require the United States to abandon its advocacy of liberal values and accept the Chinese Communist Party’s unlimited rule in exchange for a de facto nonaggression pact, and China’s pledge to abide by the principles, rules, and norms of the liberal international order.
Rather than accommodation, however, it is increasingly clear that U.S. global interests require measured confrontation. Xi’s personal motto is: “show the blade (亮剑).” So let the United States take him at his word and adopt this maxim in return as its animating spirit to defeat Xi’s ambitions. There are four components of an effective response.
First, the United States must be clear about the enemy and how it can achieve victory over the foe.
Thirty years after the end of the Cold War, Washington once again needs to adhere to the three principles of great power competition. The first principle is a strategic focus on the enemy and a plan for victory over the foe. Cato the Elder always ended his speeches in the Roman Senate—no matter the topic—with the recognition that Rome’s peer competitor, Carthage, had to be destroyed (Carthago delenda est). Carthage was finally vanquished after the end of the Third Punic War in 146 B.C., three years after Cato’s death. His focus on the threat perpetually reminded Roman leaders of Carthage’s determination to defeat them. Today, Cato’s clear and powerful insight concerning the necessity of focusing upon the enemy must fuel and guide U.S. strategic thought.
The second principle is that the most significant instrument in international politics is power. The maintenance of U.S. power, in all of its forms—military, economic, technological, educational—is essential. While the absolute power that a state has is significant, what is more important is the relative power of the state—how it ranks against the power of other states.
Dominant powers that do not carefully consider and evaluate the relative distribution of power are condemned to lose their dominance. Thus, how relative power is distributed in international politics is of central importance. Accordingly, trade must be considered with respect to its strategic impact. The free-market economists’ emphasis on absolute gains from trade must be supplanted by the strategists’ emphasis on the distribution of relative power: which state will gain more power from economic exchange must be the metric. Lamentably, the United States did not follow this strategic principle in its relations with China over the last generation.
The greatest mistake made by the United States in its long history was to ignore changes in the relative balance of power with China. Consequently, it did not advance its principal interest in international politics of preventing the rise of a hostile competitor. In the wake of the Cold War, the United States believed itself to be in the Hegelian “End of History,” popularized by Francis Fukuyama, in which great power competition would be absent as it remained the world’s sole superpower. The United States was free to advance economic growth, while strategic considerations were not at the center of policy concerns. Year after year, the relative balance of power with China gradually changed in Beijing’s favor.
Regrettably, in a historically unprecedented act, the United States contributed mightily to the creation of its most formidable competitor. It is both appalling and shameful that U.S. politicians labored to create this challenger. Warnings of this adverse change in the balance of power were not heeded. To the contrary, too many in Washington, New York, and Silicon Valley pursued policies which emphasized cooperation, “bringing China into” the international order and fostering its growth, so that it would become a “responsible stakeholder” in it. The expectation was that China would cooperate with the West to preserve the present liberal order of global politics.
This naïve approach was a profound mistake. It permitted China to hide behind a false promise to abide by Western rules and norms while it rapidly developed economically and militarily—creating a new Communist international order to replace the Western, liberal one. Despite claims to the contrary, China is not a status quo great power. It is a revolutionary great power seeking fundamental and permanent changes to the contemporary order in international politics.
The third principle is focused balancing. The United States possesses the correct conventional and strategic force structure in the region to deter China. Washington must stand with allies and other states of the Quad—Australia, India, Japan—which are cooperating ever more closely and might serve as a nascent counterbalance to the PRC. But the United States. must continue to lead them. The Indo-American 2+2 Ministerial in October 2020 was an important step in diplomatic and military cooperation. The joint Australian-Indian-Japanese-U.S. Malabar naval exercise is also a positive sign. But these must be sustained, further developed, and deepened. “Freedom of navigation operations” should continue and, indeed, become permanent. It is a welcome development that the U.K. and France have conducted such operations. The U.K. has been particularly active since 2018, and later in 2021, the Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group will sail to the South China Sea.
Moreover, the United States must work with Taiwan to provide support and cooperation in order to ensure that Taipei possesses the ability to deter attacks against it. Recent U.S. military sales to Taiwan are valuable and greater diplomatic and military cooperation, including out of area and non-traditional forms of interaction, should be forged.
Similarly, Mongolia and Vietnam should receive support including diplomatic and military assistance from the United States. The PRC’s de facto allies, Bangladesh and Pakistan, should be encouraged to question the value of their relationship with China, which is eroding the sovereignty of both states. A path away from dependency on the PRC for these states as well as others must be established.
Effective balancing also requires that the United States significantly increase its nuclear and conventional presence in the Indo-Pacific, strengthen its allies, augment its defenses, and continue to convey to the world the dangerous consequences of China’s reckless expansion.
The second step for the United States is to illuminate the nature of Xi’s regime and the misrule of the CCP. This includes not only pushing for the end of gross human rights abuses by the PRC in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong. It also requires eliminating restrictions on travel and residency for Chinese citizens which violates the human rights of rural populations.
Additionally, the United States must ban imports of forced labor products from Xinjiang and other regions. New mechanisms to advance human rights in China must be developed and employed, including measures to penetrate or bypass the “Great Firewall” through which the CCP isolates China from the global internet. To send a clear signal that human rights abuses are not acceptable, the world should boycott the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.
The third measure is to continue to advance trade and economic security to protect key industries in the United States, including in information technology. This includes the maintenance of export restrictions on U.S. software, products, and equipment on Chinese firms, including on Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation, China’s largest chip maker, to retard its ability to equal the cutting-edge chip foundries at Intel, Samsung, and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.. The Trump Administration’s November 2020 executive order banned U.S. persons from investing in new transactions in shares of more than 30 companies with suspected ties to the Chinese military and thereby posing a national security threat to the United States. If sustained by the Biden Administration, U.S. asset managers, investment banks, and exchange traded funds will have to divest their holdings in those stocks by November 2021. The Biden Administration has the possibility of expanding this measure or applying similar ones in new areas.
Trade and economic security also involves calling attention to abusive Chinese practices, such as Beijing’s punitive trade ban against many Australian goods. German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbaur’s public support for Australia in the face of China’s economic coercion is welcomed. Such support must be as consistent and routine as it was during the Cold War when U.S. allies stood remarkably united against the Soviet threat. Australia has also taken important steps to combat Chinese intelligence collection against Australian targets and to deepen security cooperation with India and Japan, particularly with the Reciprocal Access Agreement reached late last year.
Additionally, the risk from fake and pirated goods bought online from e-sellers, including third-party sellers, and the shippers and operators of major warehouses like Amazon, eBay, and Alibaba, as well as organized crime’s e-commerce activities are a national security and public health problem in the course of a pandemic. The public health concern is that pharmaceuticals and cosmetics may be counterfeit and pose a dangerous health risk particularly as the majority of pharmaceuticals are manufactured in China. There remains the possibility of contamination and counterfeiting of critical drugs, such as blood thinners, as well as food, including pet food, as well as PPE, as the world has discovered in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Moreover, and as a bedrock principle of U.S. economic security, it should be required that U.S. firms, individuals, academic institutions, and investors reveal the true nature of their relationships with Chinese firms, and be informed particularly of the PRC’s requirement for all Chinese firms to cooperate with PRC authorities. Unfortunately for the protection of intellectual property, the protection of personal and financial data, and proprietary information, there remains considerable ignorance in the West about these Chinese laws, including the new Data Security Law, Cryptography Law, and the Cyber Security Law of 2017, which compel all Chinese institutions and citizens to cooperate with PRC security and intelligence services. This results in the lack of adequate data protection for Chinese entities or foreign entities conducting business in China or with Chinese entities.
Finally, the fourth measure is for the United States not to fall back on bad habits. We must guard against our proclivity to make appeals to the personalities and personal relationships with Chinese leaders. This was done by Nixon, Carter, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama. But entreaties to professed friendships and warm individual relations have not and will not be successful. They are chimeras. Just as it was with Mao or Deng, a personal relationship with Xi to dissuade him from his objectives and ideology is not possible.
During the Cold War, similar arguments were voiced in the 1970s with respect to the USSR. The relaxation of tensions with the Soviet Union meant abandoning Western determination to achieve victory. Détente required the United States to accept that the Soviet Union could not be defeated, and was a fact of life in international politics. Therefore, the “experts” insisted that relations with the Soviet Union be conducted professionally and remain devoid of ideology or a desire to defeat them. Like the Soviet Union, the PRC is a revolutionary state, and its objectives are not compatible with U.S. national security interests at present and won’t be in the future. The first principles of American foreign policy and U.S. relations with China must recognize this.
Accommodation will embolden Xi and generate additional and accelerated pressure for change to the liberal international order. Thanks to the Trump Administration, the United States has time to act to sustain its position over China, but that window is closing, and the greater the accommodation with China, the faster that window will close. As regrettable as it is, direct, focused, and measured confrontation is the necessary and only option available to the United States to defeat Xi’s ambitions and preserve America’s interests.
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Bradley A. Thayer is the co-author of How China Sees the World: Han-Centrism and the Balance of Power in International Politics. Lianchao Han is vice president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China. After the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, Dr. Han was one of the founders of the Independent Federation of Chinese Students and Scholars. He worked in the U.S. Senate for 12 years, as legislative counsel and policy director for three senators.
Photo “Xi Jinping” by Palácio do Planalto CC BY 2.0 and photo “Joe Biden” by Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0.