There is little doubt that the United States has slowly awakened to the fact that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been competing with the United States since the fall of the Soviet Union and the Tiananmen Square massacre. China has been competing by undermining the U.S. strategy in Asia and increasing worldwide influence; interfering in our social, political, and cultural life; and building powerful political and ideological tools to push the United States out of Asia and to gain regional hegemony.
There is a little doubt that Asia—or, more specifically, Southeast Asia—has at least the potential to become the world’s most dynamic region. This potential has yet to be reached because of the countries’ rampant corruption, stalled market reforms, and inward-looking leaders.
I believe the United States’ strategic tasks are as follows:
1. Prevent Chinese dominance of Asia.
2. Prevent the PRC’s attempts at becoming the center of global power, which is a goal it has set for itself in the 19th Party Congress and associated authoritative speeches. For example, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) now constantly forces nations around the world to accept its preferred language about the international order with phrases that seem to mean nothing but have deep meaning to the CCP, such as, “building a community of common destiny.”
3. Retain U.S. ability to maintain unfettered economic and military access to the region.
4. Help sustain and build an Asian order conducive to U.S. values and interests.
There are a number of reasons behind the paramountcy of these tasks, not least of which is that the United States never wants to face a threat to its homeland emanating from Asia again. It is always worth remembering that we were gravely harmed by the hegemony of a hostile Asian power just last century. Facing China after it is too late would be even more difficult, given its huge strategic depth and number of nuclear weapons.
I agree that the broad contour of a competitive U.S. strategy is to tighten a coalition of regional allies that are also unwilling to live in a world dictated by the CCP. I also agree that the sine qua non of such a strategy is a balance of power favorable to the United States. Since the United States is $22 trillion dollars in debt—not nearly as relatively strong as it used to be—and has a bipartisan political elite unsure of whether it wants to muster the resources to maintain such a balance, a regional coalition is all the more important.
However, this endeavor will be very difficult. One of our biggest challenges is that we still have very incapable partners in the region and/or allies that are unwilling to spend the necessary resources on defense. This includes even Japan, whose population is shrinking and whose pacifism is so deeply ingrained that it would take an extraordinary diplomatic lift to convince Japan to even help us improve our own conventional firepower—for example, by deploying a ground-launched cruise missile on the archipelago.
Moreover, while the attempt to build a friendship with India has been a bright spot for U.S. strategy in an otherwise disheartening 20- year grand strategy, India’s contribution to a “grand coalition” will also be uneven. Just recently, the former chief economic advisor to President Modi has revised India’s GDP numbers downward.
Now, for a note of optimism: From the standpoint of strategic competition, China is beset by tremendous weaknesses that are not highlighted often enough. Some are operational and highly classified, but others are hiding in plain sight. Some are top-level problems within the CCP itself. For one, the CCP just barely overcame a serious political crisis in 2012 and is still fighting off the backlash of a challenge by Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai. General Secretary Xi’s approach to fight off this type of factionalism has been a political, economic, cultural, and intellectual crackdown the likes of which we have not seen since Tiananmen Square. This crackdown has purged the party of political opponents and targeted “flies and tigers” alike. And today, we are still discovering how China remains haunted by its response to Tiananmen.
Second, there has been a steady reversal of former PRC leader Deng’s market reforms since around 2004. This reversal has significantly slowed growth by encouraging capital misallocation, heavy debt collection, and massive land mismanagement. It has also spurred a demographic burden that would be hard for even a rich country to meet. The surplus of males, the shrinking labor force, and an aging population will require leaders to put more thought into social safety nets, but the CCP seems reluctant to dedicate resources to such efforts.
Third, China is dealing with a global overreach. This comes in the form of maritime expansionism in the South China Sea and increased investment and military involvement in Central Asia, South/Southeast Asia, Africa, the Arctic, and South America. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), for instance, is yet another case of China overselling projects that they are in no position to pay for as its dollar reserves. The fact that the CCP has very big maritime ambitions, plus fourteen land borders, complicates its global aspirations even more. One of its land borders—Russia—may be too pacified for our liking, and another—India—is not pacified at all.
Furthermore, China is dealing with a U.S.-led global backlash at China’s astonishing intellectual property theft and forced technology transfer, an armed forces that—despite braggadocio—has not been in combat since 1979, and a Chinese population that, as far as we can tell, has little use for its leadership. The proof of this is that those who can get their money and children out of the country do so.
“From the standpoint of strategic competition, China is beset by tremendous weaknesses that are not highlighted often enough.”
Despite these challenges, China is still a formidable competitor. What it has achieved in three decades is quite extraordinary. But just imagine if there had been sustained pushback over the last 20 years. There has not been. A truly competitive strategy would have taken advantage of the above Chinese weaknesses.
First, we could exploit CCP factionalism by directly facing the CCP through informational and other activity so it would have to put more resources toward defending its weak legitimacy to its own people. This would involve sustained information campaigns inside China highlighting continued elite corruption and injustice as well as targeting third-party countries on issues that most matter to them (e.g., a much more serious effort to highlight its crackdown on religious rights of Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians).
Second, we can compete with China’s stagnating economy by revamping a U.S. science and technology policy that did quite well in the Cold War. The United States can create networks of cooperation among industry and governmental agencies, such as NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and universities. As far as I can tell, such a network helped us invent the Internet and therefore solve some command and control problems associated with Soviet nuclear forces, with obvious positive knockoff effects for the U.S. economy. But we have not done all that much in national security (except certain military research programs). One area of contemporary relevance would be a research and development effort to move global 5G to software-based rather than hardware- based networks and center the next industrial revolution in the United States.
Third, we can use the fact that China has fourteen land borders and the United States has only two to our advantage. We can identify and exploit fissures between Russia and China, such as China’s strategic forces, China’s moves into Central Asia, and China’s demographic takeover of the Russian Far East.
Fourth, we can sustain the global pushback campaign against China by adopting a punishing economic approach that blocks Chinese intellectual property thieves and their beneficiaries from market access into advanced industrial countries. We should also push back against the global export control regime that blocks investment and sale of items and services into China’s civil-military fusion program. Lastly, we can identify the three or four areas in the military—some of which are published in open sources—where China is operationally weakest and force it to close the gap in these capabilities.
All of this is to say that we can compete with China by demonstrating that the Chinese capabilities that worry us are contained and less threatening because China is more inward-facing and continental- facing. The CCP is a party focused on protecting its own legitimacy and spending its scarce resources on defensive operational capabilities and internal security. Doing so would allow the still very much developing South and Southeast Asian nations more time and space to harden and grow and demonstrate that the United States is better able to meet its regional and global goals. Finally, perhaps adopting such a competitive strategy aimed at the party would even allow the very aspirational Chinese people to forge a path ahead on their own terms—not the CCP’s—if they so choose.