American attitudes toward China have changed dramatically over the past decade. There is much less confidence that the democratic world can bring China into a rules-based international order—or that the growth of the Chinese middle class will create internal pressure for liberalization and democracy. Elites in both political parties agree that competition with China is now at the center of U.S. economic and foreign policy, a stance that many Americans endorse.
The accession of
to the peak of Chinese leadership marked the end of the era defined by
famous maxim, “Hide our strength, bide our time.” Mr. Xi is asserting China’s strength, not hiding it. And he believes that China’s time has come.
Mr. Xi’s strategy rests on five pillars. First, he has moved aggressively to take back authority over every industry in his country. Economic actors that had been increasingly independent—especially in technology and consumer services—have been reined in, and he is pressing the private sector to hand over all of its data. Dissenting voices in civil society have been shut down. Potential threats to his leadership from within the party have been suppressed. The full power of the state has been unleashed against Hong Kong and the Uyghurs. And he has sparked a campaign to deploy Chinese history in service to the Communist Party, an effort that has been labeled “the largest mass-education drive since the Mao era.”
Second, Mr. Xi has established technological superiority as a core national goal. His “Made in China 2025” plan is designed to propel his country into the lead in the technologies that will dominate the global economy in coming decades, many of which have military applications. And he has strengthened the connections between the civilian and military sectors.
Third, Mr. Xi has upgraded his defense forces and extended their reach. The Chinese army is far better equipped than it was a decade ago. The navy is the largest in the world. And China is moving to establish a global system of ports to give its forces access all over the world.
Fourth, Mr. Xi is using China’s economic clout to extend its diplomatic reach. Although the Belt and Road Initiative has yielded mixed results, developing countries and autocratic governments welcome the absence of the environmental and governance requirements that other funders impose. Most recently, while Western countries have concentrated on inoculating their own populations against Covid-19, China has boosted its international standing by shipping millions of doses of its vaccine to countries throughout Asia.
Finally, and most ominously, Mr. Xi has deployed the full force of Chinese nationalism to support the reassertion of his country’s power and to complete its reunification. Last week, 28 Chinese fighter jets and other aircraft conducted exercises over waters south of Taiwan. A successful effort to end Taiwan’s independence by force, once considered improbable, can no longer be ruled out.
Against this backdrop, President Biden made a stepped-up response to China the centerpiece of his recent European trip. The Group of Seven which was silent on China when it last met three years ago, called on Beijing to restore Hong Kong’s freedom and to respect human rights, especially in Xinjiang. The group called for a transparent probe into the origins of the Covid-19 virus, and established a working group to develop a response to the Belt and Road initiative. And NATO, which barely mentioned China as recently as 2019, now labels it an increasingly serious security challenge. Last week,
NATO’s secretary-general, stated that “the balance of power is shifting” and “we need to respond together as an alliance.”
But there is a difference between declarations and concrete policies. Europe would prefer to focus on the threat from Russia, and many European countries fear that a tougher stance toward China would endanger their economic interests. By contrast, it appears that the Biden administration is seeking to stabilize relations with Russia by establishing mutually agreed red lines on cyberattacks, Ukraine and other contested areas so that the administration can focus its military, diplomatic and soft-power strategies on the Chinese challenge, which it believes will determine the course of the 21st century.
A lesson of the past few years is that there is little the U.S. can do to change China’s domestic policy. We cannot persuade or force its leaders to abandon their drive for technological and military superiority, to decrease the state’s role in the economy or to respect human rights. We must focus—as a country and as the leader of democratic alliances—on what we can do to strengthen ourselves.
Recent bipartisan moves in the House and Senate to increase investment in important technologies are a promising start. It remains to be seen whether we can agree on the investments and strategic decisions that an effective military response to the Chinese challenge will require—and whether we can restore a sense of common purpose across partisan lines without which such a response cannot be sustained.
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