“There is little doubt then that the Western and Chinese foreign policy communities have come to see the “rising China” phenomenon in fundamentally different ways. Washington sees a still-rising China that is threatening to displace the US at the center stage of world politics. Beijing sees a China that has peaked economically and diplomatically and that is unlikely to continue its decades-long movement toward the center of the global stage. The challenge latent in this divergence of worldviews is that strategies based on the former may well exacerbate or amplify the insecurities necessarily entailed in the latter. In other words, efforts to contain a supposedly still-rising China may well push a China that is convinced it has peaked that it must do something drastic now to ensure its security, power and prestige.”
Until recently, Chinese and Western leaders were of one mind regarding the emergence of China as an economic powerhouse. In Beijing and Western capitals alike, the consensus was that China was a rising power on its way to becoming a respected and responsible stakeholder in the liberal international order. According to the common sense prevailing during the post-Cold War era, the economic reforms introduced by Jiang Zemin in the post-Mao period had launched China on a path of economic growth that would inevitably culminate in an affluent, pacific, and democratic country taking its rightful place among the nations of the earth. All that was required to ensure that this process was smooth and peaceful was to embrace China as a full member of the liberal order – to admit it to all the key international organizations and multilateral trade agreements that defined that order. Once this was accomplished, this shared liberal-internationalist narrative assumed, a new age of global peace and prosperity would be upon us.
In recent years, however, the views of Chinese and Western leaders regarding the rise of China have diverged.
On the one hand, a new common sense has taken hold within the Western foreign policy community – one that is more in common with the Realpolitik logic of the Cold War than liberal-internationalist one of the post-Cold War era. According to this new conventional wisdom, China is a rising power bent minimally on flexing its muscles and asserting its power regionally and maximally on “Sino-forming”1 the entire global order. It is a power that, like the Soviet Union of yesteryear, seeks to displace the US a global hegemon. It is a power that must be contained, through multilateral action if possible, unilaterally if necessary.
On the other hand, a new conventional wisdom also seems to have crystalized within the CCP leadership. Simply put, Chinese leaders now seem to believe that China is facing serious challenges2 and may well plateau before it achieves president Xi’s declared3 goal of moving China to the “center stage” of world affairs. Economically, they see these challenges taking the form of rising, debt4, a stagnating growth rate5, and declining productivity6. If current trends continue, they fear is that China will not become the world’s economic middle kingdom, owning and controlling all under the heavens. Rather, it will share the fate of countries like Brazil and South Africa that have also fallen into the “middle income trap” and simply cannot escape it.
Demographically, the anxiety is that China is both shrinking and getting old. In 2018, the country’s population declined for the first time since the famines induced by the “Great Leap Forward” in the 1960s and is predicted by the Chinese Academy of Science7 that it if fertility continues to drop from its current rate of 1.6 children per woman to a realistic 1.3, China’s population would be reduced by about 50% by the turn of the next century. And, as this comes to pass, the population will continue to get older, leaving fewer workers to support increasing numbers of elderly. Taken together, these predictions have raised concerns in elite circles that, if it is to avoid the social unrest associated with “getting old before getting rich,” China will have to reallocate scarce financial resources from defense spending, technology investment, and development projects like the Belt-and-Road Initiative to its already inadequate social security system. And this will come at a cost to both economic growth and geopolitical clout.
Finally, the CCP can see as clearly as anyone that China’s geopolitical star is fading rather than rising. In response to China’s assertive actions and rhetoric over the past decade, countries around the world have chosen counterbalancing over bandwagoning. Japan and India have both adopted military and diplomatic strategies intended to check China’s power grab. The US has undertaken a ‘strategic pivot’ to the Indo-Pacific region. Nearly a dozen countries have backed out of various Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects8. India, Australia9, Japan, and the US have moved in the direction of increased defense cooperation under the auspices of the newly revived “Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.” The European Union has labeled China a “systemic rival.”10 And the United Kingdom, France, and Germany have begun sending warships11 to the Pacific and Indian oceans to counter China’s growing presence. Both in the Indo-Pacific and beyond, China’s geopolitical ascent is being ever more resolutely challenged by an increasingly powerful constellation of countries.
There is little doubt then that the Western and Chinese foreign policy communities have come to see the “rising China” phenomenon in fundamentally different ways. One sees a still-rising China that is threatening to displace the US at the center stage of world politics. The other sees a China that has peaked economically and diplomatically and that is unlikely to continue its decades-long movement toward the center of the global stage. The challenge latent in this divergence of worldviews is that strategies based on the former may well exacerbate or amplify the insecurities necessarily entailed in the latter. In other words, efforts to contain a supposedly still-rising China may well push a China that is convinced it has peaked that it must do something now to ensure its security, power and prestige.
This could heighten tensions, and even lead to war, in two ways. First, a China that is insecure, and especially one that is made to feel even more so by Western containment policies, is likely to be less willing to compromise on territorial disputes. Having given up on Maoist ideology, and with diminishing prospects for ‘performance legitimacy’ based on delivering higher standards of living, the CCP has doubled down on nationalism as a legitimating ideology. This means that it must be seen to be defending the eternally wronged but ever-virtuous nation from the predations of its neighbors and the West (i.e. the US). This in turn is likely reduce the scope for compromise with its neighbors (as in the case of India last summer) or the US (over the South China Sea or Taiwan), inevitably leading to friction, possibly ending in war.
Second, a China that believes that it has peaked before it has secured its “place in the sun” may be a China that is inclined to maximize whatever advantages it has now, before it falls into relative decline. Both Germany and Japan found themselves in just such a situation12 in the last century. And both launched wars that they were not confident they could win at the time, but that they believed they would certainly lose in the future. A faltering China, confronting a world convinced it is still a rising threat and increasingly arrayed against it, might make a similar judgment.
What, then, is to be done?
My argument is that the only viable strategic path forward for the United States is a strategy of “blunting.”13 Such a strategy would involve denying China primacy in the Western Pacific, undermining Chinese efforts to assert its leadership regionally and globally, and preventing China from dominating the global commons, including not only the high seas, but space and cyber as well. The goal of such a strategy would not be to restore American primacy or to rebuild the so-called liberal or rules-based international order. Rather, it would be to forestall Chinese domination through the creation of a stable – and democracy-favoring – balance of power.
Such a blunting strategy would not be an echo of the Cold War era US grand strategy of containment. Nor would it resemble the post-Cold War grand strategy sometimes referred to as liberal internationalism. Both of those strategies in their own ways envisioned a nearly imperial role for the United States – one that involved thickly institutionalized alliances, an extensive basing network, permanent deployments of troops abroad and all the other expensive accoutrements of (liberal) empire. Rather, it would be one of restraint. It would, in other words, be a strategy that eschewed the maximalism of the Cold War and post-Cold War eras in favor of a balancing strategy ordered toward catalyzing or supporting local counterbalancing dynamics rather than playing the lead role or assuming the lion’s share of the counterbalancing burden. Nor would such a strategy of restraint be premised on military primacy. An asymmetric ability to blunt the efforts of aspiring regional hegemons – rather than a military capacity to defend the “free world” or uphold and extend a comprehensively liberal order – would be all that would be necessary. Nor, finally, would it be interventionist. Rather than intervening militarily to deal with “rogue states,” global terrorism or humanitarian crises, a strategy of “restrained blunting” would countenance military intervention only for the purposes of preventing Chinese domination of a key region, and then only in extremis.
The challenge, of course, will be one of getting the balance right, of sailing between the Scylla of resolutely opposing China’s regional and global power plays and the Charybdis of provoking a major war. History teaches us that successfully navigating that narrow channel will not be easy. Britain failed to do so in 1914 and the US failed in 1941 – both cases resulting in catastrophe. Our prospects of setting such a course will be much improved if we both understand the challenge posed by China and have a realistic vision of how that challenge might be blunted.
About the Author
Andrew Latham is a professor of international relations at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA; and, a Research Associate with the Centre for Defence and Security Studies, Canada. He regularly teaches courses on Chinese Foreign Policy and Conflict and Security in the Indo-Pacific Region). His work has been published in The Hill, The National Interest, The Diplomat, Responsible Statecraft, 19FortyFive, RealClearDefense, DefenseOne, Wavell Room, Strategy Bridge, and The Conversation
- https://www.realclearpolitics.com/2020/08/15/david_goldman_chinas_plan_to_sino -form _ the _world_520322.html
- https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.KD.ZG?end =2 019 & locations = CN&start=2007
- https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-imperial-overreach-of-chinas – belt – and – road-initiative-11601558851
- https://www.dfat.gov.au/geo/india/Pages/joint-statement-comprehensive -strategic-partnership-between-republic-india-and-australia
- https://ecfr.eu/publication/the_meaning_of_systemic_rivalry_europe _ and _china_beyond_the_pandemic/
- https://thediplomat.com/2020/11/europe-as-a-major-military-power-in-asia-dont – bet-on-it/
- https://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2020/09/14/china_as_a_faltering _contender _577273.html