For years, China has consistently met the demands needed to become a world leader, and in the process, has asserted itself as a clear competitor and alternative to the United States’ paradigm. Its actions directly threaten the world order that the U.S. has created in the post-Cold War era and undermine the key values of liberal democracy that are vital to America’s strength.
At the same time, under the leadership of President Donald Trump, the U.S. has adopted an “America first” stance manifested through an isolationist posture. With the seeming surrender of global power, America risks allowing China a clear path to pick up the pieces and model the world in its image, one which would be radically different than the one we are used to. The challenge now consists of evaluating our actions and devising a new grand strategy to tackle Chinese expansion without losing our position and influence around the world.
Without taking into consideration the longevity of its rich history, China has undergone several political changes in the past century alone. It has gone from Mao’s regime that sought a revolutionary movement to destroy the Western capitalist world to the much more moderate approach of Deng Xiaoping, whose adage “Hide your strength, bide your time” seemed to pave the way for a composed China that would adopt a more passive role on the global stage. And for a while, China lived up to its sleeping dragon reputation.
However, since Xi Jinping became president in 2013, China has started once again to change the way it conducts politics. While many were hoping that it would open even more to the international world, it decided to take a different path that strays away from transparency and drifts towards ambiguity and guile. This decision has completely altered the multilateral cooperative aspect of the international realm and has turned it into an arena permeated by great-power competition where each colossus seeks to maintain the integrity of its sphere of influence and expand it as much as possible.
Internationally, China’s foreign policy has become more ambitious and assertive, with President Xi having decided to position himself as “globalizer in chief.” Through the Belt and Road Initiative, China has expanded its market of goods and services in many other countries while unapologetically spreading its political ideology. Malicious practices such as debt-trap diplomacy that lures developing countries like Sri Lanka and other states in Africa into borrowing money needed for infrastructure projects, have put the liberal order in peril and have been harshly criticized by the international world, albeit without suffering repercussions. In other places such as Australia it has tried to interfere with its national politics through bribery and other forms of elections meddling. In the South China Sea, it has built new islands and increased its military build-up in order to deter any actions by the states that are placed in close proximity and to prevent the United States from extended its sphere of influence. In this process it has exacerbated the already existing animosities with states such as Taiwan and generated various territorial disputes with Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. It has also engaged in cyberwarfare and stolen various military and economic secrets, further aggravating its questionable practices.
China’s domestic actions have also caused alarms at the international level. The CCP has reached new levels of authoritarianism and human rights violations after the shocking campaigns to erase the religious and ethnic identity of religious minorities such as the Uighur Muslims in the province of Xinjiang led to the placement of over 1 million people in reeducation camps. The strict monitoring of people and infringing of any boundary will keep occurring under this extremely restrictive one-party state that is able to keep track of everything is happening around the country and eliminate even the slightest form of dissent.
Through a system that scholar Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism,” the CCP is monitoring every aspect of social life through data collection and data monitoring. These actions, which are prohibited in many countries, have rendered individualism and the idea of inalienable rights rather useless. At the same time, these surveillance techniques have instilled fear in the people living there, making the probability of citizen protests against the egregious actions carried out by the CCP even smaller.
The problem is that this state-administered surveillance is ubiquitous not only in China, but it has been replicated in other states such as Vietnam and Thailand. Chinese companies have exported such technology to Ethiopia, Iran, Malaysia, Russia, Venezuela, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Beijing is relying on the idea that if authoritarian practices grow stronger, it will be even more difficult for the citizens of China to revolt against the regime. If it manages to disseminate the same practices to its constantly expanding sphere of influence without being challenged, China will become almost impossible to counter. If that happens, the future of humanity will look very bleak.
Without a doubt, China’s rise constitutes the most important challenge to the liberal international order. It is a repressive regime that bans free speech, places religious minorities in internment camps, and spreads nationalist propaganda that aims at keeping the party and the population of China together while alienating those who adhere to the Western democratic values.
Therefore, the question turns to how the liberal world and the United States in particular will respond. When George Kennan outlined his containment doctrine in 1947, the United States was just at the beginning of a 40-year ideological war with the Soviet Union that few people anticipated would last that long. It is not surprising then that devising such a strategy is a very complicated matter; Kennan successfully argued that the Soviet Union, if deterred from taking nuclear action and expanding its territorial and ideological influence, would eventually self-destruct. But even the architect of containment was unable to foresee the precise course of action the events would take.
Today, it is difficult to fathom what a policy of containment would look like, or whether it is even the right thing to do. Finding a new grand strategy in an age of great-power competition should be America’s top priority because the prospects of this Sino-American conflict ending any time soon appear to be very low. So, it will probably be important to define first what the liberal international order is, how we got to where we are today, and what America can do to maximize its chances to maintain relative peace and stability with China in a world where realist principles tend to pervade.
Following the September 11 attacks, the U.S. decided to pursue liberal hegemony, particularly in the Middle East, where it attempted to transform the area according to its own image through regime change policies and the elimination of any threats that challenged the liberal democratic beliefs. It led to the endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which eroded American leadership and damaged the authority of the international coalition it had built. The Bush doctrine inevitably extended into the Obama administration as well. Despite withdrawing troops from Iraq, President Obama called for a surge in the number of troops in Afghanistan. He soon realized that, even if he wanted to stay away from the Middle East and cooperate with the international community to solve the problems there, few were receptive of his requests. This caused problems when it came to Benghazi, where the initial objective was to protect protesters from the authoritarian actions of Qaddafi’s forces, but which soon turned out into a regime change move and led Libya into disarray. Furthermore, the economic crisis of 2008, the failure of the Arab Spring, and the continuation of failed policies in the Middle East resulted in a slow but sure decline in American exceptionalism.
With the rise of China, which all this time had been ignored and allowed to develop, the U.S. has the chance for a “fresh” start. Depending Washington deals with Beijing, there are a few options that can become the base of a new grand strategy and which will guide international politics for generations to come.
First and foremost, the United States must change its rhetoric regarding China. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a speech in 2019 at the Hudson Institute that the “Chinese Communist party is a Marxist-Leninist party focused on struggle and international domination” and must therefore be kept in “its proper place.” And he is not the only one culpable of such actions. Such statements made by the most important members of the foreign policy establishment here in the United States are simply reckless; they falls prey to what Graham Allison describes in his book as the “Thucydides Trap” where the anxious hegemon views a rising power as a threat to its supremacy and will do anything to portray it in a negative light, antagonizing and vilifying every move that it makes.
While it is certainly true that China deserves plenty of criticism for its abhorrent human rights record which defies the boundary of decency and breaks multiple rules codified in international treaties, it is also important that leaders in Washington act more cautiously and more restrained when making such remarks that diminish even the slightest chance to bring China at the negotiation table.
Moreover, as journalist Fareed Zakaria remarks, when debating China’s threat to the liberal international order, it is worth remembering that the liberal international order itself “was never as liberal, as international, or as orderly as it is now nostalgically described.” Rather, it is better to think of it in more realistic terms as a place where discord and conflict occasionally arise, and which is vulnerable to both inside and outside forces. Notwithstanding the paramount role the United States has played so far historically, it has very often been guilty of going against the principles it so ardently stood for.
I am not arguing that China is innocent, nor am I being apologetic for an unscrupulous regime that often times has acted in bad faith, but it is necessary to have a comprehensive look at history if one wants to understand the intricacies and the details that escape the informality of colloquial debates.
Second, given the changing nature of the international system and the need for the United States to adapt to such changes, the debate as to how this process should occur has resurfaced. Should the U.S. prevent the expansion of China and try to deter it, or even counter it, through more aggressive policies, or should it continue the policy of retrenchment and isolationism that President Trump has embarked on? A policy of retrenchment seems appealing, especially after the blunders and disasters that have plagued Washington since the turn of the century. Many scholars argue that America should withdraw the majority of its forces abroad, redefine its national interests and security commitments, and advocate for a foreign policy of military restraint that focuses on diplomacy. Tied in this argument is the idea that allowing super powers to develop limited spheres of influence, coupled with the possession of nuclear weapons, will be enough to indefinitely deter them from going to war with each other. However, pursuing such a strategy would be a grave mistake. Retrenchment would eventually lead to restraint, and that would allow illiberal forces to thrive and undermine all the progress achieved in the past few decades. It also doesn’t mean that the U.S. strategy should remain the same. What is clear, however, is that the United States is a necessary presence around the globe and it would cause more harm than good if it went away.
Therefore, Washington should come to terms with the idea that despite not being the liberal hegemon that it used to, the rise of China and the gravity of the threat to liberal democracy require its active presence now more than ever. The United States should respond to Chinese military and ideological expansion in East Asia not by turning away from the region but by bolstering our presence there, engaging with Taiwan, India, South Korea, Japan, as well as those that have been victims of China breaking international norms when building islands in the South China Sea and not respecting international water lines.
China has gained a lot of ground in other areas. Its growth is clearly outpacing every other competitor, and unless a catastrophe befalls China, it will be the incontestable economic juggernaut of the 21st century. As a result, Washington has and will continue to depend on Beijing to maintain its economy. Bilateral trade, foreign direct investments, student exchange programs, and various supply and manufacturing chains are the backbone of an economy and the functionality of those two economies is contingent on a prolific interdependence. If animosities continue, which I believe they will, there will be some fissures in this relationship that will alter things, and I expect China to weaponize the economic and political control it has by imposing serious costs on the United States.
This would have a tremendous impact on our country and so it must be mitigated as much as possible. It also means that Washington will have to try harder to find common grounds with Beijing where it can negotiate different agreements. Both want a denuclearized North Korea, both will be victims of climate change, and both want to avoid dealing with terrorists and other non-state actors that further disrupt international stability. America must focus extensively on those issues and try to work with China by giving it a seat at the table in the regimes that deal with transnational issues, international trade, economic development, and technological order. It would mean ceding some amount of power to Beijing, but that seems to be the new normal and the U.S. must adapt accordingly. It is also a great way to yield some results while avoiding a hampering of bilateral and multilateral cooperation. It is not too late to turn China into a “responsible stakeholder,” but Washington will have to allow China more decision-making in the major international regimes while demanding greater transparency and respect for human rights, freedom of speech, and liberty in general.
As John Mearsheimer does in his most recent book The Great Delusion, liberal democracy is not natural. It works contrary to human nature and the behavior of people in groups as well as the dynamics of realpolitik. Considering the most recent international events, there are plenty of suggestions that illustrate the validity of this statement. The overall materialization of illiberal forces around the world, including American restraint and the rise of China, suggests that the game of politics is changing all the time and must be played constantly.
Liberal democratic ideas stand on very thin and fragile grounds, which makes it all the more necessary to be careful not to take them for granted. The United States should be wary of the Chinese expansion and be prepared to respond to it appropriately, but it should also try to cooperate with Beijing as much as possible on areas of common interests. To do this, it must formulate a new grand strategy in accordance with the dictates of great-power competition and reason.
There is a fine line between not committing oneself enough and committing too much, but it is nonetheless attainable. The United States must reassess its global position and reach the point where it can once again have an influential and conclusive say in global affairs.