- The single most important challenge facing the United States and the democratic world in the twenty-first century is the rise of an increasingly authoritarian and aggressive China under Xi Jinping. China has long had an integrated, operational strategy for dealing with the United States. The United States has so far had no such strategy with regard to China. This is a dereliction of national responsibility.
- US strategy and policy toward China must be laser-focused on the fault lines among Xi and his inner circle–aimed at changing their objectives and behavior and thus their strategic course. Communist Party elites are much more divided about Xi’s leadership and vast ambitions than is widely appreciated.
- The foremost goal of US strategy should be to cause China’s ruling elites to conclude that it is in China’s best interests to continue operating within the US-led liberal international order rather than building a rival order, and that it is in the Chinese Communist Party’s best interests to not attempt to expand China’s borders or export its political model beyond China’s shores.
First, US strategy must be based on the four fundamental pillars of American power: the power of the nation’s military; the status of the US dollar as the global reserve currency and mainstay of the international financial system; global technological leadership, given that technology has become the major determinant of future national power; and the values of individual freedom, fairness, and the rule of law for which the nation continues to stand, despite its recent political divisions and difficulties.
Second, US strategy must begin by attending to domestic economic and institutional weaknesses. The success of China’s rise has been predicated on a meticulous strategy, executed over thirty-five years, of identifying and addressing China’s structural economic weaknesses in manufacturing, trade, finance, human capital, and now technology. The United States must now do the same.
Third, the United States’ China strategy must be anchored in both national values and national interests. This is what has long distinguished the nation from China in the eyes of the world. The defense of universal liberal values and the liberal international order, as well as the maintenance of US global power, must be the twin pillars of America’s global call to arms.
Fourth, US strategy must be fully coordinated with major allies so that action is taken in unity in response to China. This has nothing to do with making allies feel good or better than they have. It’s because the United States now needs them to win. As noted previously, China ultimately places great weight on its calculation of the evolving balance of comprehensive power between the United States and itself. The reality is that, as the gap between Chinese and US power closes during the 2020s, the most credible factor that can alter that trajectory is if US power is augmented by that of its principal allies.
Fifth, the United States’ China strategy also must address the wider political and economic needs of its principal allies and partners rather than assuming that they will choose to adopt a common, coordinated strategic position on China out of the goodness of their hearts. Unless the United States also deals with the fact that China has become the principal trading partner for most, if not all, of its major allies, this underlying economic reality alone will have growing influence over the willingness of traditional allies to challenge China’s increasingly assertive international behavior.
Sixth, the United States must rebalance its relationship with Russia whether it likes it or not. Effectively reinforcing US alliances is critical. Dividing Russia from China in the future is equally so. Allowing Russia to drift fully into China’s strategic embrace over the last decade will go down as the single greatest geostrategic error of successive US administrations.
Seventh, the central focus of an effective US and allied China strategy must be directed at the internal fault lines of domestic Chinese politics in general and concerning Xi’s leadership in particular. A fundamental error of US strategy has been to attack China as a whole, thereby enabling Xi’s leadership to circle the wagons within Chinese politics around the emotional pull of Chinese nationalism and civilizational pride. Just as significant an error has been to crudely attack the Chinese Communist Party itself. However, the political reality is that the party is divided on Xi’s leadership where he threatens the lives, careers, and deeply held policy positions of many within its senior political echelons.
Eighth, US strategy must never forget the innately realist nature of the Chinese strategy that it is seeking to defeat. Chinese leaders respect strength and are contemptuous of weakness. They respect consistency and are contemptuous of vacillation. China does not believe in strategic vacuums.
Ninth, US strategy must understand that China remains for the time being highly anxious about military conflict with the United States, but that this attitude will change as the military balance shifts over the next decade. If military conflict were to erupt between China and the United States, and China failed to win decisively, then—given the party’s domestic propaganda offensive over many years proclaiming China’s inevitable rise—Xi would probably fall and the regime’s overall political legitimacy would collapse.
Tenth, for Xi, too, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Short of defeat in any future military action, the single greatest factor that could contribute to Xi’s fall is economic failure. That would mean large-scale unemployment and falling living standards for China’s population. Full employment and rising living standards are the essential components of the unspoken social contract between the Chinese people and the CCP since the tumult of the Cultural Revolution.
The 2019 National Day parade featured performers and a float with a portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping, as part of the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, in Beijing, China, October 1, 2019.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Politburo Standing Committee members Wang Huning, Li Zhanshu and Li Keqiang attend a wreath laying ceremony at the Monument to the People’s Heroes in Tiananmen Square, marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, in Beijing, China September 30, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter
Military vehicles carrying hypersonic cruise missiles drive past Tiananmen Square during the military parade marking the 70th founding anniversary of People’s Republic of China, on its National Day in Beijing, China October 1, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter