The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) long-term strategic objective is to displace the United States as the world’s most powerful country and create a new world order favorable to China’s authoritarian brand of politics, or its “socialist market economy.” While this has been China’s goal since the end of the Cold War, Xi Jinping wants to rapidly realize this grand aspiration so that he can be regarded as an equal to Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. At the same time, China’s strategic behavior is shaped by the Middle Kingdom’s peculiar version of Leninist politics that forces trade-offs that have undermined China’s strategy. It now faces slower economic growth, political turbulence, and a backlash to its aggression.
National Security Environment
Beijing’s national-security policy was fashioned in response to what it viewed as a perilous period after the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of America’s “unipolar” moment. Under Deng, CCP leaders forged a sophisticated strategy to build up wealth and power while thwarting attempts to form a counterbalancing coalition. Under Xi, China is making strategic gains, but such a coalition is forming against him.
China’s bleak assessment of its security environment began in the 1990s. The nationwide protests of 1989, culminating in the massacre at Tiananmen Square, were regime-threatening events. Soon after came America’s lopsided military victories in Iraq and Kosovo and the rise of a new democratic nation-state in Taiwan, which solidified U.S. support for the island. The presence of a U.S. alliance close to China’s only coastline, home to all of China’s ports, became simply untenable. China saw the U.S. hand in every world event it found troubling, from the “color revolutions” in the former Soviet satellite states, to the Arab Spring that brought down dictators, to movements supporting Tibetan freedom.
In Beijing’s view, there was nothing to stop the United States from supporting Taiwanese independence. The People’s Republic of China believes that a failure to unify the “motherland” would result in its demise and acts with accordant ruthlessness. The CCP came to power having finally unified China after the “century of humiliation,” during which it lost territory and sovereignty — including its own imperial conquests, such as Taiwan — to foreign powers and underwent destructive civil wars. Its legitimacy rests on reversing that humiliation. To that end, it has stamped out “separatism” in Tibet, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang and is already drawing similar redlines on Taiwan. Just as it did not abide “foreign hostile forces” working to “forever break” Hong Kong away from Beijing’s suzerainty, the CCP has now said on several occasions that it will not allow “Taiwan separatists” working with “foreign hostile forces” to keep the island permanently separate.
Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin’s approach to dealing with the post-Tiananmen security environment was to build up China’s economy very rapidly and translate wealth into military and diplomatic power. They made a political trade-off: increasing Chinese wealth by means of foreign ideas and foreign capital in exchange for looser party controls over the economy. China became an international manufacturing hub and a country dependent on maritime trade. It built a military capable of protecting its trading interests, undermining U.S. military power, and “deterring” Taiwanese independence. Until recently, Beijing had convinced U.S. leaders that its military modernization was the natural outgrowth of a growing economy. It also joined most international organizations, at the time seen as a signal of its commitment to the international order that the U.S. had built. Its propaganda organs emphasized its “peaceful rise.” Western political and corporate leaders were eager to benefit from China’s sizeable market and — during a period of Middle East wars — to believe that China’s rise would be peaceful.
China’s “New Left” and the Rise of Xi
But once Deng had left the scene, China’s “new left” (extreme nationalists and neo-Maoists) attacked the reforms as weakening the party. Xi rode the wave of this new politics to become China’s leader. Since the 2008 financial crisis, Beijing’s internal and external strategy has shifted markedly. China panicked that it would lose its big export markets. It began to lend massive amounts to unprofitable state-owned enterprises (the private sector had been allowed to flourish during the reform period) and took on crushing debt. Total debt as a percentage of GDP was 139 percent in 2008 and 283 percent in 2020, according to a U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission report. The state sector now dominates the Chinese economy again, and the Party dominates the state sector. The CCP no longer tolerates looser political controls in exchange for fast economic gains. China began shifting internally from a developmental autocracy (as South Korea and Taiwan had been) into a national-security state, with internal security and short-term external gains as higher priorities than economic growth.
The end of market-based reforms was not the only trouble Beijing faced. Xi took power during a political crisis when Bo Xilai, like Xi the son of a key Mao ally, made an independent bid to succeed Hu Jintao instead of Xi. Party leaders swiftly intervened to bring Bo and his family down. Xi saw the party as split, corrupt, weak, and in trouble. As a condition of assuming power during a challenging period, Xi secured a mandate to reign harshly and singularly through Stalinist purges and Maoist reeducation campaigns to enforce party discipline. He also secured support for a new, more assertive foreign policy. CCP leaders assessed that, despite domestic trouble, they faced a strategic opportunity to undermine what they saw as a U.S in decline thanks to economic mismanagement and costly wars.
Xi announced that China had entered a “new era” of geopolitics during which it would become the global leader. As I note in my book, The China Nightmare, Xi said that in this new era “it is for the people of Asia to run the affairs of Asia, solve the problems of Asia and uphold the security of Asia.” Left unsaid is that if the U.S. were no longer a power in the region, China would dominate the “affairs of Asia.” Beijing would no longer hide its capabilities or its ambitions as during Deng’s rule. Xi is intent on moving China back to “center stage” in geopolitics and shaping a new “favorable environment for… building… a great modern socialist country in all aspects.”
Xi and other party leaders outlined four elements of China’s strategy: First, it would create new “networks of strategic partnerships” to replace the “unequal” U.S. alliance system. Often this diplomacy is referred to as “building a community of common destiny for all mankind,” with CCP leaders selling their vision of a Chinese world order as universally beneficial. Second, China would become the most technologically advanced nation in the world. Third, it would build a first-in-class military. Fourth, it would revivify ideological and information statecraft to subvert and weaken its adversaries. At the same time, as Sheena Chestnut Greitens noted in a statement before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Xi warned in 2014 that the CCP was facing “the most complicated internal and external factors in its history” and that these threats were “interlocked” and could be “mutually activated.” But in contrast to the United States, when China faces domestic problems, it escalates international tensions, relying on foreign-policy successes to bolster support for the party. While the analogy is far from perfect, just as Mao’s foreign policy grew more radically adventuresome during the ravages of the Cultural Revolution, Xi picked fights with the U.S., India, Australia, and Europe as the Chinese economy faced enormous headwinds during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gains and Pushback
The results of the change in strategy have been mixed. To be sure, China has made some serious gains. It has effective control over the South China Sea. It has accelerated its military-modernization plans and thereby changed the regional balance of power and strengthened its ability to coerce Taiwan.
Moreover, during the global pandemic, Beijing demonstrated its ability to manipulate information, bend international bodies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) to its will, and bully nations to mute their criticisms of China. It has successfully wielded its market power (e.g., against Wall Street, Silicon Valley, the NBA, and Hollywood) to soften responses to its malignancy. This has resulted in continued access to U.S. capital and technology — despite Beijing’s stamping out of Hong Kong’s democracy and its continuing destruction with impunity of Uyghur, Tibetan, and other minority religions and cultures.
But Xi is also facing pushback, sometimes even coordinated international resistance. A growing number of Asian countries are willing to cooperate with the United States. Beijing is very concerned that the United States will strengthen a nascent coalition to starve it of commodities and critical technologies. (China is highly dependent on imports, from agriculture to energy to advanced technology; for example, it still relies on foreign companies for most of its high-end semiconductor needs.) While China poses a formidable challenge to U.S. global leadership, the CCP’s near-constant political purges, darker economic prospects, and demographic problems, such as a coming old-age tsunami and not enough young people entering the workforce, mean that the U.S. still has a chance to deny the hegemony over Asia sought by Xi and to build an affirmative alternative to Sino-centrality — in short, to thwart China’s bid to create a new world order.
Daniel Blumenthal, J.D., is the director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.