Washington – Can we pay the Chinese Communist Party the compliment of acknowledging that it means what it says and knows what it wants? That may be the key to understanding Beijing’s strategic ambitions in the coming decades.
A long-standing trope in the U.S. debate on that subject is that China itself doesn’t know what it seeks to achieve, that its leaders haven’t yet worked out how far Beijing’s influence should reach. Yet there is a growing body of evidence, assembled and interpreted by talented China experts, that the Chinese government is indeed aiming for global power and perhaps global primacy over the next generation — that it seeks to upend the American-led international system and create at least a competing, quasi-world order of its own.
This was the statement of a leader who sees his country not just participating in global affairs but setting the terms, and it testifies to two core themes in China’s foreign policy discourse.
The first is a deeply skeptical view of the existing international system. Chinese leaders recognize that the global trade regime has been indispensable to the country’s economic and military rise. Yet when they look at the key features of the world Washington and its allies have made, they see mostly threats.
In their view, American alliances do not preserve peace and stability; they stunt China’s potential and prevent Asian nations from giving Beijing its due. Seen through that lens, promoting democracy and human rights is neither moral nor benign, but propaganda supporting a dangerous doctrine that threatens to delegitimize the Communist government and energize its domestic enemies. U.S.-led international institutions appear as tools for imposing America’s will on weaker states.
The Communist Party recognizes that the liberal international order has brought benefits, writes Nadege Rolland, a senior fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research, but “the party abhors and dreads” the principles on which it is based.
The second theme is that the international order must change — not a little, but a lot — for China to become fully prosperous and secure. Chinese leaders have, understandably, been somewhat opaque in describing the world they want, but the outlines are becoming easier to discern.
If one studies the statements of Xi and other top officials, China expert Liza Tobin concludes, what emerges is a vision in which “a global network of partnerships centered on China would replace the U.S. system of treaty alliances” and the world would view Chinese authoritarianism as preferable to Western democracy.
Based on a similar analysis, Rolland agrees that China has “a yearning for partial hegemony,” a loose dominance over large swaths of the global south. When it comes to global governance, still other examinations show, Beijing wants a system in which international institutions buttress rather than batter repressive regimes. Meanwhile, Chinese strategists and academics are talking openly about building a “new China-centric global economic order.”
There is little indication, in any of this, that Beijing’s strategic horizon is limited to the western Pacific or even Asia. Xi’s invocation of a “community with a shared future for humanity” indicates a global tableau for Chinese influence. One hardly has to read between the lines to understand that this agenda will require fundamentally resetting the current geopolitical balance. As Xi remarked several years ago, China must work resolutely toward “a future where we will win the initiative and have the dominant position.”
Of course, there’s not need to take literally everything national leaders say, or even everything that makes it into official speeches. In Beijing’s case, however, Chinese leaders are actually saying less than what the country is doing.
Whether it is the naval shipbuilding program that is churning out vessels at astonishing rate; the drive to control existing international organizations and build new ones; the projection of military power in the Arctic, the Indian Ocean and points beyond; the quest to dominate the world’s high-tech industries; the ever-more systematic efforts to support authoritarian regimes and weaken democratic institutions; or the "Belt and Road" initiative that encompasses multiple continents, China is hardly acting like a country that lacks a grand geopolitical design.
As with so many aspects of the U.S.-China competition, there is a Cold War parallel. During the 1970s, some leading American Sovietologists insisted that Moscow was becoming a satisfied, status quo power. Yet that claim required ignoring what Soviet leaders said about detente and peaceful coexistence — that it was a way of ensuring the triumph of socialism without war — as well as their efforts to build military superiority and positions of strength in the Third World. The warning signs were evident then, as they are today.
China probably doesn’t have a step-by-step checklist for achieving global primacy, any more than the Soviet Union did in the 1970s. Chinese leaders aren’t insensitive to costs and obstacles: Xi may ritualistically restate the importance of unifying the Chinese nation, but that doesn’t mean he’s hell-bent on war over Taiwan.
Beijing may not even have decided which of its two paths to global influence is preferable: Establishing dominance in the Western Pacific and then expanding outward from there, or outflanking the U.S. position in the region by building up economic and political power around the world. Finally, China may ultimately fail to accomplish any of this. Perhaps the coronavirus will so weaken the U.S. and the liberal order that China’s ascent will be accelerated. Or perhaps China will run into so many internal problems, and so much external resistance, that its drive will stall.
Yet we ought to recognize that the debate about what China wants is growing stale, because China’s leaders and behavior have increasingly answered that question. When a proud and powerful challenger starts to advertise its global ambitions, Americans should probably err on the side of taking those ambitious seriously.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.