National Security & Defense

China and the Major Powers

Staffers adjust U.S. and Chinese flags before the opening session of trade negotiations in Beijing, China, February 14, 2019. (Mark Schiefelbein/Pool via Reuters)
China's strategic space is expanding beyond the imagination of the original Communist Party leaders.

Beijing is able to work effectively within regions where power is diffuse. However, one of the greatest challenges in completing China’s ascending vision of victory will be outmaneuvering, coopting, or breaking the power of other major nations, especially the United States.

While Russia, India, and Japan all play important roles in their regionsand will continue to do so in the futureChina’s core challenge is to siphon power away from America, the reigning superpower, without provoking a response that will derail China’s activities and plans. Despite new actions on trade and commerce in 2018, U.S. understanding of China’s ascendancy remains chaotic and contradictory. The long-standing U.S. strategy towards China, “engage but hedge,” lives on even as U.S. national security sounds the alarm on China, but U.S. business and finance works to make the most of the Chinese market. In foreign-policy and academic circles, American discourse paints polarizing categories about those who are “hawks” and those who are “doves,” even as the actions, objectives, and strategies of the Chinese Communist Party are on vivid display in Asia and around the world.

Beijing adds to this confusion in America and elsewhere in the world through its own brand of interference operations directed against democratic countries. In contrast to Russia’s attempts to sow political discord in America’s 2016 elections, Chinese influence operations present a positive, sanitized image of China to nations around the world. This is meant to distort a country’s discourse on China and to constrain action against Beijing. In the words of a 2018 report from a group of leading American China experts, Beijing’s influence operations target “think tanks, universities, and media [as well as] state, local, and national government institutions.” In doing so “China seeks to promote views sympathetic to the Chinese Government, policies, society, and culture; suppress alternative views; and co-opt key American players to support China’s foreign policy goals and economic interests.”

However, the challenges for China should not be underestimated when it comes to strategic competition with the United States.

The United States retains enormous advantages in terms of economic and military power, a global alliance system, and leadership in the innumerable institutions built under the Pax Americana. The U.S. lacks, however, at present, the strategic focus of a rising nation such as China. Thus, the Chinese Communist Party is able to work around the edges of American power, building its own global presence. China’s leaders prepare for military confrontation with America and its allies while also working to complete an economic ascendancy of such proportions that the U.S. may ultimatelyif this strategy is successfulfind itself outmaneuvered and ultimately surpassed and replaced in each realm in which power is built.

China is likely to press ahead with attempts to outmaneuver U.S. alliances and partnerships, gradually peeling countries away from an American order and into China’s economic orbit through trade, investment, and commercial incentives that America can’t or won’t provide. The integration of Europe into the “Belt and Road,” for example, is paramount to Chinese strategy; the weakening of U.S.–European ties across the Atlantic, driven by deeper European economic integration with China, would be a cornerstone of Chinese long-term strategic victory. Splitting the U.S. alliance system in Asia is commonly understood to be one of Beijing’s long-term objectives, especially when it comes to the relationship between the United States and Japanthis is a relationship that party strategists and leaders see as hostile to Chinese power in Asia. In the words of one of the Communist Party’s senior ideologists, speaking to former U.S. national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski in 2013:

China today is neither the Qing regime, nor Germany in World War I nor Japan in World War II. It definitely will not work to go back to the old way of checking China by supporting Japan. In a word, encirclement of China is destined to fail. They must recognize and acknowledge the existence of a New East.

In the long term, with the breaking of the U.S. presence in Asia and the integration of Europe and other major continents into the “Belt and Road,” China would be free to consolidate its power in an intercontinental system in which America plays a weakened role. This would, at worst, convert the U.S. into an isolated, island continent, detached from a colossal geographical system, one where China sits at its center as the dominant military and economic power.

What role would the United States and the other major powers take in a China-led world? What would it mean for the de facto end of American preeminence in global affairs?

While China insists that its rise can be a “win-win,” and much American discourse focuses on the fear of war with China, the reality is that China’s rise is in fact an open challenge to the United States. China shows some comfort and effectiveness in formulating its relations to entire regions, especially when engagement is based on beneficial trade flows and resource acquisition. However, China has, in its modern history, shown a far greater discomfort in its relations with major nation-states. Its wars with India, Russia, and the United States during the founding decades of the People’s Republic of China attest to this. All such wars were considered to be defensive struggles waged in China’s interest. China’s leaders did not hesitate to use military force when they felt that they had been pressed too far, meaning that vital interests were at stake, or that China’s position in its region was threatened and the country had to make a stand.

What has changed dramatically since China’s wars of the 20th century is both the scope of China’s global interests and its military capabilities. In short, China’s “region” is in fact evolving into a global playing field. In the 1950s, there were four key strategic regions that mattered as China built its national industry, consolidated its borders, and took the first steps on its journey as the “New China”: the Himalayas (Tibet), the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia. China fought wars in each of these arenas, all considered vital to the reconstruction of its geopolitical positionpure sovereignty and territorial integrity itselffollowing the “Century of Humiliation.”

China’s assistance to its fellow Communist states, North Korea and Vietnam, was not simply an act of Cold War camaraderie: These actions resulted from calculated assessments of Chinese national interest and security, in a period when “territorial integrity” was felt to be at risk and “sovereignty” was seen as a fragile and hard-won thing. These were not yet the operations of a major military power, but those of an agrarian, preindustrial society. Nonetheless, China’s leaders were able to muster massive quantities of manpower and the experience of nearly constant warfare in their own region, from the Second World War to the Chinese civil war, as well as a powerful sense of national purpose at a leadership level. China, throughout the 20th century, deployed these assets against perceived enemies and adversaries all along its frontiers.

The China of today has changed. China is no longer concerned only with its traditional strategic geography. It is now a global actor, building a multi-regional military, with an intercontinental vision of its “legitimate rights and interests.” China’s leaders tell their military that they must “improve their combat capability and readiness for war,” and their people that the Central Military Commission “should lead the armed forces to be ready to fight and win wars, and to undertake the mission and tasks of the new era.” One of the most important questions for other countries is simple: What kind of wars is China planning to fight?

The use of paramilitary power to compel smaller nations to bend to China’s will is substantial. In the South China Sea, China’s “gray zone” paramilitary operations are directed against Southeast Asian nations that have rival claims to China’s “blue national soil.”

But major powers must also beware. China’s military, above all, is designed for conflict with the United States. It is also designed to deter and defeat India and, if necessary, Russia, though Russian–Chinese relations are currently at a high point. In the 20th century, China fought wars in or conducted military operations against nearly every nation on its periphery: Korea, India, Russia, Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam, and against the United States and the United Nations in Korea, in addition to waging a bloody civil war. In the 21st century, its strategic space has expanded beyond the imagination of China’s original leaders.

Despite “win-win” rhetoric in English, Chinese-language discourse is not always so peaceful, especially at a popular level. Recall Mao’s inflammatory speeches on the ability of hundreds of millions of Chinese people to absorb a nuclear war with any adversary, and consider the lines, below, that played across Chinese national media in 2013. They originated in the Communist Party–run Global Times and were syndicated across numerous outlets online as China’s national media reported on new nuclear-submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). The paper called China’s SLBMs “the national weapon,” the development of which is “an important event in the history of U.S.–China relations.”

Because the Midwestern states of the United States are sparsely populated, in order to improve the killing effect, the nuclear killing of U.S. soft targets should concentrate on major cities on the West Coast, such as Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego. . . .

If the Dongfeng 31A is launched above the North Pole, it can easily destroy a series of large cities on the East Coast and in New England, such as Ann Arbor, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Portland, Baltimore, and Norfolk. The population of these cities accounts for one-eighth of the total population of the United States.

More recently, in December 2018, at the Military Industry List summit in Shenzhen, China, Rear Admiral Luo Yan (retired), deputy head of the Academy of Military Science of the People’s Liberation Army, explained that China could sink two U.S. aircraft carriers. “’What the United States fears most is taking casualties,’ the admiral [Luo Yuan] said, before adding that such an attack on two of the U.S. Navy’s steel behemoths would claim upwards of 10,000 lives,” the Navy Times reported. Luo also described the “Five National Foundations” of the United States: the military, the U.S. dollar, talent, voting, and the cultivation of enemies; he explained that China should “use its strengths to attack the enemy’s shortcomings. Attack wherever the enemy is afraid of being hit. Wherever the enemy is weak.”

Despite coverage in multiple countries, neither Admiral Luo’s statements nor the conference in Shenzhen found their way into the most prominent American news outlets.

Will China make accommodations with major nations such as Russia and India? What will its relationship be with Europe, which is both a major market and a base for important technological harvests for the PRC, and whose military power, while significant, is mostly far away? And what about Japan, the archenemy in China’s popular culture, but also a substantial military power and close ally of the United States? And what about the United States itself? These are among the most important questions in the coming years of China’s rise to global power.

Concern among major nations is already visible. India is worried about Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean region and military activity in the Himalayas. Russia, despite its “comprehensive strategic partnership” with China and Xi Jinping’s assessment that Russian–Chinese relations are “now the best ever,” may also be playing a long-term losing geopolitical game with the PRC. Russia’s stalling economy is now only 15 percent the size of China’s GDP. As it loses its military edge over China, it also cedes influence in Central Asia, and potentially even in the Arctic in the long run. As a Russian scholar remarked recently in Washington, Russia is concerned, ultimately, about an Asia dominated by China. I asked her why, then, was Russia helping China to build its military capabilities? She replied that Russia had to sell something to someone.

Europe provides a fascinating case. Burdened with regional concerns at present, from immigration to terrorism to the question of Russia itself, policymakers often see China as a welcome source of relief to otherwise troubling economic circumstances. The China Daily in Europe studiously avoids military and security issues in Asia, instead using its columns to invite European companies to come and surf the wave of Chinese mergers and acquisitions, while also throwing in that — unlike the European colonial powers — China intends to rise peacefully. This is a convenient message for the moment. However, as U.S.–China problems increase, European nations may find it difficult to remain bystanders to a shifting strategic balance that is dangerous to their American military partner and defender. The problem of China’s ascendency will be all the more urgent for Europe as programs such as Made in China 2025 threaten to damage European competitiveness — a fact that European business and governments are increasingly aware of.

In short, it is a brave new world for countries large and small as China’s rise continues, as its ambitions increase, and its sheer global weight is felt more and more. From major regions to major nation-states, China’s global impact is already more profound than anything else seen since the end of the USSR, and perhaps rivals the rise of the United States itself. It is built not only on ambition but on sheer necessity wedded to a vision of global proportions. Resource interests, food security, water, protein, fishing rights, maritime trade routes, mining interests — issues that span the planet — are the baseline interests for China’s billion-plus people.

Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from China’s Vision of Victory.

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Jonathan D. T. Ward is founder of the Atlas Organization, author of China’s Vision of Victory, and holds a Ph.D. from Oxford in China–India relations.

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