About this Issue

Relations between the United States and China have perhaps never been more important, or more delicate. Each relies on the other as a key trading partner, and yet each also has a different vision for the future of world trade and security commitments. Both must work together to solve pressing regional problems, including crafting an effective response to North Korea that averts a potential nuclear war. 

To discuss the changing shape of U.S.-China relations, we have invited four experts on the topic to a discussion. Our lead essayist this month is Kori Schake of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Responding to her will be Graham T. Allison of Harvard University, Oriana Skylar Mastro of Georgetown University, and Jude Blanchette of the Crumpton Group.

Conversation will continue through the end of the month, and readers’ comments will be welcome during that time as well. 

Lead Essay

How International Hegemony Changes Hands

If there is any region of the world, any country in the world, toward which the United States has had a consistent grand strategy in the past forty-five years, that region is Asia, and that country is China. The strategy was to lure China into political cooperation by offering prosperity, and to hedge against failure with strong alliance relationships and regional military dominance. But the weight placed on different elements of U.S. strategy has been shifting for more than ten years toward efforts to contain China. The shift has been the result of pessimism in the West about our own economic prospects, coupled with concern about Chinese economic mercantilism, military assertiveness, and political irredentism.

Liberals in the West (in which I include myself) have long considered it an article of faith that prosperity produces democracy—that a Maslovian hierarchy exists in which as material needs are satisfied, people become more politically demanding of their government. The idea is that sustained prosperity is impossible without political liberalization. That good things go together, so an increasingly wealthy China will inexorably become a China more like us politically.

This is, of course, a flabby argument, equivalent to believing that the arc of history bends toward justice. Both are comforting sentiments that lack an evidentiary basis. History is replete with examples of states whose economic dynamism does not result in political liberalism — Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, just to take two sharp-edged examples. But as Tom Wright argues in All Measures Short of War, this idea was the fundamental policy reflex of the United States and other powerful states.

In defense of western policymakers, the impetus was consistent with their experience since 1945. Germany and Japan did become model western states, peaceful and prosperous, ensconced as contributors within alliances. Countries that emerged from Soviet control at the end of the Cold War likewise seemed to support the pattern, making tough choices to jump start their economies and reshape their political practices. Moreover, even where odds were longer, in Russia and Central Asia, the policy line held—less because of what was occurring in those countries than what was occurring in ours. It is in the West, and particularly in the United States, that the belief is deeply ingrained that by acting as if our creed is universal, we create the conditions for it to become so.

American policy toward China was expressed most succinctly by Robert Zoellick in 2005: “seven U.S. presidents of both parties recognized this strategic shift and worked to integrate China as a full member of the international system.”[1] The consequence of the U.S. opening to China, and China’s opening to capitalism, has been a burgeoning economic dynamism of greater national magnitude and speed than ever before recorded, as Graham Allison’s Destined for War recounts.

We not only included China in the organizations that facilitate global interaction, we allowed their accession on concessionary terms. World Trade Organization rules were relaxed to facilitate market access. Intellectual property theft, counterfeiting, and currency manipulation were tolerated. Chinese efforts to “direct markets rather than open them,” and lock up energy resources were likewise indulged. We have been careful and slow in reacting to predatory Chinese fishing, construction of militarized islands in the South China Sea, and violations of maritime treaties. China has been allowed an enormous latitude to work its way toward compliance with the existing rules of international order.

We have, in fact, acted much as Great Britain did when the United States was a rising power in the nineteenth century: encouraging the United States that it could be wildly successful by the existing rules, cajoling them into cooperation, but enforcing the rules of order it established until convinced that the United States would play by the established rules as a responsible stakeholder. And in that hegemonic transition, the United States behaved much as China does today: flouting the rules where it could get away with it, asserting a zone of exclusive political and economic interest, using economic means to undercut relationships the hegemon had established, and bullying smaller regional actors into compliance with prejudicial rules.

There are, however, important differences from the British-American transition. The most important difference is that China’s neighbors prefer the existing order to China’s alternatives and remain voluntarily allied with the hegemon. While Americans complain volubly and often about what allies are not doing, we often overlook what a precious rarity it is to have established a consensual order. The secret of American hegemony is how rarely we have to enforce it, because the ideological, security, economic, and cultural attractions provide a centripetal magnetism. The genius of the postwar American order, as John Ikenberry argues in Liberal Leviathan, is that the rules the United States created are beneficial to others, creating a self-reinforcing hegemony.

China’s leaders seem to think the time is nigh to challenge the American-led order. The perceived reputational collapse represented by the Iraq war, the economic collapse represented by the 2008 financial crisis, the moral collapse represented by ferocious and febrile national debates, the military challenges of reduced defense budgets and competing priorities seem to have given China’s leaders confidence that American power is on the wane. Whereas a decade ago, China’s leaders talked of biding their time and a peaceful rise, they now talk of the Chinese dream and the need for accommodation of their power.

What made the British-to-American hegemonic transition peaceful is that for the crucial years in which the two countries were peers and competitors, the acknowledged similarities between them created space for policy compromises during crises. Beginning in the 1870s, both countries began to redefine their national identities. Those separate processes produced a Britain revelling in the peaceful expansion of its franchise, and a United States embracing the manifest destiny of its westward expansion. So Britain became a democracy and America became an empire in roughly the same time period. They looked alike to each other and different from every other power in the international order (and it merits remembering that the United States wasn’t the only rising power—Japan and Germany were already contenders as well).

When sharp conflicts of national interest struck, as in the 1895 Venezuelan debt crisis, Britain’s freedom of action was constrained by a public affection for America that considered a war between the two countries to be fratricide. Acknowledgement came later for the United States than Britain, but by the Spanish American War in 1898, the affection that shaped political leaders’ range of choice for democracies was deep-rooted.

That sense of sameness between Great Britain and the United States in the late nineteenth century bears little resemblance to the perceptions China and the United States hold of each other now. President Trump’s National Security Strategy highlights the return of great power competition, the National Defense Strategy is inscribed with concern about China’s increasing strength and the challenges it poses for the United States, trade policy is trending toward the United States restricting American markets while China rumors retaliation by reduced treasury buys and turns ever more predatory toward U.S. businesses operating in China.

The more assertive Chinese stance does seem to justify a continued rebalance of American effort toward greater acknowledgement of the threats China poses for the existing order and efforts to reinforce that order. If the United States continues to believe in the existing order, based as it is on rules and institutions the United States established, it should contest China’s rise on the terms China now seems to be indicating it will pursue.

But if the United States should elect not to contest China’s rise, a Cold War could be avoided because the United States would lose it. America would cede the contest without violence, abandon its allies, and learn to live in a world ordered and enforced by China. It is something we probably think too little about, what an order in which we do not, or cannot, set and enforce rules would be like.

My work on hegemonic transition strongly suggests that once established, dominant powers—rule setters and enforcers, which is what to be the hegemon means—reshape the international order into a macrocosm of their domestic political order. So the United States made the order of its time of primacy one where self-determination, free markets, and representative government were the advantaged characteristics. If you want to understand what the international order would be like in a time of Chinese dominance, look to their domestic political order: privileges rather than rights, power rather than law, fealty rather than alliance.

Whether the United States contesting China’s rise results in a new Cold War depends on two things: whether China continues to rise; and whether Francis Fukuyama and American policymakers prove right that China must liberalize in order to sustain its prosperity.

So a Cold War may be avoided because the Chinese bubble bursts: its banking system spectacularly collapses; the economy fails to navigate the middle-income trap and bogs down in transition from manufacturing to service; creative people flee the increasing authoritarianism, and the economy becomes incapable of momentum; corruption so corrodes the legitimacy of the political system that control becomes untenable, and China becomes just another poorly governed developing country; those excluded from the benefits rise up against political and economic elites; ethnic tensions erupt into civil war; its neighbors grow strong enough to impose intolerably high costs on China to continue pursuing its ascent; war may destroy the engine of its prosperity; high-tech surveillance turns the country into a dystopia of sullen prisoners… so many ways China’s intrinsic weaknesses could precipitate an end to its astounding success.

A Cold War may also be avoided by the experience of postwar liberalization holding, and the Chinese government giving way, slowly or abruptly, to representative government. China remains the great test case of liberal ideology: whether growing more prosperous would ineluctably cause a nation to become more politically liberal. That is, whether China would become more like us and the international order we helped usher into being. We have reached the point at which we can begin to draw inferences about what a powerful, prosperous China will be like, and it is not like us.

There are indications the Chinese leadership already considers their position precarious, though, so perhaps changes are occurring that will prevent the Chinese dream as envisioned by President Xi Jinping from manifesting itself. Chinese officials already rush to natural disaster sites, which shows that at some level they are accountable to their society. Xi’s anti-corruption campaign was not only a useful way to penalize his challengers and enemies, but also serves to bolster the Communist Party’s popularity by showing them attentive to public concern about endemic corruption. His penchant for reviewing troops in battle dress may indicate his bringing that institution under his personal control—or it might signal their growing challenge to his authority. His announcement at the recent Plenary of lifting term limits on his leadership may showcase the breadth of his power—or it may leech what legitimacy the party has remaining from public trust, exposing the brittleness of his position. The most powerful Chinese leader since Mao may see the connection between prosperity and representative government and choose to slowly loosen his grip. But that’s probably not the way to bet your money.

If a Cold War is in the offing, we Americans would do well to remember that the strategy that helped us sustain our strength and independence through the long decades of U.S.-Soviet standoff was to use military force to freeze the existing order in place, husbanding our resources, attracting allies who share the burdens of security and whose own behavior incurs little risk of war, and working by cultural means to reach past governments and connect with people. Our own behavior is chewing into our margin for error and probably remains a stronger indicator of our fate than any choices made by China.


[1] Robert B. Zoellick, Deputy Secretary of State, Remarks to National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, New York City, September 21, 2005 “Whither China: From Membership to Responsibility,” https://2001-2009.state.gov/s/d/former/zoellick/rem/53682.htm

Response Essays

China’s End Run around the World Order

Dr. Kori Schake has written an important essay about problematic assumptions and the challenges the United States faces if it is to take up the National Security Strategy mantle of the “great power competition” with China.

Unfortunately, the situation is more dire and more difficult, with fewer good options, than Schake lays out, for two main reasons.

China Will Only Grow Stronger

Schake admits that the hope that China would become more politically liberal as it grew richer was ill-founded. Her essay, however, still bears traces of optimism that political and economic weaknesses will ensure that China never reaches a level of power at which it can challenge the United States regionally, if not globally.

While she adeptly weighs all possibilities, I would argue that the United States is much more likely to be dealing with a strong China, with a stable Party that has the support of its people for its actions on the world stage. Even hypothesizing otherwise delays a good U.S. strategy response. Ever since Jiang Zemin made the bold decision to allow businessmen and entrepreneurs into the Party, a change of system has become less desirable for those benefiting the most from economic reforms. Coupled with the fact that the majority of Chinese citizens are still poor (500 million still live on less than $5.50 a day), live in rural areas, or make up an urban underclass of migrants, the “haves” are not particularly interested in giving the “have nots” power to determine China’s economic policies.

A more dominant theme in Schake’s essay is the idea that a democratic China would be easier for the United States to manage – and therefore that a democratic China is desirable from a strategic perspective. This is a problematic assumption. First, China’s national interests are not derived from its authoritarianism. A democratic China would also want to reduce its vulnerability to the United States and to have regional powers primarily accommodate its positions. This would necessitate a strategy of pushing out the U.S. military as much as possible, undermining U.S. alliances, and leveraging its economic power to coerce. Nationalism is more organic than many outside observers realize – often it is driven by netizens calling for the use of force while the government censors those calls, rather than the other way around. In short, a democratizing China would be a poster child for Mansfield and Snyder’s argument that democracies in transition can be the most dangerous nations.

Additionally, it seems that much of Schake’s view that things would be easier if China were a democracy is based on her interpretation of the power transition between the United States and Great Britain. While this area is beyond my expertise, I’ll just note that there are alternative explanations for why the transition was peaceful that rely more on realpolitik than on the countries’ similar democratic political systems. For example, Great Britain saw a closer, more immediate threat in Germany in the 1940s and therefore chose to join forces with the United States, and the United States did not have the desire to weaken Great Britain further for the same reason. Alternatively, it is possible that Great Britain realized that it was too weak to succeed in a conflict with the United States, and therefore chose accommodation. Either way, these explanations suggest that maintaining peace between China and the United States means the latter will concede its prime position in the international system without a fight, something at least this author hopes is not currently on the table.

Lack of Clarity about the Nature of the Threat and U.S. Strategic Objectives

Second, Schake’s piece seems to project a confidence that the U.S.-led world order is all-encompassing and creates constraints that makes it durable. Additionally, it implies that China has the choice either to overthrow the order or concede to it – and that it will be clear to U.S. policymakers which path China is choosing.

But one of the reasons historical analogies are not always useful is that every great power sets up a different type of world order – and therefore the rising power’s optimal strategy for challenging it changes as well. As John Ikenberry argues, the United States has set up an institutionally based international order in which its power is constrained in exchange for the consensus of the weaker powers. This is the ideal system for promoting a country’s rise for two reasons. First, the system itself has created the possibility of a degree of economic and political power that has never existed before. This provided an alternative means through which China could accumulate power without triggering heightened threat perceptions in the United States – think about how differently the United States would have responded to a Chinese NATO compared to OBOR. Second, while the declining hegemon used to have the option of launching a preventive war against a challenger, norms and institutional constraints have made this option no longer viable. In short, the U.S.-led world order created opportunities for China to rise and to delay any negative U.S. response to that rise.

The term “U.S.-led world order” is also a bit misleading, as it creates the impression that the world falls within one system and all to the same degree. But what China discovered was that some parts of the world were largely outside the system, and consequently were not benefiting from it. These included unsavory regimes that the United States had chosen to abandon, so China could court relationships to increase political power without threatening the United States. They also include parts of the world that the United States had neglected – China did not supplant the United States in Central Asia or in many African countries; the United States was simply not there. In short, China’s leadership has not decided, as Schake argues, that the time is nigh to challenge the U.S.-led international order. Beijing has decided, however, that it is time to challenge the United States.

Another implicit assumption that Schake does not address directly is the supposition that if China were integrated into the international system, China would come to realize that it was better off with the United States in charge. The U.S. position was that it would support the rise of China as long as Beijing did not resort to military force to get its way. China has largely upheld its end of the bargain – but what the United States did not expect was that China could challenge U.S. hegemony with largely political and economic means, with use of coercion below the threshold of force.

Schake’s complaints about Chinese behavior are understandable – using its economic power to accumulate and exercise power at the expense of the United States, coercing smaller actors to accommodate Chinese interests, and not allowing for the peaceful passage of U.S. military vessels and aircraft within its Exclusive Economic Zone. But it seems now that any Chinese attempts to accumulate or exercise power are labelled as undermining the international order or revisionist. It has become unclear in the policy debate what types of Chinese behavior are indeed threatening to the United States. Is it about process or outcome? If China succeeds through political means in getting the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea revised to take into account its interpretation of what constitutes peaceful passage, and this restricts the U.S. Navy’s access to the South China Sea, is the United States okay with it? My sense is that while many people point to process being the issue, including Schake, the real problem is the outcome – that is, China’s success at strengthening its position vis-à-vis the United States.

The bottom line is that while we can learn from history, we find ourselves in a situation never experienced before – a rising power that is primarily accumulating and exercising political and economic power (for now), within an institutionalized and integrated system such as we have never had, facing a hegemon more constrained than previous ones, in a region that is also rising on the whole. We need completely new thinking, a more innovative strategy.

The Path Forward

So, what are we to do? Schake argues that U.S. strategy has moved toward efforts to contain China. If containment is being used here in the Cold War sense, then I see little evidence or hope for this strategy, given the integrated nature of the international system. Moreover, we forget that the United States did concede the Soviet Union a sphere of influence, something we are not willing to do for China.

What about deterrence? The shift I see in U.S. strategy is the recognition that deterrence is no longer enough – if all we wanted was to deter the Chinese use of force, then we’ve succeeded. Instead, I think U.S. strategic objectives need to be twofold: first, to deter and prevent China from using any form of coercion – economic, political, military – to achieve its goals and gain advantage, and second, to maintain its dominant position vis-à-vis China. Achieving these goals requires a strategy that prevents China from accumulating and exercising power in a way that reduces U.S. influence. It also means that the United States needs to make sure the security and economic benefits states derive from their relationship with the United States are greater than the pure economic benefits they get from China.

These are difficult goals to reach. They require a willingness to escalate tensions and risk greater conflict (potentially upsetting other countries that just want stability) to counter Chinese coercion, even when China is operating in the grey zone or using alternative methods. And they require that the United States bring more to the table – in terms of both security and economic benefits. This administration seems to have no interest in the latter. The former involves the greater risks associated with more combined military operations. For example, the United States could put together a coalition of the willing to implement a Gulf of Aden-type task force in the South China Sea that would protect all vessels, regardless of flag, from dangerous, illegal, or harassing behaviors. A great power competition means every country is a battleground – the support of our allies is not enough (although, especially in the case of European countries, the United States needs to demand greater political support in its competition with China). It may also require the United States to get closer to some countries with unsavory domestic practices, even as we maintain our norms and values.

In sum, Dr. Schake has highlighted many of the difficulties involved in avoiding conflict with China while simultaneously protecting U.S. interests. Coupled with the fact, as I argue, that China is likely to be operating from a position of increasing strength on the international stage, there is still confusion about what types of behaviors are threatening and which are not, and how to define U.S. strategic objectives vis-à-vis China. As a result, we are still a long way from devising a feasible and effective strategy to preserve U.S. interests at an acceptable cost. In the meantime, China continues to advance along its path to achieving “national rejuvenation” and great power status, potentially at the expense of U.S. power, influence, and interests.

Perhaps No One Lost China

As Dr. Kori Schake points out in her thoughtful lead essay, for more than four decades, many U.S. policy and business elites held the view that economic integration would have a tractor beam-like effect on China, gradually and inexorably pulling the Communist Party of China (CCP) into the orbit of the liberal international order.

This was, in Schake’s words, “a flabby argument,” and today it seems no right-thinking person holds such a view anymore.[1] Indeed, we’re in something of a “Who Lost China? 2.0” moment, with a growing chorus declaring the above policy was obviously, inevitably, and clearly doomed to failure from the get-go. In January, the U.S. Trade Representative made the remarkable statement that the United States “erred in supporting China’s entry into the WTO.” The Economist recently opined that there was “strong evidence that the West’s 25-year bet on China has failed.”[2] And in the pages of Foreign Affairs, Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner concluded, “Diplomatic and commercial engagement have not brought political and economic openness” to China. This is the final collapse of what James Mann in his 2006 book The China Fantasy called the “Soothing Scenario” about China’s development path.

Yet we should be wary of overcorrecting toward a more deterministic narrative, for this newfound (and near-universal) buyer’s remorse misses an important point: China’s trajectory wasn’t fixed, and the current autocratic slide under Xi Jinping was the product of specific and contingent events, not ineluctable historical laws or an innate preference to live under despotism. It wasn’t just wide-eyed corporate executives and missionary diplomats who foresaw a reformist path forward for China; so too did countless Chinese officials, intellectuals, and activists many of whom have recently been cowed (or jailed) into silence. The home-grown calls for China to integrate into the global trading order in the lead-up to the WTO entry were real, as was the advocacy for a more liberal “Marxist humanism” in the 1980s by intellectuals like Wang Ruoshui, the calls for the rule of law by academics like Jiang Ping, and the calls to separate Party from government by Zhao Ziyang in the lead-up to the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.

China’s recent political backsliding wasn’t the result of us “getting China wrong,” but rather because the CCP made a decisive course change sometime in the mid-2000s. It started slowly, almost imperceptibly, with few taking much notice at the time. But a series of events empowered more conservative forces within the Party establishment to bend China’s development arc back toward political control and state dominance. The 2008 Olympics bolstered a sense of triumphant nationalism. The Global Financial Crisis was a gut-punch to economic reformers within the intelligentsia and government bureaucracy. The internet and the mobile phone, which just a few years earlier held out so much promise as a universal acid against authoritarianism, were transformed by the Party into new tools to surveil and manipulate. The “Color Revolutions” and the release of Charter 08, followed later by the revelations of Edward Snowden and the announcement of the U.S. “pivot” to Asia, provoked a fear of the age-old bogeymen, “hostile forces” bent on containment and “peaceful evolution” (i.e. the overthrow of the CCP). The perceived failures of “collective leadership” under Hu Jintao became the justification for greater centralization of power in the next leader. The rise of the “neo-Maoists” showed the Party leadership that there was a greater wellspring of “red sympathy” than previously imagined, and a danger of being outflanked to the left. And finally, the events surrounding the rise and fall of the charismatic and ambitious Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai provided proof of intra-Party machinations and splits.

None of this was inevitable. As further evidence that contingency matters, imagine an alternative universe in which the current premier, Li Keqiang, had prevailed over Xi Jinping in the competition for leadership at the 17th Party Congress in 2007. It’s quite conceivable that China would be traveling a different path, even if it wasn’t going to be democratic or liberal. The specific people, and the personalities and power bases here, matter hugely.

But we are where we are. Li didn’t succeed, and we’re now living in the Xi Jinping era, arguably the most closed and conservative since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.

So what does that mean for the prospects of conflict with China? First we need to understand the reality of the party-state we are dealing with. Since coming to power in late 2012, Xi and his core supporters have waged a ferocious, and largely successful, campaign to remake China’s political system according to their preferences, and in support of their own political position. The CCP has essentially subsumed the functions of government to a degree not seen before. The mask has come off, with the sickle and hammer, and bright red propaganda banners, now proudly displayed on the streets once again, only now among the glittering skyscrapers, as the Party reinserts its ideology into public life. National security now sits uneasily next to the pursuit of economic growth as the lodestar of policy formulation. Xi has also consolidated his hold on the military, which, it bears pointing out, swears fealty to the CCP, not the People’s Republic of China. And in a move that will have far-reaching implications for China and the world, the National People’s Congress recently approved a change to the state constitution removing the legal barriers to Xi Jinping remaining in power for life. This marks the decisive end of China’s reform era, and as Carl Minzner concludes in his presciently timed new book, End of an Era: How China’s Authoritarian Revival is Undermining its Rise, “China is now steadily cannibalizing its own prior political institutionalization.”

And so if, as Dr. Schake posits, “China remains the great test case of liberal ideology,” then liberal ideology is in serious trouble, for China’s conservative “counter-reform,” to again quote from Prof. Minzner, is likely to be the new normal for the foreseeable future.

That China will play a leading role in shaping the global order is undeniable. That the position of the United States in East Asia will change is likewise inevitable. This transformation will hopefully create opportunities in the case of the former, and undoubtedly challenges in the case of the latter. The question is whether it will be a more pragmatic Chinese leadership making the full use of its intellectual and foreign policy establishment that navigates these developments, or whether the country’s foreign policy will be driven by the whims of one man and the increasingly insular (and nationalist) CCP he dominates.

While some argue that Xi’s horizonless leadership tenure augurs well for dealing with issues like North Korea, as Prof. Susan Shirk notes in a sobering new essay, Xi’s increasing power, and concomitant lack of internal constraints, increases the possibility for erratic decisionmaking in both domestic and foreign affairs. She writes, “arbitrary and imprudent decisions taken during a crisis involving the East or South China Seas, the Korean Peninsula, or Taiwan could escalate into a hot war. The risks posed by Xi’s overconcentration of power are not confined within China’s borders, but extend to the world beyond.” Xi and the Party have subsumed every single important institution that might provide independent input into China’s foreign policy. From think tanks to universities, newspapers to government technocrats, all incentives are to conform rather than inform. In short, the number of voices empowered to warn the emperor that he has no clothes is diminishing. This development drastically elevates the possibility of miscalculation with an overly confident (or misinformed) hand.

Also concerning is the Janus-faced nature of Xi’s “China Dream.” One face, which was on display during Xi’s appearance at Davos in 2017, articulates a global vision of inclusiveness, of “win-win,” and steadfast belief in globalization and economic integration. Yet this is the rhetoric of “President” Xi Jinping, head of state. More important is the face of “General Secretary” Xi Jinping, head of the CCP and its military. Here, we should pay attention to one word which animates the world view of Xi Jinping, and indeed, his predecessor Mao Zedong: “struggle” (斗争). In 1949, Mao Zedong exhorted the Chinese people that when it came to confronting the United States, one must “cast away illusions and prepare for struggle.” Xi seems to agree. During his speech to the 19th Party Congress last year, Xi told the assembled, “Every Party member must fully appreciate the long-term, complex, and onerous nature of this great struggle; we must be ready to fight, build our ability, and keep striving to secure new victories in this great struggle.” Xi mentioned “struggle” 15 times during the speech, speaking of the CCP’s “tireless struggle,” its “arduous struggle,” and its “tenacious struggle.” The Party under Xi sees the world in Manichean terms.

On a related point, despite an outward appearance of extreme confidence in its political and economic system, which has been resplendent since the 19th Party Congress, internally the Party speaks of threats, challenges, and fears. As Xi Jinping told Party officials late last year, “Our party was born under a sense of peril, grew up under a sense of peril and matured under a sense of peril.” Earlier this year, he warned officials that they must be loyal “at any time, and under any circumstance.” Over the past five years, no fewer than six top Party leaders have been purged for their purported roles in fomenting plans to overthrow Xi. The CCP has weaponized outward confidence at the same time that it shivers with insecurity. The crushing of intellectuals, the massive spending on internal state security, the talk of hostile forces and internal coups – these are not hallmarks of real confidence. And Schake is correct that there is a chance, albeit remote, that these “internal contradictions,” as Party Marxists might call them, will undermine China’s rise.

But just because China’s outward bravado is not entirely justified doesn’t mean that its growing military and economic might should be dismissed as inevitably doomed. We will likely be dealing with Xi and the growing clout of the CCP and PLA for some time now. The question is not, “when will China collapse?” Rather, the question is what sort of worldview will Xi and the Party and military leadership bring to bear as they seek to expand China’s influence into the global system.

What is to be done? As U.S. policymakers chart a course forward, it’s important that we don’t overlearn the lesson of China’s recent political backsliding and assume that the current path Xi is leading China is the only path. Cyclical swings between openness and control have been regular features of the past four decades, and unless we believe the pendulum is broken or otherwise stuck where Xi has fixed it, we must look for opportunities to nudge the CCP onto a different path. I’ll punt on these specific options for the upcoming discussion.


[1] Of course, in the more specialist community analyzing China, there was always a more nuanced and realistic view of China’s many potential trajectories.

[2] https://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21737517-it-bet-china-would-head…

The Future of U.S.-China Relations Begins at Home

Kori Schake’s essay (and the book from which it is adapted) provides a serious, penetrating, and provocative invitation to debate the overriding geostrategic challenge of our time: what to do about the rise of China. Safe Passage is an outstanding example of the sort of work we champion at the Harvard Belfer Center’s Applied History Project. It illuminates current challenges by careful analysis of the historical record. And the case she examines in which the United States rose to rival and eventually surpass the British global hegemony is among the most instructive of the 16 cases in the Harvard Thucydides’ Trap case file for policymakers seeking to cope with the current U.S.-China competition.

I find so much more to agree with in Schake’s analysis that identifying significant differences requires a bit of a stretch. But since the format calls for debate, I will focus on three areas of potential disagreement.

First, the central question of Schake’s book is as follows: what accounts for the exceptional transition from British to American predominance without war? Her answer is “cultural affinity.” As she puts it, “for the crucial years in which the two countries were peers and competitors, the acknowledged similarities between them created space for policy compromises during crises.” Noting the distinct absence of cultural affinity between China and the United States, she is more reserved than I think she should be when she turns to the question of what we can learn from this case for the current challenge.

My analysis of her case agrees that shared culture and values were very important. But I find them less significant than the geopolitical realities Britain confronted, and the artful diplomacy British statesmen demonstrated in addressing them. Had Britain not faced other more proximate and potent rising powers― Germany and Russia―would it have been so tolerant of American offenses? Had British diplomacy been as unimaginative in dealing with crises in Venezuela, or American territorial claims in Alaska, as it was in the month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914, would war have been avoided?

I applaud Schake’s vivid reminder of the echoes of the U.S.-UK rivalry we can hear today in the current U.S.-Chinese competition. One chapter in my own work Destined For War invites readers to review America’s rise through the eyes of a youthful Theodore Roosevelt as he led his country into what he was supremely confident would be an American Century. TR came to Washington in 1897 to become the number two civilian in the Department of the Navy. In the decade that followed, the United States seized a mysterious explosion in Havana harbor as an opportunity to declare war on Spain, liberate Cuba, and take Puerto Rico and Guam as spoils of war; supported a coup in Colombia to create a new country―Panama―that immediately agreed to the construction of the canal TR wanted so that his navy could move between the Atlantic and Pacific; threatened war with Germany and Britain unless they backed out of a dispute with Venezuela; stole the largest part of the fat tail of Alaska; declared the “Roosevelt Corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine, asserting the right to change any government in the Western Hemisphere that misbehaved; and sent Marines to do just that every year in the decade that followed.

If in the years ahead Xi’s China were to behave “just like us” in this era, could war be avoided? Almost certainly not.

Why then was there a “safe passage” from Britain to the United States? Mainly because the British found ways to “tolerate the intolerable,” ignore repeated instances of disrespect to their honor, and carry on. And why did they do this? Primarily because they faced what they saw as direct threats to their survival in the rapidly rising Germany and Russia.

After London and Washington went to the brink of war over Venezuela’s borders in 1895, British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury advised his government that war with the United States “in the not distant future has become something more than a possibility.” He instructed the Admiralty—at the time the cockpit of British national security planning—to prepare accordingly. Within a decade, however, the Admiralty had convinced his government that the threat posed by nearby European naval powers, particularly Germany, and the consequences of war with the United States for the Empire given the vulnerability of Canada, made it necessary to do whatever was required to avoid war with the Americans. As Salisbury reflected wistfully in 1902, “It is very sad, but I am afraid America is bound to forge ahead and nothing can restore the equality between us. If we had interfered in the Confederate Wars it was then possible for us to reduce the power of the United States to manageable proportions. But two such chances are not given to a nation in the course of its career.”

A major takeaway from this case for statecraft today was Britain’s clarity in distinguishing between its “vital” national interests, on the one hand, and interests that were simply “vested” or “vivid” on the other. While American leaders use the term “vital” promiscuously, the dictionary reminds us that vital means “essential for survival or wellbeing.” To prevent German domination of the continent and a possible invasion of their island from the Low Countries, in 1914 Britain went to war against Germany. But in the Western Hemisphere, Britain’s only vital interest was to protect its Canadian dominion. Clinging to the role it had played for a century as the dominant navy in the Western Hemisphere or arbiter of territorial disputes in Latin America were lesser interests on which it could be accommodating.

In finding ways to satisfy even unreasonable American demands, British diplomacy was so agile and artful that American statesmen came to see U.S. interests as largely aligned with British interests. Thus when war came in 1914, the United States became the lifeline providing essential loans and supplies for the British war effort. And when the United States entered the war in 1917, it did so alongside Britain, making victory possible.

So in Schake’s analysis, if American statecraft were clear about the hierarchy of American national interests, would the necessity for allies to counter-balance a rising China reorder this administration’s priorities in dealing with Japan, South Korea, and India, including issues like the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement? If American statesmen were able to think as clearly about their vital national interests as the British did, could they find their way to what Kissinger has called “co-evolution,” or what in a later stage of the Cold War was termed “peaceful coexistence” or “peaceful competition,” with China?

Second: to meet the challenge of a rising China, what basic strategy is Schake recommending? On the one hand, she seems to share the view of the Trump Administration’s National Security Strategy that China should be recognized as a “strategic rival” seeking to undermine the American-led order. She is ruthlessly realistic in recognizing that a China-led international order would be a “macrocosm of its domestic political order”—emphasizing “privileges rather than rights, power rather than law, fealty rather than alliance.” She discounts the hope of some Washingtonians that China’s bubble may burst or that it may undergo a miraculous conversion.

Thus she recommends “contesting China’s rise.” But on the issue of how, she should say more. In the absence of alternatives, she seems to reluctantly back into some version of a new “Cold War.” But she never explains what that could mean in a world in which China already has an economy larger than that of the United States, and is now a central pillar of the global economy as the dominant trading partner of every one of our Asian allies. Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong expressed the deep anxiety felt by leaders across the region about the prospect of being “coerced to choose between being friends with America”―the country currently providing their security―“and being friends with China”―the country making them rich.

Third: who poses the greatest threat to American national security today? Who poses the greatest threat to America’s position in the world today? In answering those questions, Schake courageously steps over the boundaries of most foreign policy wonks. The final line of her essay concludes somberly “America’s own behavior is chewing into our margin for error and probably remains a stronger indicator of our fate than any choices made by China.”

Similarities between her answer and views expressed by her sometimes co-author, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, in unveiling his new National Defense Strategy are not likely to be coincidental. As Mattis put it speaking pointedly to members of Congress: “Let me be clear. As hard as the last 16 years have been for our military, no enemy in the field has done more to harm the readiness of the U.S. military than the combined impact of the Budget Control Act’s defense spending cuts, worsened by us operating 9 of the last 10 years under continuing resolutions, wasting copious amounts of precious taxpayer dollars.”

To these views I would only say: Amen. What nations do inside their borders matters at least as much as what they do abroad. My own attempt to address this issue concludes by urging American leaders, as well as Chinese, to listen to the counsel of the wisest strategic analyst of both countries: Lee Kuan Yew, the founder and builder of Singapore. Lee urged both to focus first on what matters most. Clear-eyed observers in both societies recognize that neither “dysfunctional ” democracy nor “responsive” authoritarianism is fit for meeting the challenges of the 21st century. While DC has become an acronym for Dysfunctional Capital, as Lee explained trenchantly, China’s “operating system” is increasingly outmoded in an era when Chinese citizens are the world’s largest population of internet users, and a smartphone in every pocket allows them to see the world beyond their borders.

If leaders in each society grasped the seriousness of the problems they face on the home front and gave them the priority they deserved, statesmen would discover that devising a way to “share the twenty-first century in Asia,” as Lee put it, was not their most serious challenge.

The Conversation

Maintaining America’s Position Is the Real Goal

I would like to emphasize a few points based on the responses of Graham Allison and Jude Blanchette to Kori Schake’s lead essay.

First, as Allison points out, one of the central questions in the debate concerns what factors account for the peaceful transition from British to American predominance without war. Allison’s own work shows that such a peaceful transition only occurs in 25% of relevant cases. While this is an important inquiry for IR theorists, it is not the most relevant question for U.S. strategists. A transition of power from the United States to China would still constitute a failure, peaceful or not. The real question is as follows: under what conditions has the dominant power managed to maintain its position in the face of a rising power short of war? Or perhaps more pessimistically, if there is to be war, how can the United States ensure it wins as quickly as possible and at the lowest possible cost?

Second, we continue to make assumptions about China that are too simplistic and naïve based on the fact that it is an autocracy. Few people argue now that China will liberalize, but most see the extension of Xi Jinping’s tenure as a sign of system decay and weakness. While I agreed with Jude Blanchette’s conclusion that China is backsliding toward greater authoritarianism, I am less sure that this will hurt China on the world stage. We assume that liberalism is a better way to accumulate, exercise, and maintain power. It could be, but scholars and strategists need to lend a more critical eye when we make direct connections between China’s autocratic nature and predictions about China’s future. What if Xi extending power directs China through a vulnerable time, allowing for the implementation of critical military reforms necessary to make China a global power? What if instead of thinking of the domestic public as against the regime, we recognize it is more complicated than that, with many supporting at least China’s international agenda? In other words, I think Allison prioritizes geostrategic issues over domestic political factors too much, but Schake does not do so enough. China’s domestic political situation will drive their foreign policy behavior, but perhaps not in ways we expect.

Lastly, what to do about it? There is a general agreement among the authors that the United States should do more to maintain its position, but there are a number of unsolved issues. Does this necessarily involve directly contesting China’s rise? If so, how exactly should the United States do so given the international complications Allison lays out? Given the U.S. domestic political challenges, do we even have the resources and will necessary to consider a more proactive strategy? And is the United States willing to risk war to do so? These are politically sensitive issues – and therefore not discussed as openly and in detail as they perhaps should be.