Facing the reality of Chinese Power

Wilson Shirley

The bipartisan Amer-ican awakening to the China Challen-ge suffers from a non-partisan problem: a lack of precision. The scope of the challenge is so imm-ense—a Chinese Comm-unist Party of 95 million members ruling over a nation of 1.4 billion people and competing with the United States for global leadership—that it is difficult to know what specific actions are requi-red to meet that challenge. And it’s remarkable that, several years into a momentous shift in American public opinion against Beijing, Washing-ton’s pronouncements are often limited to urgent calls for ill- or un-defined strategies to push back.

Rush Doshi’s The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order attempts to break that mold by getting specific. The former director of the China Strategy Initiative at the Brookings Institution and current director for China at the National Security Council, Doshi offers a detailed analysis of the Chinese Communist Party’s global ambitions, as well as the beginnings of an American strategy to keep them in check. The foundation of this effort is “an original and fully digitized database of Chinese-language Communist Party documents personally excavated over the last three years.” That scholarly work yielded 60 pages of footnotes that have as many Chinese characters as English letters, demonstrating Doshi’s immersion into the Chinese leadership’s thinking.

Doshi’s subtitle shows why this research is needed. Want to know what China’s grand strategy to displace American order is? Then read what Chinese Communist officials are saying, and wherever possible, read what they’re saying at home and in their own language. After that, cross-reference their rhetoric with their actions.

Former National Secur-ity Advisor Lt. General H.R. McMaster described such an approach as “strategic empathy.” Strategic empathy is not sympathy, but instead “viewing complex challenges, as well as opportunities, from the perspective of the other side—especially of rivals, adversaries, or enemies.”

The Long Game is not the first book to attempt strategic empathy with the Chinese Communist Party. James Mann’s The China Fantasy, written in 2008, for instance, moved toward this goal. But The Long Ga-me’s detail, the clarity of the author’s thought, and t-he timing of the publication, especially given Do-shi’s current position, make it a critical contribution.

Doshi examines the Chinese Communist Party, which he describes as founded under Soviet influence as a nationalist, Leninist enterprise based on Marxist theory. The Party “sits above the state and penetrates every level of it as well.” Mao proclaimed and Xi reaffirmed, “Party, government, military, civilian, and academic, north, south, east, west, and center, the Party leads everything.”

The Chinese Communist Party “still runs on Soviet hardware.” Xi’s most important title is “General Secretary.” Down the hierarchy there are “seven to nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee, who are nominally selected from a 25-member Politburo, which is in turn selected from the 370 members of the CCP’s Central Committee.”

Such bodies may sound like they belong to an era of empires now on ash-heaps. But Doshi is correct that this structure is Leninist. As the scholar Gary Saul Mor-son noted, “[Lenin] invented the one-party state, a term that would have previously seemed self-contradictory since a party was, by definition, a part.”

If strategic empathy requires understanding the perspective of the other side, it should start with recognizing what the other side actually is. The name “Chinese Communist Party” tells you a lot.

Hide and Bide

And the Party has a strange perspective on history. According to Doshi, “Tiananmen Square in 1989, the Gulf War in 1990–1991, and then the Soviet collapse in 1991 led China to see the United States and not the Soviet Union as China’s primary threat.” For Beijing, these events constituted “a traumatic trifecta.” During a conversation with former president Richard Nixon after Tiananmen, Deng Xiaoping declared that “the United States was deeply involved” in “the recent disturbances and the counter-revolutionary rebellion.” Deng—the leader of China’s reform and opening up—thought the United States was pushing for his regime’s demise, a notion that would have surprised most Americans.

For the Chinese Communist Party, the free world’s victory in the Cold War heightened this threat perception, necessitating a shift in grand strategy. It had to confront the United States. Deng’s plan was for China to “hide its capabilities and bide its time” while it built up its strength.

Though Deng’s “hide and bide” strategy puts the “long” in China’s long game, and shows that the problems emanating from Beijing didn’t start with Xi, Doshi’s analysis focuses on too short a timeframe. There’s a remarkable degree of continuity in Beijing’s thinking from well before the “traumatic trifecta” to today. Miles Yu of the US Naval Academy and the Hudson Institute has pointed out how classics of Chinese military thought like the Thirty-Six Strategies emphasize a similar idea to “hide and bide,” and have long been a part of Beijing’s calculus.

But Doshi’s tracing of Deng’s deception in “hiding and biding” is masterful nonetheless. He details the pedigree of the phrase and analyzes China’s policy of “blunting” American power militarily by investing in submarines, missiles, and mines; politically through bodies like the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization; and economically by joining the World Trade Organization.

The Long Game makes clear that the United States should do much more than bide its time—especially if it’s to continue leading the free world.

Doshi quotes Chinese negotiator Long Yongtu to explain the significance of China’s accession to the WTO. Maintaining most-favored-nation status with the United States was a “core interest,” which WTO accession helped make a lasting reality. “The WTO,” Long explained, “can help resolve China’s increasing trade frictions with developed countries and free China from the threat of revocation of most-favored-nation status.” Permanent normal trade relations reduced America’s economic leverage for two decades “until,” Doshi states, “the Trump administration broke…self-imposed constraints in 2018 and pursued a trade war with China.”

After blunting came building, with Hu Jintao turning from “hiding and biding” to “actively accomplishing something.” Galvanized by perceived American weakness after the 2008 financial crisis, Beijing purchased and refurbished aircraft carriers, created institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, expanded the Belt and Road Initiative, militarized the South China Sea, and built for an era of “great changes unseen in a century.”

China’s Weaknesses

But Doshi seems to take for granted China’s continued rise under the Chinese Communist Party, stating that “China is also on track to surpass the United States in economic size.” That could indeed be, and as long as Beijing remains hostile to the United States, it’s cause for concern. But it’s not inevitable.

First, it’s hard to know where the two economies stand relative to one another, even today. Arguing that “in nominal terms, [China] is expected to catch up to the United States in 2028 given the impact of the coronavirus,” Doshi obse-rves that, due to the pandemic, the American economy “[shrank] 8 percent in one year while China’s gr-ew 1–2 percent.” Those figures appear to come from the World Bank, and were likely taken before the end of 2020. By that time, the US economy was reboun-ding and the shrinkage shrank to 3.5 percent, while China’s annual growth was revised to 2.3 percent.

But those numbers might not be what they seem. A recent investigation showed that World Bank executives pressured staff to alter data that would have negatively affected China’s rankings in its “Doing Business Rep-ort.” The World Bank discontinued the report after the scandal came to light.

Xi’s crackdown on China’s technology sector and events like the recent collapse of the giant property developer Evergrande Group have also turned many investors bearish on China. Niall Ferguson noted that the International Monetary Fund “revised down its growth projections for China” to 5.4 percent by 2023, which, he argues, still “looks high…even allowing for the unreliability of Chinese statistics.” Goldman Sachs also changed its forecast for China’s growth this year because the country is experiencing rolling blackouts affecting 44 percent of its industrial activity, particularly in the heavily-populated eastern areas.

Nothing is certain. But forecasts for annual US GDP growth in 2021, as we recover from the worst of the pandemic, stand at around 5.6 percent. And even under the rosiest predictions for Beijing, China’s GDP per capita remains a fraction of that of the United States, including when it is adjusted for purchasing power.

Second, China’s growth may not only be slowing; it may be slipping. Michael Beckley and Hal Brands argue, “The real trap the United States should worry about regarding China today” is “the trap in which an aspiring superpower peaks and then refuses to bear the painful consequences of descent.”

Acknowledging China’s remarkable growth through the early 2000s, Beckley and Brands contend the years ahead will be different. China is running out of resources, 200 million working-age adults will leave the labor force in the coming decades and require social security spending to take up 30 percent of China’s GDP, and the state is propping “zombie firms” at the expense of more innovative enterprises.

Decline in the long term wouldn’t mean that the regime isn’t dangerous, especially in the short term. The authors recall the exa-mples of World War I Ger-many and World War II Ja-pan to emphasize the ferocity of declining powers. And in both wars, avoidable conflicts broke out in the absence of democratic will backed up by credible military deterrence.

And third, China’s domestic discontent makes it harder to implement the Party’s global agenda. Half of China’s active-duty force is unavailable for revisionism because it’s bogged down doing “internal security.” The Chinese Communist Party itself, while capable of directing massive amounts of state resources and energies, is not a monolith. Miles Yu reminds us that Xi Jinping “has even outdone Mao in his ruthless purge of [Pe-ople’s Liberation Army] leadership,” going after th-ousands of officers, including two of the vice chairm-en of the Central Military Commission, General Xu Caiho and General Guo Boxiong. To his credit, Doshi acknowledges many of the challenges that Beijing is facing. But perhaps because the goal of the book is to explain China’s grand strategy, he gives these arguments little weight.

Waking up to China

The Long Game makes clear that the United States should do much more than bide its time—especially if it’s to continue leading the free world. The final chapters begin to sketch out an American strategy, including policies like assisting partners in assessing Chinese investments, contesting Chinese influence at the United Nations, reinvesting in basic research and development, and building democratic technology coalitions.

A few years ago, a book like Doshi’s would have been possible, but improbable. The Obama White House’s 2015 National Security Strategy stated, “The United States welcomes the rise of a stable, peaceful, and prosperous China. We seek to develop a constructive relationship with China that delivers benefits for our two peoples and promotes security and prosperity in Asia and around the world.”

Such a China is to be hoped for. But after the awakening of the last few years, Americans across the political spectrum and their partners around the world recognize the reality that this is not the China ruled by the Chinese Communist Party today.

Peter Berkowitz of the Hoover Institution correctly notes that President Biden now describes China as America’s “most serious competitor.” Doshi’s book, Berkowitz argues, would have been improved by building “trust and comity at home” by acknowledging the role the previous administration “played in identifying and addressing the threat the Chinese Com-munist Party presents to the free and open international order” and how “the Biden administration’s stance is more in keeping with that of the Trump administration than with that of any of its other predecessors in the last 50 years.” Indeed, that’s true, and less partisan posturing would bring Americans together on a whole host of issues.

Such an America is also to be hoped, and worked, for. But as the man who led the United States at the outset of the Cold War, Harry Truman, advised, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

Wilson Shirley served in the Office of Policy Planning as a speechwriter to the US secretary of state and is a former US Senate staffer. You can follow him on Twitter @wshirleyiv.

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