The Elements of the China Challenge/I. The China Challenge

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I. The China Challenge

For a fairly long time yet, socialism in its primary stage will exist alongside a more productive and developed capitalist system. In this long period of cooperation and conflict, socialism must learn from the boons that capitalism has brought to civilization. We must face the reality that people will use the strengths of developed, Western countries to denounce our country’s socialist development. Here we must have a great strategic determination, resolutely rejecting all false arguments that we should abandon socialism. We must consciously correct the various ideas that do not accord with our current stage. Most importantly, we must concentrate our efforts on bettering our own affairs, continually broadening our comprehensive national power, improving the lives of our people, building a socialism that is superior to capitalism, and laying the foundation for a future where we will win the initiative and have the dominant position.

Xi Jinping“Uphold and Develop Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” speech to the CCP Central Committee, January 5, 2013

Awareness has been growing in the United States — and in nations around the world — that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has triggered a new era of great-power competition. Even as the United States seeks cooperation and welcomes rules-based competition, responsible American statecraft depends on grasping the mounting challenge that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) poses to free and sovereign nation-states and to the free, open, and rules-based international order that is essential to their security, stability, and prosperity. The CCP’s recklessness in allowing the novel coronavirus born in Wuhan to develop into a global pandemic coupled with the concerted disinformation campaign that Beijing undertook to conceal China’s culpability should put doubts to rest. Yet many people lack a proper understanding of the character and scope of the China challenge.

Home to an extraordinary culture and to moral and political traditions stretching back thousands of years, China today is a great power governed by an authoritarian regime modeled on 20th-century Marxist-Leninist dictatorship. Prodigious economic growth has enriched China. Major military modernization has emboldened it. And nations around the world have enabled the CCP by engaging, and welcoming commerce with, Beijing.

Few, however, discern the pattern in the PRC’s inroads in every region of the world, much less the specific form of preeminence to which the CCP aspires. The failure to understand China’s interests and objectives derives in no small measure from neglect of the CCP’s governing ideas.1 Just as America’s commitment to a free, open, and rules-based international order composed of sovereign nation states arises from our dedication to “unalienable rights” — the language that America’s Declaration of Independence uses to describe the rights inherent in all persons2 — so too does the PRC’s determination to achieve “national rejuvenation” and transform the international order so that it places China at the center and serves Beijing’s ruling ambitions stem from the CCP’s Marxist-Leninist ideology and hyper-nationalist convictions.3

The conventional wisdom long supposed that China is best understood in accordance with ideas of reasonable state behavior. For decades, influential observers in and out of government viewed China’s rise as an opportunity to enlarge the world market and thereby benefit all nations through increased global commerce. They lauded Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s decision in the late 1970s to introduce capitalist elements into the PRC’s state-controlled economy, which — over time and with assistance from the United States and other advanced industrial nations — spurred rapid modernization and generated double-digit economic growth. They hoped that incorporating a rising China into the established international order would induce Beijing to fully open and privatize its state-directed economy; to liberalize its authoritarian regime; and eventually to become a “responsible stakeholder” upholding the international order. Even after the CCP’s bloody June 1989 crackdown on hundreds of thousands of prodemocracy protesters in Tiananmen Square and throughout the country, many in the United States and around the world clung to high hopes for China.4

But the much-anticipated political liberalization did not occur. China might have chosen the democratic path of former dictatorships in East Asia like South Korea and Taiwan. Speculations about “the end of history” — that liberal democracy, owing to its reasonableness and universal appeal, was spreading around the globe — nourished the faith.5 But the CCP has stuck to its authoritarian convictions. The party consistently affirmed its fidelity to Marxism-Leninism as a paradigm for China’s governance, and socialism — the state control of economy and society — as a model not only for the PRC but also for other nations and as the basis of an alternative world order.6 Still, some persist in believing that China’s conduct will stay within recognizable boundaries and that Beijing merely acts as would any great power in its geopolitical circumstances.7

Meanwhile, the CCP has patiently developed the PRC’s capabilities over the last 40 years with the long-term goal of achieving global preeminence and placing a socialist stamp on world order. Captive to the conventional wisdom, the United States and other countries proceeded largely unaware of or indifferent to the long-term strategic competition launched by the CCP and affirmed with increasing boldness by CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping. As a veteran U.S. policymaker recently wrote, “This prolonged failure in China policy could turn out to be the biggest U.S. policy deficiency in the past seven decades, given the accumulating dangerous strategic consequences of the rise of Chinese power for world order as well as for the United States and its allies and friends.”8

Even as proponents of the conventional wisdom dug in their heels, keen observers of China effected a salutary shift in perspective. Their books and articles bring into focus the CCP’s one-party, repressive rule as well as its defiance of, and determination to remake, international norms, standards, and institutions.9

The Trump Administration achieved a fundamental break with the conventional wisdom. It concluded that the CCP’s resolute conduct and self-professed goals require the United States and other countries to revise assumptions and develop a new strategic doctrine to address the primacy and magnitude of the China challenge. The administration presented its thinking to the public in the 2017 National Security Strategy, 2018 National Defense Strategy, 2020 United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China, 2020 annual report to Congress on China’s military power, and in many high-profile speeches by senior administration figures.10

The administration’s outlook recognizes that it is unreasonable to suppose that today’s leaders of the Chinese Communist Party — who view themselves as heirs to a great civilization, who espouse a 20th-century ideology and political system the cruelty and repression of which have left tens of millions dead, and who pursue hyper-nationalist goals — comprehend domestic politics and world affairs as do the United States and other liberal democracies.11 In recent years, the CCP has consolidated authority and — by nefarious means ranging from digital surveillance to strict indoctrination to concentration camps for religious and ethnic minorities — intensified the subordination of PRC citizens to party-defined collective interests. The CCP has developed — and acquired illegally in many instances — advanced technologies not only to control its own population but also to collect data on persons across the globe and to build a world-class military. The CCP has pursued extravagant claims in, and militarization of, the South China Sea in brazen defiance of international law while crushing freedom in Hong Kong and threatening to do the same in Taiwan. The CCP has undertaken major infrastructure and investment projects, debt-trap diplomacy, and other predatory economic practices in every region of the world, the better to induce or compel sovereign nation-states, particularly their governing and business elites, to aid and abet China in the reshaping of world order. And the CCP has leveraged its integration into international organizations to infuse them with norms and standards rooted in the party’s authoritarianism.

China’s conduct reflects the CCP’s short-term priorities and long-term ambitions, the party’s assessment of China’s current stage of development, and its understanding of the geopolitical environment in which China operates. “In this long period of cooperation and conflict, socialism must learn from the boons that capitalism has brought to civilization,” Xi proclaimed in 2013. “Most importantly, we must concentrate our efforts on bettering our own affairs, continually broadening our comprehensive national power, improving the lives of our people, building a socialism that is superior to capitalism, and laying the foundation for a future where we will win the initiative and have the dominant position.12 Examination of the CCP’s conduct in light of its communist and hyper-nationalist ideas demonstrates that by achieving “the initiative” and attaining “the dominant position,” Xi means displacing the United States as the world’s foremost power and restructuring world order to conform to the CCP’s distinctive way of empire.

The purpose of this unclassified Policy Planning Staff paper is to step back and take a long-term view, elaborate the elements of the China challenge, and sketch a framework for the fashioning of sturdy policies that stand above bureaucratic squabbles and interagency turf battles and transcend short-term election cycles. The United States’ overarching aim should be to secure freedom.