To the extent that any nation has a grand strategy, China surely does. The vision is no secret: Xi Jinping vows to make China great again. This resonates deeply: Since imperial decline in the First Opium War (1839 to 1842), every Chinese leader has sought the same, with broad popular support. Xi’s strategy for a modern China of unprecedented power and influence requires recapturing lost glories at home and abroad. It clearly entails reincorporating Taiwan, together with other unresolved island and maritime claims. China’s history and geography suggest that it now faces short-range opportunities and long-range challenges. China’s strategy thus has a broadly-defined arc that the United States should address with a strategy of “competitive coexistence” to safeguard American interests sustainably amid increasing Chinese assertiveness.
Xi’s Vision and Priorities
At the 19th Chinese Communist Party National Congress on Oct. 18, 2017, Xi Jinping delivered a major speech in which he declared, “The Chinese nation […] has stood up, grown rich, and is becoming strong.” He articulated a new era with the historic mission to “realize the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation.” For its implementation, Xi laid out a timeline with three major target dates: By the Party Centenary in 2021, China should “finish building a moderately prosperous society in all respects.” By 2035, China should be much stronger economically and technologically, have become a “global leader in innovation,” and have completed its military modernization. By the People’s Republic of China Centenary in 2049, China should have “[r]esolv[ed] the Taiwan question” and be a “strong country” with “world-class forces.” Party leadership is crucial to the realization of this “Chinese Dream,” Xi insists, and his own leadership is crucial for now.
To understand how Xi’s grand strategy might play out, and to assess its prospects, one should consider Xi’s hierarchy of geographically-rooted national security priorities. Save for the party’s self-justified dictatorship since 1949, this hierarchy arguably echoes across centuries of Chinese imperial history. From their very origins, the party (established 1921) and its People’s Liberation Army (established 1927) have pursued political, security, and geostrategic goals in layers. Overall, these objectives have radiated outward over time, prompting leadership to look beyond China’s borders. When facing setbacks, however, leaders have retreated inward in focus and forces. Should China or its leadership face substantial challenges in the future, they might slow or even reverse their current outward advance. The speed and direction cannot be projected with certainty, but the broad continuum along which China’s geostrategic status may progress or retrogress is readily visible. In descending order of importance: party leadership, centralized administration of the core Han heartland, stability of ethno-religious borderlands, integrity of land borders and security of coastlines, resolution of near-seas sovereignty claims, and safeguarding of overseas interests. The party has staked its claim to power on its ability to safeguard the most important of these interests and rejuvenate China in a way that no other government could.
An Enduring Hierarchy of Interests
The foremost party-army priority has been the consolidation and retention of authority over mainland China, its population, its resources, and its purported historical mission. In this, there are arguably parallels to previous dynasties that gained control of China and subjected it to centralized authoritarian rule only to have that actual administration vary over geography and time. In Origins of the Modern Chinese State, for instance, Philip Kuhn argues that this centralizing mission has been a consistent effort since 1800, albeit with varying levels of success across regimes. This is very different from the geo-identity and geopolitics of such immigrant societies as the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand; such outwardly demarcated island nations as the United Kingdom and Japan; and such committed European Union members as Germany; as well as those of many other countries.
The party-army struggled for over two decades before finally becoming the party-state-army that founded a people’s republic charged with reinvigorating China — this time with Marxist-Leninist ideology. Mao Zedong articulated and implemented a strategy of asymmetric “protracted war” in which time and territory could be traded for attrition of enemy forces and accrual of popular support. The strategy’s ultimate implementation was the year-long Long March in which Mao and other party and army leaders led multiple groups over thousands of kilometers to escape Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang forces, which were pursuing a rival vision for reviving China. Shortly after his arrival at the party base in Yan’an in 1935, Mao became chairman of the Military Commission and undisputed leader of the fraction of forces surviving the mythologized march. By early 1949, the party controlled most of the core Han heartland, ensuring its victory in the civil war. On October 1, 1949, Mao assumed power in the historic capital of Beijing, formally institutionalizing the party-state-army. Ever since, in marked contrast to most nations’ professional militaries, the People’s Liberation Army has maintained extensive responsibility for domestic stability and opposing internal threats to party hegemony. This central mission would manifest dramatically in the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, which initiated three years of military purges, political instruction, and few major exercises.
Party-army capture of the Chinese state set the stage for achieving the next layer of security: party-state administration of the core Han heartland. Beyond that, however, lay a gaping hole in the control of ethno-religious minority borderlands. Tibet remained unincorporated through the People’s Republic of China’s first year of existence. On October 7, 1950, Mao sent the army into the region. This led to the surrender of 5,000 Tibetan troops by October 19. In 1951, Beijing pushed through a Seventeen Point Agreement establishing sovereignty over, and the power to rule, Tibet. While there is no chance today of Tibet, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, or any other minority borderland seceding from China, ethnic tensions and opposition to governance approaches are prompting Beijing to devote tremendous surveillance and security resources to these areas.
Beyond Tibet, the People’s Republic spent much of the Cold War defending the integrity of its self-defined land borders. Most importantly, the army defeated Indian forces in a 1962 border conflict. It also shored up defenses after the flight of 60,000 ethnic Kazakhs and Uyghurs from Xinjiang to the Soviet Union that year. In 1969, Chinese forces preemptively attacked Soviet counterparts on the Ussuri River’s contested Zhenbao Island in order to deter broader incursions by thousands of Soviet troops then deployed along China’s disputed northern border. But in keeping with even higher priorities, as M. Taylor Fravel explains, Beijing compromised in international disputes when threatened with minority rebellions in adjacent border areas. In 1979, China waged a bloody border war to punish Vietnam for invading Cambodia and deposing the Khmer Rouge, followed by years of episodic skirmishes, but in 1991 the two sides settled their land border. Sino-Russian boundary agreements culminated in a 2008 treaty whereby Beijing acquiesced to Moscow’s historical acquisition of thousands of square kilometers of Chinese-claimed territory to settle dispute over the world’s longest land border. It has now settled land border disputes with all neighbors save India and Bhutan.
Meanwhile, China’s seaboard contained important flashpoints unresolved by the civil war period of the 20th century. Here, Chinese achievement was, and remains, mixed. Between March 5 and May 1, 1950, the army recaptured Hainan Island. It subsequently secured the mainland coastline and airspace by halting a spate of Kuomintang coastal raids, harassment, and — years later — American-sponsored U-2 overflights. However, it failed to wrest the heavily fortified offshore islands of Jinmen and Matsu from Kuomintang control, shelling them intermittently instead. Moreover, rather than prioritizing naval development to safeguard China’s coastal concentration of people and industry, Mao redirected much of both to China’s remote southwest hinterlands, where “third line” defense and industrial development consumed slightly over half of the Third Five Year Plan’s total capital investment. In personally promulgating China’s 1964 military strategy, Mao even imposed a retrograde approach of “luring the enemy in deep,” although this and related initiatives furthered his own political purposes without strategic soundness. China’s 1988 military strategy instead emphasized China’s southern coastline and the South China Sea. In that same year, China’s navy clashed with its Vietnamese counterpart in the Spratly Islands. Long after Deng Xiaoping’s reforms reversed Maoist autarky, beginning in 2014 China engineered an extraordinary externalization of its coastal defense posture by engaging in extreme augmentation and fortification of features it occupied in the South China Sea.
Most importantly, Mao indefinitely postponed an invasion of Taiwan slated for 1951 following the Korean War’s outbreak that year. But even if Mao gave up on Taiwan for the near term, Chiang Kai-Shek had not given up on the mainland and remained determined to retake it. For years afterward, including in 1962, China’s leaders worried that Chiang would invade from Taiwan, perhaps with American support. Taiwan Strait crises erupted in 1954-55, 1958, and 1995-96. Today, a Taiwan contingency is the army’s lead planning scenario. The military strategies of 1993, 2004, and 2014 focus geographically on Taiwan and its surroundings and emphasize achieving the jointness and technological sophistication necessary to prevail in a contingency there potentially involving the U.S. military. Years of Chinese progress have left Taiwan’s forces in a position of gross quantitative inferiority; respective qualitative advantage now varies by area, with army-favored areas growing.
As for entrepôts Mao considered unfairly separated by imperialism, he and the party played a long game of prioritized sublimation. Whereas distance, oceanic buffering, Kuomintang resolve, and lack of a substantial party-affiliated fifth column would likely have precluded success in any conceivable invasion of Taiwan, the lack of these same factors would have enabled Mao to take Hong Kong. Yet by February 1949, he had already determined not to do so, in favor of using British Hong Kong as a permanent doorway to foreign necessities. Circumventing a post-1949 U.S. blockade and the Sino-Soviet split, Cold War Hong Kong literally underwrote party survival “as the single-largest contributor of foreign exchange to China (estimated at over 173 million pounds in 1966, about a third of the total); the only entrepôt for ‘smuggling’ sanctioned Western technology, equipment, and medicines to China and exporting Chinese food products; a business operation base for Chinese enterprises; and an intelligence center for Chinese agents.” Portugal offered to return Macau in 1985, but Beijing deferred to avoid preempting Hong Kong’s return. Mao, who could have taken the two territories on command, could not have lived to witness Hong Kong’s return in 1997 or Macau’s in 1999. Beijing now controls Macau tightly, but is having more difficulty consolidating its control over Hong Kong given rising local opposition, conditions that fuel concern in Taiwan.
Unresolved near-seas sovereignty claims are now a major Chinese focus. Beijing has some form of dispute with all eight of its maritime neighbors, counting Taipei. With a wealthy 23.5 million-strong society rooted in Chinese languages and cultures, Taiwan is by far Beijing’s most coveted prize. Additional objectives include the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and East China Sea delimitation claims, and multifarious South China Sea features and maritime claims encompassed by the “Nine-Dash Line.” Beijing’s basis for claims remains nebulous in some areas, but the nature of its claims is relatively clear. While Mao and the party in their early prioritization did not emphasize sovereignty over Taiwan or these other features and zones, Chinese citizens alive today have been subjected to numerous official statements declaring near seas claims to represent “core,” or at least important, Chinese territorial interests. Xi’s China is currently on a trajectory to pursue these claims with increasing vigor and impatience, even if it triggers significant tensions. It is hard to imagine a future China — even if no longer party-led —explicitly renouncing these claims, although different politics and priorities could prompt a shift to peaceful, symbolic means as seen in Taiwan today.
Beyond the near seas, Beijing’s priorities become more diffuse and unclear in nature, and less unilateral in potential execution. For years, China’s overseas interests have been growing rapidly as more citizens, officials, and enterprises operate overseas; and China’s economy depends increasingly on resource inputs and trade. Accordingly, the New Historic Missions that Hu Jintao ordered in 2004 added a new layer of outward emphasis for the People’s Liberation Army. Some aspects of China’s foreign footprint, such as commerce in the Indian Ocean, have historical analogs even predating Zheng He’s Ming Dynasty voyages six centuries ago. Others are unprecedented, including Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative to orient enhanced Eurasian economic development around China through infrastructure and investment. As Liza Tobin explains, this is part of Xi’s larger pursuit of an international “community of common destiny” friendly to his party and its increasingly global influence. Here Xi is invoking older imperial “Silk Road” traditions, but building far beyond them in scope and scale. China’s military is finally receiving the level of resources, development, and tasking to safeguard these interests in substantive ways. It is tasked with securing the Belt and Road Initiative. But what this all means in practice remains to be seen. It risks modern-day versions of imperial management challenges and overreach.
Short-Term Opportunities, Long-Term Challenges
Short-term upsides and long-term downsides characterize China’s trajectory. With its disciplined hierarchy of national security priorities, China’s leadership has picked its battles literally and figuratively. Unlike imperial Germany and Japan, it has not truncated its rise with ruinous wars. Unlike European imperial powers, it has not invested heavily in overseas colonies only to have them rebel or demand their release peacefully. Unlike the Soviet Union, it has not overextended itself militarily or otherwise. Unlike the United States, it has not expended heavily on long-term overseas conflicts with few tangible benefits. Washington disperses its focus and forces globally; Beijing is making the near seas its current layer of military emphasis, to formidable effect.
But China has no guarantee of prevailing in its near seas quest, let alone adding a similarly intensive layer of military capabilities beyond. China’s attenuation in military power and coordination with distance remains striking. And time may not be on the side of continued rapid progress in the future. Rather than another four decades of economic burgeoning, China appears poised for decreased rates of growth across the board. This “S-Curved” slowdown typically bedevils mature great powers, and is well-documented in Western Europe and even the uniquely-advantaged United States. In China’s case, party policies have hastened and exacerbated the slowdown with artificially decreased birthrates and facilitated pollution. Yet slowing may remain underappreciated, particularly in a society where nobody under forty has experienced national economic setbacks. In area after area, China has made rapid achievements by picking low-hanging fruit during “catch-up” growth fueled by societal striving following Maoist malpractice. Now citizens’ expectations are far greater and incremental progress far harder and more expensive. Taking military technology and personnel to the next level entails great effort yet diminishing returns. Warships built rapidly now will require massive overhauls a decade hence. The cost of sea power far outpaces inflation: there is a reason that very few nations maintain a blue water navy. Time will tell whether China can continue rapid progress into the far seas, but history and economics suggest that a slowdown looms.
The ultimate downside facing Xi’s China has not materialized, but he and his party have long feared it sufficiently to invest tremendously against it. Unlike Western nations, whose decentralization frustrates deliberate pursuit of a consistent grand strategy yet facilitates tremendous resilience, the Leninist China so comprehensively guided by Xi is brittle and highly vulnerable to domestic instability. Xi has reintroduced additional vulnerability to the system removing limits to his reign and launching severe “anti-corruption campaigns” against rivals. He has scrapped Deng’s relatively stable, reliable, and consensus-based system of elite interest management. Replacing Mao’s excesses and a system in which losers of political struggles often died, it was designed to enhance stability by sharing decision-making and benefits more broadly among top elites while reducing the stakes for factional infighting. Instead, Xi has reverted to a winner-takes-all system in which the paramount leader monopolizes decision-making and responsibility. Should economic growth continue slowing, and other problems emerge, Xi may come under tremendous pressure.
If party rule, administration, or control of borderlands were threatened, Xi would undoubtedly redirect priorities inward. The development of the Belt and Road Initiative and aircraft carrier groups to protect it could not compete with the imperative to shore up policing, paramilitary forces, and border security. Moreover, as Fravel documents, party disunity frustrates the formulation of new military strategy; economic slowdown could produce elite policy differences yielding precisely such disunity. Once Xi becomes weak, sick, old, or dies, various interests within China will likely have a weakened institutional ability to deal with the distribution of interests and managing factional rivalry. That may mean greater instability and uncertainty within China, which may cause it to release political pressure through regional aggression. The United States and others should prepare for a less stable China as well as one that lashes out externally even more.
For now, however, Xi is able to pursue a grand strategy predicated on a progressive radiating of Chinese power and prestige. Beijing’s current area of focus, China’s maritime periphery, is a zone of overlapping Sino-American interests and activities. Since the United States and China have tremendous interests in avoiding war yet feel increasingly threatened by each other regarding self-defined vital interests, the author maintains that both nations must pursue some form of “competitive coexistence.”
The actions and relations of the United States and China will largely shape the world of the next several decades. This will doubtless be a challenging time. With the grandest and most strategic vision of any great power, Xi and his party have staked their persistence in power on the proposition that they alone can make China great again, in part by achieving hierarchically prioritized national security interests. Realizing this “China Dream,” as Xi defines it, by 2049 or even earlier requires subordinating Hong Kong to Beijing’s unchallenged control, incorporating Taiwan formally into the People’s Republic of China, and realizing a variety of disputed near seas sovereignty claims. These objectives pit China directly against important interests, policies, treaty obligations, and military preparations of the United States and its allies and partners. Even if parties can avoid a collision course, it will not be smooth sailing. Yet, with the right navigation, the American ship of state can stay strong and successful: Washington must hold off Beijing’s irredentism until slowing in Chinese national power growth combined with domestic demands reprioritizes policies toward peacefulness.
China under Xi clearly has a strategy. The United States clearly needs one of its own. With four decades of deep engagement foundering on Chinese ambitions and American concerns, Washington needs a new approach. I propose a strategy of “Competitive Coexistence,” which boils down to four points:
- Do not suppress China wholesale; do oppose its harmful behaviors.
- Accept risk and friction to recalibrate Chinese actions threatening American interests.
- Hold ground in contested areas to thwart Chinese dominance.
- Reduce tensions and pursue shared interests as much as Beijing is willing to do.
By nearly any measure, China’s power has grown formidable indeed, but there is no need for Washington to yield to Beijing’s demands in the window of vulnerability before national slowdown recalibrates Chinese priorities. In addition to its own unparalleled strengths, America has a unique array of allies and partners for burden sharing and force multiplication. It must leverage this advantage to safeguard its interests against Chinese pressure. Only then can all the necessary numbers truly add up.
As for the United States and China, while they contend continuously and interact in contested spaces, may nevertheless avoid kinetic conflict — and may pursue shared interests as strategic stakeholders where mutually motivated. This is not a panacea. Beijing will continue to promote its own concepts. But given the reality of U.S. public opinion and economic and security concerns, it is likely the most realistic place to start.
The argument builds on the chapter the author published in Comparative Grand Strategy: A Framework and Cases (Oxford University Press, 2019).
About the Author
Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is a Visiting Scholar at Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and a Professor of Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College. He blogs at www.andrewerickson.com.
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