Last year, following decades of intense denial, the United States government made a shocking admission: It is locked in strategic competition with the People’s Republic of China. So now what? Since competition is all about winning, how can this be won?
To be successful, Americans (and allies like Taiwan) must first understand the fundamental nature of the game. They must be able to answer the interlocking questions of what they are competing for and when and where the struggle is worth the effort and expense required. Only then will they be able to know what they should do. There are few, if any, easy answers to such core questions. It is essential we explore and debate them nonetheless.
By now it should be obvious that the conventional wisdom with regards to China has been falsified by events. In “Competing with China” Professor Aaron Friedberg argues that none of the things that were generally assumed would happen after Deng Xiaoping’s (鄧小平) reform and opening have actually occurred. American goodwill has not changed China. Instead it has inadvertently served as a prop for the Chinese Communist Party.
Mainstream analysis of China’s future will continue to make assumptions that will be falsified by events. The Chinese Communist Party has invested a significant portion of its newly won wealth in the acquisition of narrative dominance, the ability to shape and manipulate both elite and popular opinion around the world, and especially in those places which matter the most to Beijing.
While distressing, it must be recognized that it is perfectly normal for countries to make historically bad assumptions about their strategic rivals. In Winston Churchill’s masterpiece The Gathering Storm, he describes how every major power in the world got a rising Nazi Germany wrong. Even after the Nazi invasions started and global conflict was joined, few leading actors made decisions that would not come back to haunt them. Imperial Japan presented its own lethal surprises.
The consequences of these poor judgments were immense. Tens of millions of lives were lost or ruined. Economies were shattered. Entire cities were bombed and burned to the ground. Discrimination and hatred ran amok. Minority groups in Europe were categorized and gassed by the millions. In Asia, innocent civilians were enslaved and destroyed with equal vigor, the barbarism different only in terms of method. The civilizing lights of democracy, free markets, rule of law, and public debate were almost extinguished. Mankind came close to sinking into a new dark age.
After the Allies prevailed, the menace of ultra right wing Fascism was swiftly replaced by that of ultra left wing Communism. This time the industrialized democracies of the world, especially the United Kingdom and the United States, were quick to recognize the peril and prepare accordingly. The tremendous misery wrought by World War Two resulted in a certain seriousness of thought and appreciation for strategic competition. However, strategic mistakes were still made during the Cold War.
In the book Successful Strategies: Triumphing in War and Peace from Antiquity to the Present Professor Thomas Mahnken argues that the strategic competition with the Soviet Union was plagued by four bad assumptions. These assumptions were deeply held by most national security elites, and they guided US policy until 1981, when President Ronald Reagan came into office and called them into question. All were subsequently disproven by Reagan’s successful approach to strategic competition, which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The first assumption was that the Soviet Union would not decline, let alone fall apart. It was widely agreed that the Soviet Union would be around indefinitely and continually grow more powerful relative to the United States and its allies. The second assumption was that Washington had little it could do to affect the nature of the regime in Moscow. The third assumption was that any direct attempt to advance the United States’ position at the expense of the Soviet Union would result in crisis and an increased probability of a catastrophic nuclear war. The fourth assumption was that it was best to avoid tensions by containing and placating the Soviet Union. Since the regime in Moscow could not be changed and was too dangerous to confront, the best anyone could hope for was that it might gradually “mellow out” and take less aggressive actions.
Today the same false assumptions linger on in the minds of many, only this time they are applied to China instead of the Soviet Union. The main variation on the theme has been the assumption that the Chinese Communist Party would eventually change on its own accord. Those who believe this have argued that there is little need to contain and confront China, and greater need to accommodate its ascendance and thereby ensure its smooth political transition. They also assume that proactively encouraging peaceful regime change in Beijing would be futile, counterproductive, and ultimately dangerous.
There is no guarantee that the next Cold War will end as happily as the first. Indeed, the first Cold War may have continued indefinitely had it not been for President Reagan’s strategy for great power competition. Although we now take it for granted, the Soviet Union could have survived if the external conditions facing Moscow had been different. In that event, the world would be a far darker and more menacing place to live, even if the twilight struggle for global supremacy never spiraled into global war.
What will the world of tomorrow look like if the United States and its allies fail to stay ahead of China? Already the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarian influence is spreading. Democratic governments are being undermined and the rule of law diminished. Insecurity and fear now reign in more and more places. In an affront to our sacred principles, values, and laws, Chinese might increasingly makes right. We can hardly judge the future, but the trends before us appear grim.
While it seems unimaginable, the future could belong to the Chinese Communist Party and the authoritarian axis it leads. Advanced 5G communications and artificial intelligence-enhanced machines have the potential to greatly enhance China’s surveillance state and the reach and effectiveness of its emerging power.
Yet there is no reason to lose hope. The future will be shaped in part by the aims and efforts of China’s tyrannical leaders, and in part by what others do to stop them. Having woken up to the threat, the US government now needs to spend less time engaging China’s dangerous elites and more time undermining them. The watchwords should be: more action, less dialogue.
Ian Easton is a research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute and author of The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia (中共攻台大解密).
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