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The Dragon Rises

In order to head off a potential conflict with China, the U.S. should refocus military and soft-power efforts to contain a resurgent Middle Kingdom.
September 15, 2020
The Dragon Rises
Dancers perform a dragon dance on the Great Wall in Badaling some78 km north of Beijing on August 5, 2008. (CARL DE SOUZA/AFP via Getty Images)

One might think that a devastating war with China or a world in which the United States is subject to the will of the Chinese Communist Party is unimaginable. But history shows that everything is unimaginable until it happens. Norman Angell published his best-seller, The Great Illusion, in 1909, arguing that another great war would never happen because of the new international financial system—and we all know how that turned out. To prevent either terrible outcome, Americans need to engage the China question seriously and beyond rhetoric and tough talk.

In their bid to return to regional hegemony and recover national pride diminished during the “century of humiliation” between 1839 and 1949, the Chinese are assisted by their domestic economic system. Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in the 1980s allowed for double-digit growth rates. Additionally, the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 removed a superpower to China’s north, hence removing a check on Chinese military power. These two factors enabled the Chinese Communist Party to rebuild its military. This rise had not gone unnoticed. In his seminal 1993 essay, Aaron Friedberg warned that East Asia’s fate in a post-Soviet world remained to be determined. The Weekly Standard dedicated an entire issue to China in 1997. George W. Bush campaigned against the Clinton administration’s softness on China in 2000. But the attacks of September 11th in 2001 refocused American attention on the Muslim world. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), with Deng as its policy’s architect, took advantage of this distraction, rising quietly and fast. In 2002, China declared the next two decades as a “period of strategic opportunity.”

This quiet rise got louder in the 2010s with Xi Jinping’s ascension to power, which coincided with a decrease in America’s involvement in the Muslim world. The CCP began undermining the international order, including building artificial islands to expand China’s maritime territory and maintaining support for North Korea, despite the latter’s nuclear weapons program. The Chinese military also began to build up from nothing to a serious force: Since 1995, military spending has grown by a factor of 100. Furthermore, for the first time a few months ago, a Chinese official dropped “peaceful” when talking of reunification with Taiwan, a goal the Chinese Communist Party has promised to accomplish by 2049, the 100th birthday of the current Chinese state. China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims in its Xinjiang region is a violation of international norms. Then there is China’s manipulation of its currency, theft of intellectual properties, and other economic malpractices. Finally, Chinese hackers have been conducting offensive cyber operations to mine private information of U.S. citizens, likely to blackmail those in positions of influence in the future. There is a concern that the application TikTok also poses the same threat by opening a gate on users’ phones to Chinese third-parties.

The United States needs to develop a military capable of winning a war against China in East Asia in order to provide meaningful deterrence against Chinese aggression and a military that could similarly deter Russia in Europe. America’s military is strong enough to defeat one of them, all resources pulled, but not both. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have called each other their best friends in the past and are increasing military cooperation. With deterrence in mind, American strategists cannot think of China and Russia separate from each other—a war against one will likely result in a war against both. Still, the U.S. military’s primary role should be defensive to protect already-existing allies, including the extension of nuclear and conventional deterrence to Taiwan and establishing military bases on the island.

There is a non-military offensive role for the United States, too. The United States’s soft power is a useful tool to weaken the CCP’s domestic control. In the past, many believed that technological advancements and the growing flow of information would inevitably lead to liberalization in China. The opposite has happened. The United States needs to counter China’s attempts to block the free flow of information domestically. The U.S. should limit the sharing of digital technology with China by U.S. allies and partners and create incentives for Chinese engineers and data scientists to leave China for the United States or allied nations. Additionally, this requires an increase of funding for and better management of the U.S. Agency for Global Media to boost their Chinese-language operations, taking measures to punish China’s censorship of information and internet, and increase of funding for the National Endowment for Democracy and its two subsidiaries, the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute. The U.S. should also consider invoking the Global Magnitsky Act to increase support for Chinese dissidents, especially Uighurs but also Han Chinese.

Another offensive strategy would involve decreasing China’s share of the global supply chain by liberalizing trade with allied nations, especially in trans-Pacific and trans-Atlantic trade, conditioned on limiting trade with China. In Latin America and Africa, China’s share of investment and aid has significantly increased over the past decade, allowing China to purchase influence. This should be countered with U.S. aid and investment in third world countries to combat such influence. Currently, the USAID’s budget is less than 1 percent of the federal budget.

Slowing and stopping China’s rise is inconceivable without European cooperation, as the EU is the third-largest importer of Chinese goods. Additionally, Europe remains a home for great scientific discoveries which could be used for military purposes, and the United States needs Europeans to share such technologies. As Wess Mitchell and Jakub Grygiel show in their book The Unquiet Frontier, when left to themselves, smaller states don’t necessarily or exclusively try to increase their powers. Sometimes, they try to accommodate a hostile power. The United States’s abandonment of trans-Atlanticism will open the door for China’s entry to the region. One small example of such a problem is Boris Johnson government’s agreement with Chinese telecom company Huawei despite U.S. objections. (The agreement was later scotched.)

The diminished gap between China’s and the United States’s aid and investment in third world countries has also helped China in international organizations, including the United Nations and subsidiaries such as the World Health Organization, as those countries are now more likely to vote with China and for Chinese commissars. The United States has responded by withdrawing from these organizations. Rather than ignoring such institutions, the United States should reinvest in them to once again exert dominance.

The United States needs to take the lead in areas of concern for the entire world. One such area is climate change, and with better messaging people could be convinced of China’s danger to the world. China is the greatest the world’s greatest source of pollution (28 percent), followed by the United States (15 percent). Taking into account that the U.S. economy is significantly larger than China’s, however, one comes to realize that Chinese emission standards are much lower than those in the United States. While leading efforts to combat climate change, the United States should avoid entering into agreements that ask the U.S. economy to sacrifice more than China’s, while Chinese industries still pollute more than America’s.

The world should stop subsidizing China’s rise through institutions created to protect and promote liberalism. The World Bank Group and International Monetary Fund were created to protect the liberal world. In 2016, however, China’s Yuan became a reserve currency for the IMF. The IMF board has been increasing China’s quotas and hence control of the organization. The case of the World Bank is much worse. In December, the bank approved of more than $1 billion annual loans to China until 2025. It is reasonable for such institutions not to give aid to a country with a massive military expenditure, one that is proliferating nuclear weapons and investing in artificial intelligence for military purposes.

American businesses have extensive ties with China, which has turned them into lobbyists for accommodating the CCP. Just to cite an example, Disney’s board was so anti-Soviet that when Nikita Khrushchev visited the United States, despite his great desire, he was not allowed to visit Disneyland. On the contrary, Disney today accommodates the Chinese market. Its upcoming feature, Mulan, was made to appeal to Chinese audiences and the movie’s star, Liu Yifei, has publicly supported the Hong Kong police against the democracy protestor. Worse, a new report shows how Hollywood is self-censoring its products to stay on the CCP’s good side. This is something that is difficult to fix through public policy, but American officials should call out such businesses.

Finally, Americans need to against start believing in the superiority of our system while appreciating its flaws and trying to fix its shortcomings. America’s open society allows for the infiltration of Chinese soft power organizations, such as the Confucius Society. America’s liberalism also makes it susceptible to disinformation campaigns and election meddling.

Against China, the United States has the better hand. It has more and better allies than China, a better economy, a larger middle class, a more legitimate regime, a larger military, a greater soft power, and a superior political system. We should start acting like it.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.