By Jacqueline Deal
The American experiment is in danger. Since the turn of the century, the United States has been declining relative to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which is seeking global hegemony under the Marxist-Leninist Chinese Communist Party (CCP). With few exceptions, the U.S. government and national security establishment have been very slow to recognize this threat to American prosperity and the American way of life. Even now, no senior political leader is publicly communicating the breadth and gravity of the challenge, despite abundant evidence of how the CCP treats those over whom it has power.
This gap reflects a tendency to underestimate the CCP and to fall for its deceptive talk of a “peaceful rise.”1 Because the party has not been seen primarily as a threat, Chinese firms have enjoyed tremendous access to Western markets, capital, and technology.2 Beijing has also gotten away with abusing its most favored nation trade status to dominate important global supply chains, rendering other countries dependent on it. In hindsight it is clear that, through sins of both commission and omission, successive American administrations have actually helped the CCP advance toward global hegemony.3
The last time the United States faced a Marxist-Leninist major-power rival, it recognized the threat relatively quickly and responded with a containment strategy. Defense, not offense, was the priority, but by checking Soviet expansion, Washington over time sapped Moscow’s capabilities and will. If the United States is to protect itself today, the first step is to acknowledge the character and magnitude of the challenge posed by the CCP. This time, containment will have to be preceded by extrusion.
Assuming an extrusion and containment counter-strategy succeeds, the CCP’s plans will be frustrated, and its ambition curtailed. The fallout is difficult to anticipate, and U.S. influence over the shape it takes will be limited. Nonetheless, unless we want to lose, our only option is to force the CCP to cope with disappointment, and to start preparing for the full range of potential consequences.
The CCP’s Vision: Global Wealth & Power
The United States has been slow to grasp that throughout its rise, the CCP has been operating according to its own playbook rather than buying into the Western one. Beijing has rejected the liberal view that international law and free trade promote prosperity. Rather, to paraphrase containment architect George Kennan’s description of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the CCP sees “all internal opposition forces” as “agents of foreign forces of reaction,”4 which in turn means that to secure itself, the party must “disrupt,” “destroy,” and “break” the United States.5 Accordingly, as Rush Doshi has shown using Chinese primary sources, for more than three decades the CCP has been pursuing an anti-U.S. strategy.6
Americans have missed this in part because Beijing has hidden it.7 But, at this point, no one should be fooled. Beijing has provided ample evidence of its preferred lopsided arrangements for dealing with the United States and the broader West.
Economically, the party has prioritized reserve accumulation and import substitution despite committing to free trade when the PRC joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. The CCP has used legal, illegal, and gray-zone tactics to promote national champions in various important markets, and now seeks to occupy the “commanding heights” of the Fourth Industrial Revolution – i.e., to secure wealth and power at the expense of the rest of the world.8
This zero-sum approach will require coercion backed by credible threats. In the more than two decades during which the PRC has grown into the second biggest economy, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has engaged in the largest peacetime build-up the world has seen since the 1930s.9 Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” centers on using the PLA’s strength to extract concessions from commercial counterparties and compel deference from foreign capitals.
The desired deference extends well beyond the economic sphere. For example, the party is seeking to win a contest over “discourse power” and increasingly tries to control speech not just on the mainland but globally.
In sum, Americans who thought engagement would promote CCP liberalization were wrong. Instead of shaping Beijing, they helped it develop Beijing’s ability to intimidate the United States.
This truth has yet to be acknowledged, however, which impedes work on a counter-strategy. Conventional wisdom holds that Washington’s goal should be to reinforce extended deterrence in the Indo-Pacific—to prevent Beijing from coercing American allies and partners or changing the status quo in the region unilaterally. But few are talking about how Beijing is already coercing the United States itself, even though the PLA just flew a near-space reconnaissance aircraft over defense installations across the United States and has reportedly tested new kinds of weapons that the U.S. military cannot match or counter. These developments indicate American vulnerability, whether or not our political leaders admit it.
The problem is not just in the military domain. In March 2020, official CCP media reported that if Americans persisted in asking about the party’s initial handling of the COVID outbreak, shipments of medical supplies from the mainland would cease, plunging U.S. hospitals “into the hell of the novel coronavirus pandemic.” Such threats apparently “convinced everyone in the Trump administration that U.S. dependence on critical supply chains in China was a huge problem.”10 The CCP effectively used U.S. (and broader Western) supply-chain vulnerability as blackmail. Beijing has paid no penalty for breaching commitments to the World Health Organization in the early days of the pandemic.
It is thus not only the credibility of the American military’s extended deterrence guarantees—i.e., promises to protect allies—that has eroded. There are now reasons to question Washington’s ability to resist CCP threats against the United States.
One might ask why this matters. Surely Xi would not order an attack on the United States even if he thought the PLA could win. What goal would merit taking such a risk? The question misses the point. If the CCP believes its power rivals or exceeds American power, it will assume it can press its expansionist agenda in peacetime.
None of this is meant to downplay the challenges Xi must overcome to achieve CCP global hegemony. Unfavorable demographic trends, environmental pollution, basic research deficits, and corruption are real issues—often exacerbated by the party’s policies. But the United States, along with its allies and partners, has been bailing the CCP out, helping it compensate for these deficiencies. Armed with Western market access, capital, and technology, Beijing has avoided a reckoning for the downsides of its system.
U.S. Counter-Strategy and Visions of Victory
This makes the current competition very different from the Cold War, when, as Kennan noted with some puzzlement, the Soviets did not try to expand their economic influence outside the Warsaw Pact. The CCP model compels Washington not only to try to contain Chinese expansion but also to extrude the party’s influence from the United States itself. Or, logically sequenced, U.S. counter-strategy must aim first at extruding and then at containing. After all, how can Americans convince others to reject what they themselves submit to or even embrace?
Kennan defined Cold War containment as “the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy.”11 In light of the PRC’s progress to date, a serious effort to employ such counter-force today would begin in the United States, with the goal of freeing the U.S. government from exposure to the kind of blackmail or coercive pressure that it faced at the beginning of the pandemic. This is a precondition for moving adroitly and vigilantly abroad, and it would reduce the ability of the CCP to leverage U.S. assets and resources in pursuit of global hegemony.
In practice, extrusion would include both signaling initiatives, aimed at public education, and substantive moves to reduce CCP access and influence in the United States. Washington might begin by holding Beijing accountable for abusing its WTO membership and rescind Permanent Normal Trading Relations, while expanding tariff and sanctions barriers against PRC firms. U.S. export controls would also be strengthened, and allies brought along to follow America’s lead. With regard to capital flows, the goal should be dramatic curtailment of both portfolio and direct investment. This might require new regulations to evict PRC-based firms from U.S. exchanges and indices, though that process may already be underway as a result of the Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act of 2020. Such initiatives would help rebalance a corporate playing field that is today tilted toward Beijing.
A virtuous cycle could then ensue. Transparency with regard to the CCP challenge and U.S. counter-strategy would give the White House space to lead and to attract investment in a freedom agenda. Closing off access to the U.S. market and preventing investment on the mainland would create opportunities and free up public and private capital for new enterprises in the United States and in nearby, friendly countries while liberating influential American elites from Beijing’s sway. Increasing and re-allocating defense spending would be a necessary corollary.
American defense against the CCP’s strategy will thus have a sizable domestic component. To say that strategy begins at home is trite, but in this case, it may also require initiative from the private sector, as legal barriers impede the Defense Department from implementing strategy in the homeland, while the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security lack the resources to cover down against a near-peer competitor. One metric of success would be whether the number of prominent Americans lobbying in favor of laws banning TikTok and other PRC propaganda and surveillance applications from the United States exceeds those lobbying against such measures.
Success in leveling the playing field by extruding CCP influence from the United States would force the CCP to contend with its own limitations. The contest would then be a fair one, and the United States and its allies would have the opportunity to apply the fruits of their systems against those of the CCP’s autocracy and its clients. This is a competition the United States could win.12 Unlike the PRC, which suffers from major resource and economic constraints at home, the U.S. could regain hemispheric independence in key resources and products and then use its global military and alliance relationships to secure free trade with allied and friendly nations. Beijing has been building out a global military-in-waiting through dual-use investments, but the PLA lacks experience with power projection and would likely struggle to compete with U.S. forces if Washington shifted the contest into this realm.
Similarly, while the PRC has been engaging in a major nuclear build-up, the United States could revitalize its arsenal and use its network of forward bases to reinforce deterrence. As containment worked in the Cold War, so might it again in the future.
Where could this lead for China? Kennan was modest about his ability to forecast the end of a successful U.S. counter-strategy against the Soviets, and modesty is once again in order today. Faced with real limits on access to external help to compensate for internal deficits and challenges, the CCP could become internally preoccupied. Perhaps it would be compelled to “mellow,” in Kennan’s terms, or to retrench and retreat from international aggression. Over time this might even create the conditions for the emergence of a CCP Gorbachev, who could use patriotic arguments to make the case for liberalization. Buy-in would likely require guarantees that the party would be immune, domestically and internationally, from prosecution for past misdeeds, such as the genocide underway in Xinjiang. The United States might consider what guarantees it would be prepared to offer, and what the conditions for granting them might be, as well as for monitoring compliance.
Alternatively, a build-up of internal pressure could deepen pre-existing tensions and divisions within the CCP. There were hints in the run-up to Xi’s accession that such divisions have geographic and PLA-related contours.13 Could there be civil strife in China, with party elites in various areas aligning with local security forces to press their claims to rule? If so, whom, if anyone, would the United States want to back? Are there candidates for self-determination among the mainland's diverse ethnicities and cultures? What would be the U.S. response to the involvement of third parties—e.g., regional countries—in such a conflict? Given the stakes, even if the likelihood of U.S. involvement in addressing such questions is small, careful advance consideration is warranted.
As an American, I would prefer to have to deal with these futures than one in which the United States and its allies are vassals of the PRC. The evidence is clear that the CCP is on the march, and if it continues to encounter accommodation and access rather than resolute opposition, nothing less than the future of freedom is at stake.
1 Alex Joske, Spies and Lies: How China’s Greatest Covert Operations Fooled the World, (London: Hardie Grant, 2022).
2 Including dual-use technology with internal security and military applications.
3 As part of its strategy against the Soviet Union in the late Cold War, the United States restored relations with the PRC and made a show of cooperating with Beijing, but President Reagan was wary of the party’s long-term intentions and ambition – see https://www.reaganfoundation.org/media/354598/dr_jacqueline_deal_fudan_university.pdf.
4 X (George Kennan), “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” Foreign Affairs, 1 July 1947. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/russian-federation/george-kennan-sources-soviet-conduct.
5 George Kennan, “Long Telegram,” 22 February, 1946, National Archives and Records Administration, Department of State Records. https://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/116178
6 Rush Doshi, The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021).
7 For instance, today the party tells foreigners vaguely its ambition is to create a “Community of Common Destiny” or a “Community of Shared Future for Mankind,” while casting the vehicles for this agenda as the benign and equitable sounding “Global Development Initiative,” “Global Security Initiative,” and “Global Civilization Initiative.” The CCP’s intended dominance is omitted, and generic words such as “community,” “common,” and “shared” stand in for explicitly political terms like “socialism” and “sinified Marxism” that predominate when the party speaks in Mandarin, for internal consumption.
8 Other countries’ reliance on goods controlled by Beijing will weaken their bargaining position, while the CCP will be able to use data collected worldwide to target investment and coercion. For instance, the party is intensifying its control over Chinese payment, banking, and settlement platforms while promoting their proliferation. These platforms will provide the CCP insight into transactions in real time and therefore the ability to profit from inside information. They will also give the CCP a tool to sanction any rogue actors, defined as those who defy it, by cutting off their funds.
9 Jacqueline Deal, “China Could Soon Outgun the US,” Politico, 27 May 2021. https://www.politico.com/newsletters/politico-china-watcher/2021/05/27/china-could-soon-outgun-the-us-493014
10 Beijing has punished other countries that questioned its handling of Covid or otherwise defied its preferences – from Australia, South Korea, and Japan to Lithuania and Norway – by suspending exports to them, limiting imports from them, and organizing boycotts of their products on the mainland.
11 X (George Kennan), “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.”
12 Note that the options listed in the rest of this paragraph and the next one depend on regulatory action that would only be viable or plausible politically if the stakes of the PRC contest were fully explained.
13 During the endgame of the power struggle between Xi Jinping and Bo Xilai in 2012, Chinese media speculated about the significance of Bo’s ties to the PLA in Chongqing and a visit he made to a museum on a base in Yunnan honoring the unit Bo’s father commanded in the 1930s.