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LIFE MATTERS: The United States, China, and the Specter of War

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Second part of 3 parts

By Colonel Dencio S. Acop (Ret), PhD

China’s Grand Strategy Towards Dislodging the United States and Instituting a New World Order  

In his book “The Long Game”, Rush Doshi (2021) wrote that the grand strategy of China has been to “blunt, build, and expand” at every regional / global level and opportunity until it can match up to the world hegemon United States and dislodge it from its lone superpower status. Referenced from Chinese Communist Party texts, Party lines, guidelines, and policies, The Long Game discusses how China is way past just “hiding its capabilities” and then “building” them. It is now at the point where the Chinese Communist Party under Xi Jinping is convinced that China can “expand its capabilities” and effectively challenge the supremacy of the United States. China accounts for roughly a fifth of the global economy and has “overtook the United States as the world’s largest economy in 2014 on a purchasing power parity basis”. (Wikipedia, accessed Nov 2023). With great economic might comes great military power. And its priority target is Taiwan. Expansion would not mean anything to China if it fails to get Taiwan, whom it considers a renegade province, back under its wing. So, is war coming to Taiwan? By all indicators, it is only a matter of time. One thing is certain. If China invades Taiwan, it will have considered potential war with Taiwan’s regional allies like the United States, Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and others.

To understand China’s current state, it is first necessary to review its history. Back in 1872, Qing Dynasty general Li Hongzhang “reflected on the groundbreaking geopolitical and technological transformations he had seen in his own life that posed an existential threat to the Qing”. Li advocated for more investment in Chinese shipbuilding and “penned a line since repeated for generations: China was experiencing ‘great changes not seen in three thousand years’”. Doshi further wrote: “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. China’s decline was the product of the Qing Dynasty’s inability to reckon with transformative geopolitical and technological forces which changed the international balance of power and ushered in China’s ‘Century of Humiliation’. 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 declared that the world is in the midst of ‘great changes unseen in a century’”. (Doshi, 2021, pp. 1-2)

China today sees a milestone opportunity to reverse the mistakes of its past and seize the day. “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 adjustment. For Xi, the origin of these shifts is China’s growing power and what it saw as the West’s apparent self-destruction.” (p.2). The global events which supported Xi’s position were the United Kingdom’s leaving the European Union, the populist election of Donald Trump in the United States, disorganized response to the coronavirus pandemic, and storming of the US Capitol. “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.” (Doshi, 2021, p.2).

Doshi argues that “the core of US-China competition since the Cold War has been over regional and now global order. The argument focuses on the strategies that rising powers like China use to displace an established hegemon like the United States short of war. That 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. The second is to build forms of control over others. 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.” (Doshi, 2021, pp.3-4).                  

To better appreciate China’s ways and means, a look at the ends of Chinese regional and global order should be enlightening. The Chinese Communist Party under Xi Jinping aims to achieve what it calls 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.” (Doshi, 2021, p.4).

“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’, including Washington’s unwillingness to 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 writers describe using Mao’s revolutionary guidance to ‘surround the cities from the countryside’. Chinese order would be anchored in China’s Belt and Road Initiative and its Community of Common Destiny, creating networks of coercive capability, consensual inducement, and legitimacy.” (Doshi, 2021, p.5).

“Politically, China 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. Aspects of this Chinese vision are evident in high-level speeches proving that China’s ambitions are not limited to Taiwan or to merely dominating the Indo-Pacific. The struggle for dominance, 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.” (Doshi, 2021, p.5).

China’s perceptions of US power and threat as well as its own growing power have guided the development of Chinese grand strategy to what it has become over the years. “China’s first strategy of displacement (1989-2008) was to quietly blunt American power over China, particularly in Asia, and it emerged after the traumatic trifecta of Tiananmen Square, the Gulf War, and the Soviet collapse led Beijing to sharply increase its perception of US threat. China’s second strategy of displacement (2008-2016) sought to build the foundation for regional hegemony in Asia, and it was launched after the Global Financial Crisis led Beijing to see US power as diminished and emboldened it to take a more confident approach. Now, with the invocation of ‘great changes unseen in a century’ following Brexit, Donald Trump’s election (and divisive domestic populism), and the coronavirus pandemic, China has launched a third strategy of displacement that expands its blunting and building efforts worldwide to displace the United States as the global leader.” (Doshi, 2021, p.4).

What has China done to blunt the power of the United States? Militarily, China moved away from a ‘sea control’ strategy to a ‘sea denial’ strategy using asymmetric denial weapons like sea mines, anti-ship ballistic missiles, and submarines to undermine US military power. Politically, China reversed its previous refusal to be part of regional institutions. “It feared that multilateral organizations like Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum (ARF) might be used by Washington to build a liberal regional order or even an Asian NATO, so China joined them to blunt American power. It stalled institutional progress, wielded institutional rules to constrain US freedom of maneuver, and hoped participation would reassure wary neighbors otherwise tempted to join a US-led balancing coalition.” Economically, China protected its economy until it was strong enough to become more independent from the West. The trifecta and its aftermath laid bare before Party leaders the Chinese economy’s dependence on US markets who then worked to prevent US revocation of China’s most-favored nation (MFN) trade status.” (Doshi, 2021, pp.11-12).      

After blunting American power, what has China done to build its own power. Militarily, “China shifted strategy away from a singular focus on blunting American power through sea denial to a new focus on building order through sea control. China now sought the capability to hold distant islands, safeguard sea lanes, intervene in neighboring countries, and provide public security goods. China stepped up investments in aircraft carriers, capable surface vessels, amphibious warfare, marines, and overseas bases.” Politically, “China spearheaded the launch of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the elevation and institutionalization of the previously obscure Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA). It then used these institutions, with mixed success, as instruments to shape regional order in the economic and security domains in directions it preferred.” Economically, “the Global Financial Crisis helped Beijing depart from a defensive blunting strategy that targeted American economic leverage to an offensive building strategy designed to build China’s own coercive and consensual economic capacities. At the core of this effort were China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), its robust use of economic statecraft against its neighbors, and its attempts to gain greater financial influence.” (Doshi, 2021, pp.12-13).    

“Beijing used these blunting and building strategies to constrain US influence within Asia and to build the foundations for regional hegemony. The relative success of that strategy was remarkable, but Beijing’s ambitions were not limited only to the Indo-Pacific. When Washington was again seen as stumbling, China’s grand strategy evolved – this time in a more global direction.” The Chinese Communist Party led by Xi felt it was time to go “all the way”. That it was now time to expand China’s power globally. “The Chinese Communist Party concluded that the United States was in retreat globally. ‘Great changes unseen in a century’ 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.” (Doshi, 2021, p.13). “Politically, Beijing is seeking to project leadership over global governance and international institutions and to advance autocratic norms. Economically, it is trying to weaken the financial advantages that underwrite US hegemony and seize the commanding heights of the ‘fourth industrial revolution’. And militarily, the People’s Liberation Army is fielding a truly global Chinese military with overseas bases around the world.” (Doshi, 2021, p.13).

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