“On my watch … [China will not reach its goal] … to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world and the most powerful country in the world.” — President Biden
Future historians may well consider President Biden’s comments last week on China as a pivotal moment in the history of American foreign policy. It was not long ago — early in the presidential primary process — that Biden, himself, dismissed the idea that China was a truly serious competitor, much less a threat, to the U.S. His view today represents a 180-degree swing on both counts. It was not long ago when U.S. political leaders, academic experts and foreign correspondents tended to portray the rapid rise of China as a largely economic phenomenon that was broadly good for the U.S. and the world. President Clinton spoke confidently of how the internet would inevitably democratize China. President Bush (father and son) emphasized the shared interests of Beijing and Washington. The corporate world put its money behind the same assessment, investing heavily in manufacturing and banking in China. Meanwhile, Chinese students by the tens and hundreds of thousands flocked to American universities.
It all added up to a strikingly hopeful expectation that the established superpower and the rapidly rising new power could avoid conflict and work together for mutual benefit. The president of the World Bank (an American) captured it all when he called upon China to become a “responsible stakeholder” in international affairs. When China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, met with President Obama, he came with his own catch phrase — China and the U.S. would build a “new model” of cooperative great power relations. To American ears, it sounded just right.
Whether he realized it or not, Xi was appealing to a tradition rooted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in which the U.S. saw China as a kind of Asian analog to America. After three decades of bitter disillusionment following the communist conquest of China, hopes were rekindled with Nixon’s famous trip and the emergence of a post-Mao reformist regime under Deng Xiaoping. Deng knew that Chinese students who attended U.S. universities would return with American ideas about politics, society and the economy — but he sent them anyway.
When Xi ascended to the leadership of China in 2012, he faced a fundamental strategic choice. Beijing could choose the “responsible stakeholder” path. This would mean a rapidly growing economy tightly integrated into global markets and supply chains. It would mean a steady growth in Chinese power and influence. This “rising” China would lead, but not dominate, East Asia. It would be a prosperous, powerful, but generally benign presence in the region and the world.
But there was another, very different path available. This one was rooted in a deeply held and very particular understanding of Chinese history. By this narrative, China is the oldest and greatest civilization in the world. For millennia, China exercised a unique form of pre-eminence in Asia. China was the “Middle Kingdom” and all the peoples on China’s periphery were not fully civilized because they were not Chinese; they were “barbarians.” But then in the 19th and early 20th centuries, first the Europeans and then the Japanese, invaded and oppressed China. It was the “century of humiliation” — a time of “eating bitterness” — seared into the national collective psyche. When Mao led his victorious army into Beijing in 1949, his first words to the assembled populace were “China has stood up.” The century of humiliation was over.
It soon became evident that Xi had drunk deeply from the cup of aggrieved Chinese nationalism. There would be no responsible stakeholder; there would be China ascendant and dominant, taking its place at the head of the international table. The concrete consequences and manifestations of this attitude soon became clear in the actions and policies initiated by Xi’s regime.
American and other Western businesses in China were relentlessly pressured to share or transfer their most advanced technologies with their Chinese counterparts (and competitors). When that was insufficient, the Chinese government engaged in outright theft to obtain what they wanted. The same economic growth that funded technology acquisition also funded a dramatic buildup of Chinese military power — particularly naval and air forces designed to project power offshore. A priority purpose of that buildup is to compel the U.S. Navy to vacate the Western Pacific.
Beijing asserted that the South China Sea, an international commons throughout history, actually belonged to China. China then began building artificial islands that serve as maritime military outposts. All the while, the number of Chinese naval and armed maritime enforcement vessels deployed in the South China Sea grew exponentially.
Xi’s China has demonstrated a growing appetite for coercive behavior from seizing Vietnamese fishing boats to boycotting Australian products when Canberra had the temerity to suggest an international inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 virus. China has dammed the upper reaches of the Mekong River, giving Beijing near life and death power over the economies of the downstream states including Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Xi announced a national crash program, “Made in China 2025,” intended to establish China as the global leader in the entire suite of advanced technologies that will determine national power in the future. Chinese officials had already proclaimed that the 20th century may have been America’s, but the 21st will be China’s.
This is only a partial list. On top of it, Xi has centralized totalitarian power within China to an extent that can only be described as Orwellian. None of this is new; what is new is a long overdue recognition across the U.S. government and expert and corporate communities outside the government of what America is up against.
Marvin Ott is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution. He is a summer resident of Cranberry Isles.